I need to aggregate place-level data by MSA (metropolitan statistical area). I'm referring to U.S, Census "places" and MSAs ("places" might be townships, boroughs, villages, etc. they're the level under counties).

The U.S. Census provides several types of relationships (https://www.census.gov/geo/maps-data/data/ua_rel_download.html):

  • Urban area to MSA
  • Urban area to place
  • MSA to principal city (principal cities are places, but not the only places in MSAs)

The DOL provides MSA to county relationships (https://www.dol.gov/owcp/regs/feeschedule/fee/fs04ctst.xls).

My understanding of MSAs may be off, but I expect MSAs are not made up of only whole counties. Some counties might fall partly into an MSA and partly out of it. Assuming that is correct, I am looking at the next level under counties, which are places, for a more granular/precise definition of MSAs. As it happens, even some places might fall partly into an MSA, but my data's definition doesn't go that far. I also have zip codes, but some zip codes are multi-place, so place is more precise than zip code for my purpose.

I am unable to find MSA to place relationships specifically.

Is there a direct source for these relationships?

If not, can they be derived from other data?

Or am I going about this the wrong way?

EDIT: I have 100,000s of records of business establishments. I aim to aggregate business establishment data by MSA and conduct regression analysis by MSA. The address data is not clean and I guess it would take too much work to normalise it enough that it becomes acceptable for geocoding into long-lat. So my strategy has been working with R to at least normalise "places" (in the Census meaning of the term) within addresses. (I realise some of my places straddle multiple counties, but counties are generally not specified in addresses.) Unfortunately (after months of part-time data-cleansing), I have only just realised that there is no relationship table for MSA-place. (I had mistakenly thought there was till now.) So I'm now wondering whether I can reconstruct such a table based on other available Census data, or whether I have to change my strategy for aggregation, for example by zipcode (though zip codes are less precise, for my purpose, than places) or by aiming for full geocoding in spite of the difficulty I perceive.

4 Answers 4


According to the U.S. Census, "Counties or equivalent entities form the geographic 'building blocks' for metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas throughout the United States and Puerto Rico." Additionally, states are made up of counties; there are no multi-state counties. A step "under" counties, one finds "places"; places can straddle multiple counties, but not multiple states.

MSA to County Relationships are provided by the U.S. Census here, under the heading "Core based statistical areas (CBSAs), metropolitan divisions, and combined statistical areas (CSAs)".

County to Place Relationships are provided by the U.S. Census here. This includes ONLY census places, i.e. incorporated places and census-designated places (CDP). Many populated "places" are not included, which can lie outside of census places (e.g. a rural community) or inside (e.g. a neighbourhood of a city). I have not yet found a list of unincorporated/non-CDP places (and their counties and states).

Finally, to obtain MSA to place relationships, join the MSA to County Relationships file with the County to Place Relationships file on county, which can be done for example in Excel. Some places straddle multiple counties and some places can be homonyms across counties within states or across states. Counties can also be homonyms across states. Hence, an accurate representation of MSA to place relationships must also include relevant counties and states (all of which data is included in the above-mentioned files).


Yes, in general you are headed in the right direction and appear to understand in general the relationships that MSAs have with other geographies. To understand MSAs a bit more, let's look at the Census Bureaus method of delineation. In short, the Census Bureau provides MSAs built upon densely populated areas based of defined Urban Areas.

The Census Bureau provides About Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas

Delineating Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas The 2010 standards provide that each CBSA (The term "core based statistical area" (CBSA) became effective in 2000 and refers collectively to metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas.) must contain at least one urban area of 10,000 or more population. Each metropolitan statistical area must have at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more inhabitants. Each micropolitan statistical area must have at least one urban cluster of at least 10,000 but less than 50,000 population.

Under the standards, the county (or counties) in which at least 50 percent of the population resides within urban areas of 10,000 or more population, or that contain at least 5,000 people residing within a single urban area of 10,000 or more population, is identified as a "central county" (counties). Additional "outlying counties" are included in the CBSA if they meet specified requirements of commuting to or from the central counties. Counties or equivalent entities form the geographic "building blocks" for metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

If specified criteria are met, a metropolitan statistical area containing a single core with a population of 2.5 million or more may be subdivided to form smaller groupings of counties referred to as "metropolitan divisions."

Furthermore, in relation to Urban Areas the Census Bureau contains 2010 Census Urban and Rural Classification and Urban Area Criteria

The Census Bureau’s urban-rural classification is fundamentally a delineation of geographical areas, identifying both individual urban areas and the rural areas of the nation. The Census Bureau’s urban areas represent densely developed territory, and encompass residential, commercial, and other non-residential urban land uses.

For the 2010 Census, an urban area will comprise a densely settled core of census tracts and/or census blocks that meet minimum population density requirements, along with adjacent territory containing non-residential urban land uses as well as territory with low population density included to link outlying densely settled territory with the densely settled core. To qualify as an urban area, the territory identified according to criteria must encompass at least 2,500 people, at least 1,500 of which reside outside institutional group quarters. The Census Bureau identifies two types of urban areas:

Urbanized Areas (UAs) of 50,000 or more people;

Urban Clusters (UCs) of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people.

“Rural” encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area.

  • Thank you! From your link: "Counties or equivalent entities form the geographic 'building blocks' for metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas throughout the United States and Puerto Rico." I understand from this that I was wrong to think that counties may only be partially included in MSAs. This says that MSAs are only made up of entire counties. Thus counties are enough to define MSAs without the need to go into places. Correct?
    – syre
    Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 5:55
  • Yes, they are the minimum geographic entity. If selected, they become the central County of the MSA they may or may not have additional geographies that may be smaller than the County or equivalent. Hope that helps.
    – whyzar
    Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 10:11

[link] (https://www.gislounge.com/how-to-geocode-addresses-using-qgis/ ) Hey! this works beautifully. Installation plus going through the steps doesn't take long at all like 30min to 1hr. (free and open source solution) Once you geocode your points add a shapefile of the MSAs - which you can get from the census, located here link . After that you want to use the spatial join tool. That will join the columns of the MSA's to your locations then you can summarize/statistics etc by msa group. :)


If I am understanding what you are trying to do correctly - You want to find the spatial relationship of different geographic areas. You can use geoprocessing tools such as UNION or MERGE to get the output of relationships between the areas. Do you have access to ArcMap or ArcGIS Pro also you can download QGIS and use for free. Yes Metropolitan Statistical Areas are counties and multiple counties. Yes places are a level under counties kind of. Census Tracts are a step below counties and Block Groups are a "step below" Tracts. Places aka cities and etc can cross counties, MSAs etc. So probably you want to CLIP the PLACES by MSA Then UNION and SUMMARIZE while DISSOLVING places by msa. ---> 7 essential Geoprocessing tools <---- Also have you considered summarizing Tract data or just the Counties by MSA's. If you want total of [some ACS data] by MSA just use the Counties and you can just use spreadsheets/csv files if you want. If you have to use Places then you probably need to use geoprocessing tools.

  • Thank you very much for your useful suggestions. I have edited my question with additional details. My base data is (unnormalised) addresses. I don't know if I can derive tract information from that. It sounds even more daunting than place since it's an even finer granularity. I'd be grateful for any additional advice you may have.
    – syre
    Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 8:52
  • Ok I see. So you need to geocode these places to see what MSA they fall in. I believe you can use QGIS and the Google Places API with that for free. Then use some tools to summarize how many places in the MSA's - spatial join and summarize. I do not know the details on exactly how you use QGIS and the Google Places API but its possible Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 15:20
  • [link] (gislounge.com/how-to-geocode-addresses-using-qgis ) Commented Dec 31, 2016 at 21:11

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