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A township (or municipality) is a settlement which has the status and powers of a unit of local government. Specific use of the term to describe political subdivisions has varied by country.

Uses of the term

Township (or municipality) is generally associated with an urban area. However there are many exceptions to this rule, especially in the U.S. and Canada. In the Scottish Highlands the term describes a very small agrarian community, usually a local rural or semi-rural government within a county.[citation needed]

"Municipality" refers to a town or "an area governed like a town". Small (in terms of population) rural subdivisions with limited administrative responsibilities are better referred to as "parishes" or "communities", and this (rather than "municipality") is the preferred translation of the expressions commune, gemeende, Gemeinte, comuna, obec, etc referred to below.

In most countries, a municipality is the smallest administrative subdivision to have its own democratically elected representative leadership.[citation needed]

The largest municipalities can be found in Canada and Greenland.[citation needed] Possibly the largest municipality in the world is Baie-James in northern Quebec, Canada, with a land area of 297,330 km² (114,800 sq. miles), which is larger than the United Kingdom.


In Australia and New Zealand the designation of "township" traditionally refers to a small town: a place that in Britain might qualify as a village or a hamlet.


In Belgium, a municipality (commune in French, gemeente in Dutch or Gemeinde in German) is the equivalent of a township and is the lowest level of administrative division. It is a part of a province.


In Brazil, a municipality (município) is part of a state (estado). However, the Federative Republic of Brazil is defined as a Tripartite Federal Republic - that is, the federal government, the states and municipalities are in a co-federation with each other, so there is not a proper federal hierarchy in Brazil. Except for the Federal District (the area of the national capital city, Brasília), which has special status and no municipalities, all land in Brazil is in the territory of some municipality. A city is defined in Brazilian law as the urban seat of a municipality, and a municipality always has the same name as its seat. Thus, in Brazil the Portuguese word cidade (for "city") refers only to such urban areas, but if the definition current in some other countries is used — that is, the entire area under the administrative jurisdiction of a specially incorporated urban area — that would mean that even in the remotest wilderness areas of Brazil, one would still be technically in a "city." Brazilian law establishes no difference between cities and towns; all it takes for an urban settlement to be called a "city" is to be the seat of a municipality, and some have a very small population.


In Canada, two kinds of township occur in common use.

  • In eastern Canada a township is one form of the subdivision of a county. In Canadian French, this is a canton. Townships are referred to as "lots" in Prince Edward Island and merely form census subdivisions and are not administrative units. In Canada, a municipality is a city, town, township, county, or municipality which has been incorporated by statute by the legislatures of the provinces and territories. It is also a specific designation for certain municipalities in Quebec (see Quebec), Nova Scotia and Ontario. Certain areas of Saskatchewan and Manitoba are designated as rural municipalities, while equivalent areas in Alberta are designated as municipal districts and some in British Columbia are designated as district municipalities.
  • In western Canada townships exist only for the purpose of land division by the Dominion Land Survey and do not form administrative units. These townships are six miles by six miles (36 square miles, or roughly 93.24 km²).

Townships are designated by their township number and range number. Township 1 is the first north of the First Base Line, and the numbers increase to the north.


In the People's Republic of China, townships are found at the fourth level of the administrative hierarchy, together with ethnic townships, towns and subdistricts.


In the Republic of China or Taiwan, a municipality (直轄市 in Wade-Giles: chi-hsia-shih) is a city with equal status to a province: Taipei and Kaohsiung.


In France, a municipality (commune) is the lowest level of administrative division. A commune can be either a village or township, a small town, or a large city. The word municipalité is usually used to designate the administration running a commune.

New Zealand

In local government in New Zealand there are no longer towns or townships. All land is part of either a "city" (mostly urban) or a "district" (mostly rural). The term "municipality" has become rare in New Zealand since about 1979 and has no legal status.

South Africa

In South Africa the word originally meant a segregated town. Under Apartheid the term township came to mean a residential development which confined non-whites (Blacks, "coloureds" and Indians) who lived near or worked in white-only communities. Soweto ("SOuth-WEstern TOwnships") furnishes a well-known example. However, the term township also has a precise legal meaning, and is used on land titles (in all areas, not only traditionally non-white areas).

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom the term township is no longer in official use, but the term still has some meaning.

  • In England, Township referred to a subdivision used to administer a large parish.[1]
This use became obsolete at the end of the nineteenth century when local government reform converted many townships which up to then had been subdivisions of ancient parishes into the newer civil parishes in their own right. This formally separated the connection between the ecclesiastical functions of ancient parishes and the civil administrative functions that had been started in the sixteenth century. Recently, some councils, normally in the north of England, have revived the term. Municipalities as a term lived on longer until the local government reforms of 1974. A municipal council was the name given to a type of local government council administering a Municipal Borough that could contain civil parishes or could be unparished.[2]
  • In Jersey, a township is a redundant term as the only surviving local government level at present are the 12 Parishes of the island.
  • In Scotland the term is still used for some rural settlements.
In parts of north west Scotland (Highlands and Islands), a "township" is a crofting settlement.

United States

In the United States, townships are often distinct from other types of municipalities. Two kinds of township occur. A state may have only one or both of these. In states that have both, the boundaries usually coincide.

  • A survey township is a unit of land measure defined by the Public Land Survey System. These are generally referenced by a numbering system.
  • A civil township is a widely-used yet loose term applied to varying entities of local government, with and without municipal status. Though all townships are generally given names and abbreviated "Twp.," their function differs greatly from state to state. While cities, towns, boroughs, or villages are common terms for municipalities; townships, counties, and parishes are sometimes not considered to be municipalities. In many states, counties and townships are organized and operate under the authority of state statutes. In contrast, municipal corporations are often chartered entities with a degree of home rule. However, there are some exceptions. Most notably, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, townships are a class of incorporation with fixed boundaries and equal standing to a village, town, borough or city, analogous to a New England town or towns in New York.


In Vietnam, a township is an urban part of a rural district, with the same level as a commune. The township is usually the capital of a rural district.


In Zimbabwe the term township was used for segregated parts of suburban areas. During colonial years of Rhodesia, the term township referred to a residential area reserved for black citizens within the boundaries of a city or town, and is still commonly used colloquially. This reflected the South African usage. In modern Zimbabwe it is also used to refer to a residential area within close proximity of a rural growth point.

See also


  1. Winchester, A. (2000), Discovering parish boundaries, Princes Risborough, UK.: Shire Publications, ISBN 0747804702 
  2. Youngs, F. A. (1991), Guide to the local administrative units of England. Volume II: Northern England, London: Royal Historical Society, ISBN 0861931270