The word township is used to refer to different kinds of settlements in different countries. Township is generally associated with an urban area. However there are many exceptions to this rule. In Australia, the United States, and Canada, they may be settlements too small to be considered urban. In the Scottish Highlands the term describes a very small agrarian community, usually a local rural or semi-rural government within a county.
In Australia the designation of "township" traditionally refers to a small town—a small community in a rural district: such a place in Britain might qualify as a village or a hamlet. The term refers purely to the settlement; it does not refer to a unit of government. Townships are governed as part of a larger (e.g. shire or city) council.
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 regional 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 types of municipalities in 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 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.
In South Africa, under Apartheid, the term township (or location) in everyday usage, came to mean a residential development that confined non-whites (Blacks, "coloureds," and Indians) living near or working 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).
In the United Kingdom the term township is no longer in official use, but the term still has some meaning.
- This use became obsolete at the end of the nineteenth century when local government reform converted many townships that, 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.
- 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.
- A civil township is a widely used unit of local government in the United States, subordinate to a county. Specific responsibilities and the degree of autonomy vary based on each state. In many states, townships are organized and operate under the authority of state statutes, similar to counties. In others, townships operate as municipal corporations - chartered entities with a degree of home rule. However, there are some exceptions. The most notable ones being 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 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.
In the context of Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and CIS states, the term is sometimes used to denote a small semi-urban, sometimes industrial, settlement and used to translate the terms поселок городского типа (townlet), посад (posad), местечко (mestechko, from Polish "miasteczko", a small town; in the cases of predominant Jewish population the latter is sometimes translated as shtetl).
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