Factoids: Counties vs. Cities

A new regular feature on the blog, “Factoids” will seek to inform readers on various topics and issues.

Our first feature will focus on the difference between counties and cities. Let’s start off with figuring out how this applies to you by attempting to figure out where you live! The answer may surprise you. Here is a link to the U.S. Census Bureau webpage for information on cities. Simply type in the name of your city and see if information comes up for it.

American FactFinder

Cities and Counties are the most local type of government. In California, land-use powers rest with the local government with cities having jurisdiction over all land within their boundaries, while counties claim everything else. So whatever is inside a city, the city controls. Outside city boundaries, the county is in charge of land-use planning.

Santa Clara County with Cities of San Jose, Los Altos, Milpitas, Morgan Mill, San Martin, Gilroy, Los Gatos, Cupertino, and Sunnyvale

So what if I live in a city or a county?

Well cities and counties, although having identical authority over land-use planning, differ in their supposed focus. Counties focus their attention on health, welfare, and criminal justice. Cities lie within counties and  rely on counties to provide those ladder services. Counties are generally rural while cities are typically urban. Because cities do not necessarily have to worry about health (hospitals), welfare, and criminal justice (courts), they can focus on providing urban services (water, sewer, police, etc). Cities are much more focused on improving the quality of life for their citizenry.

Every Californian lives within a county, but the same does not hold true for cities. If you live in unincorporated land, you live outside of a city, but still within a county. Counties are not set up to provide urban services as efficiently as cities, because they may have offices dotted throughout the county, whereas cities have all their services concentrated within that city. For example, cities have a Police Department whose central focus is to serve that city. Counties, however, rely on a Sheriff Department that must serve a much more decentralized population.

Los Angeles County and Incorporated Areas

The grey areas in the photo above represent incorporated land (cities). Each city has its own planning department, police department, fire department, etc. The white areas represent unincorporated land, which share a single service provider for that entire expanse of land.


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