In law, an unincorporated area or unincorporated community is a region of land that is not governed by its own local municipal corporation, but rather is administered as part of larger administrative divisions, such as a township, parish, borough, county, city, canton, state, province or country. Occasionally, municipalities dissolve or disincorporate, which may happen if they become fiscally insolvent, and services become the responsibility of a higher administration. In some countries, such as in Brazil, Japan, France or the United Kingdom, all parts of the country are incorporated.
Unlike many other countries, Australia has only one level of local government immediately beneath state and territorial governments. A local government area (LGA) often contains several towns and even entire cities. Thus, aside from very sparsely populated areas and a few other special cases, almost all of Australia is part of an LGA. Unincorporated areas are often in remote locations, cover vast areas and/or have very small populations.
Postal addresses in unincorporated areas, as in other parts of Australia, normally use the suburb or locality names gazetted by the relevant state or territorial government. Thus, there is rarely any ambiguity regarding addresses in unincorporated areas.
Australian Capital Territory
The Australian Capital Territory has no municipalities and is in some sense an unincorporated area. The territorial government is directly responsible for matters normally carried out by local government.
New South Wales
The far west and north of New South Wales constitutes the Unincorporated Far West Region, which is sparsely populated and barely warrants an elected council. A civil servant in the state capital manages such matters as are necessary. The second unincorporated area of this state is Lord Howe Island.
In the Northern Territory, 1.45% of the total area and 4.0% of the population are in unincorporated areas, including Unincorporated Top End Region (Finniss-Mary, the largest), areas covered by the Darwin Rates Act—Nhulunbuy, Alyangula on Groote Eylandt in the northern region, and Yulara in the southern region.
In South Australia, 60% of the area is unincorporated and communities located within can receive municipal services provided by a state agency, the Outback Communities Authority.
Victoria has a number of small unincorporated areas, most of which are ski resorts or small offshore islands:
Western Australia is exceptional in two respects. Firstly, the only remote area that is unincorporated is the Abrolhos Islands, which is officially uninhabited and controlled by the WA Department of Fisheries. Secondly, the other unincorporated areas are A-class reserves either in, or close to, the Perth metropolitan area, namely Rottnest Island (controlled by the Rottnest Island Authority) and Kings Park (Botanic Gardens and Parks Authority).
In Canada, depending on the province, an unincorporated settlement is one that does not have a municipal council that governs solely over the settlement. It is usually, but not always, part of a larger municipal government. This can range from small hamlets to large urbanized areas that are similar in size to towns and cities.
For example, the urban service areas of Fort McMurray and Sherwood Park, of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and Strathcona County respectively, would be the fifth and sixth largest cities in Alberta if they were incorporated.
In British Columbia, unincorporated settlements lie outside municipal boundaries entirely, and are administered directly by regional/county-level governments similar to the American system.
Unincorporated settlements with a population of between 100 and 1,000 residents may have the status of designated place in Canadian census data.
In some provinces, large tracts of undeveloped wilderness or rural country are unorganized areas that fall directly under the provincial jurisdiction. Some unincorporated settlements in such unorganized areas may have some types of municipal services provided to them by a quasi-governmental agency such as a local services board in Ontario. In New Brunswick where a significant population live in a Local Service District, taxation and services may come directly from the province.
The entire area of the Czech Republic is divided into municipalities (Obce), with the only exception being 4 military areas. These are parts of the regions and do not form self-governing municipalities, but are rather governed by military offices (újezdní úřad), which are subordinate to the Ministry of Defense.† Brdy Military Area was abandoned by the Army in 2015 and converted into Landscape park (protected area), with its area being incorporated either into existing municipalities or municipalities newly established from the existing settlements. The other four Military Areas were reduced in size in 2015 too. The decisions on whether the settlements join existing municipalities or form new ones are decided in plebiscites.
Since Germany has no administrative level comparable to the townships of other countries, the vast majority of the country, close to 99%, is organized in municipalities (German: Gemeinde, plural Gemeinden), often consisting of multiple settlements which are not considered to be unincorporated. Because these settlements lack a council of their own, there is usually an Ortsvorsteher / Ortsvorsteherin (village chairman / chairwoman) appointed by the municipal council, except in the very smallest villages.
In 2000, the number of unincorporated areas in Germany, called gemeindefreie Gebiete (municipality-free areas) or singular gemeindefreies Gebiet, was 295 with a total area of 4,890.33 km² and around 1.4% of its territory.
As of December 31, 2007, Germany had 248 uninhabited unincorporated areas (of which 214 are located in Bavaria), not belonging to any municipality, consisting mostly of forested areas, lakes and larger rivers. There were also three inhabited unincorporated areas, all of which served as military training areas: Osterheide and Lohheide in Lower Saxony, and Gutsbezirk Münsingen in Baden-Württemberg. They had fewer than 2,000 inhabitants in total. Gutsbezirk Münsingen, after losing its inhabited parts to adjacent municipalities on 1 January 2011, is uninhabited now.
The following shows the largest unincorporated areas in Germany (including all inhabited areas, but excluding lakes) with an area of more than 50 km²:
† No inhabitants since 1 January 2011 as a result of reduction in area.
In Bavaria, there are other contiguous unincorporated areas covering more than 50 km²; these are however composed of several adjacent unincorporated areas combined, each of which is however under 50 km² in area.
The Netherlands has had regular periods with unincorporated land when newly reclaimed land polders fall dry. Unincorporated land is since medieval times administered by an appointed officer with the name Landdrost or Drossaart. Also, Elten and Tudderen, both annexed from Germany after World War II, were governed by a Landdrost until they were ceded to Germany in 1963.
The most recent period with unincorporated land started in 1967 when the dyke around Southern Flevoland was closed. It however requires several years before the polder is genuinely accessible for cultivation and construction of roads and homes can start, as in the first years the soil is equivalent to quick sand. During the initial period of inhabitation a special, government-appointed officer was installed, known as the Landdrost. During the administrative office of a Landdrost there is no municipal council.
In 1975, the first homes in what is now the city of Almere were built and from 1976 to 1984 the area was governed by the Landdrost as the executive of the Openbaar Lichaam Zuidelijke IJsselmeerpolders (Southern IJsselmeerpolders Public Body). In 1984 the Landdrost became the first mayor of the new city Almere. Since that date the Netherlands does not have any unincorporated land areas.
The Openbaar Lichaam remained however, only governing the water body of the Markermeer. After the municipal division of the Wadden Sea (1985), the territorial waters in the North Sea (1991) and the IJsselmeer (1994), all water bodies are now also part of a municipality and there are no unincorporated areas in the Netherlands anymore. The Openbaar Lichaam Zuidelijke IJsselmeerpolders was dissolved in 1996.
In Norway, Jan Mayen, Svalbard and Bouvet Island are outside the division into counties and municipalities. They are ruled directly by national authorities without any local democracy. An exception is the Longyearbyen Community Council which since 2004 in reality acts partly like a Norwegian municipality. Svalbard has a governor appointed by the government of Norway, ruling the area. Jan Mayen has no population, only radio and weather stations with staff, whose manager has the responsibility for the activities. Bouvet Island has only occasional visitors.
In local government in the United States, an unincorporated area generally refers to the part of a county which is outside any municipality.
Most states have granted some form of home rule, so that county commissions (or boards or councils) have the same powers in these areas as city councils or town councils have in their respective incorporated areas. Some states instead put these powers in the hands of townships, which are minor civil divisions of each county, and are called "towns" in some states.
Some American states have no unincorporated land areas; these include Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, although these states all have communities that are not separately incorporated but are part of a larger municipality.
An unincorporated community is one general term for a geographic area having a common social identity without municipal organization or official political designation (i.e., incorporation as a city or town). There are two main types of unincorporated communities:
Due to differences in state laws regarding the incorporation of communities, there is a great variation in the distribution and nature of unincorporated areas. Unincorporated regions are essentially nonexistent in seven of the northeastern states. All of the land in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and nearly all of the land in New Hampshire and Vermont, is part of an incorporated area of some type. In these areas, types (and official names) of local government entities can vary. In New England (which includes the last five of those seven states, plus the less fully incorporated state of Maine), local municipalities are known as towns or cities, and most towns are administered by a form of direct democracy, such as the open town meeting or representative town meeting. Larger towns in New England may be incorporated as cities, with some form of mayor-council government. In New Jersey multiple types exist as well, such as city, township, town, borough, or village, but these differences are in the structure of the legislative branches, not in the powers or functions of the entities themselves.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Virginia "strong county" model. Virginia and other states with this model, such as Alabama, Maryland, and Tennessee, set strict requirements on incorporation or grant counties and townships broad powers that in other states are carried out by cities, creating a disincentive to incorporate, and thus have large, urbanized areas which have no municipal government below the county or township level.
Meanwhile, in other mid-Atlantic states, such as New York and Pennsylvania, a "hybrid" model that tries to "balance" the two approaches is prevalent, with differing allocations of power between municipalities and counties existing.
Throughout the U.S., some large cities have annexed all surrounding unincorporated areas, creating what are known as consolidated city–county forms of government (e.g., Jacksonville, Florida and Nashville, Tennessee). In areas of sparse population the majority of the land in any given state may be unincorporated.
Some states, including North Carolina, grant extraterritorial jurisdiction to cities and towns (but rarely villages), so that they may control zoning for a limited distance into adjacent unincorporated areas, often as a precursor (and sometimes as a legal requirement) to later annexation of those areas. This is especially useful in rural counties which have no zoning at all, or only spot zoning for unincorporated communities.
In California, all counties except the City and County of San Francisco have unincorporated areas. Even in highly populated counties, the unincorporated portions may contain a large number of inhabitants. In Los Angeles County, the county government estimates the population of its unincorporated areas to exceed one million people. Despite having 88 incorporated cities and towns, including the state's most populous, 65% of the land in Los Angeles County is unincorporated, this mostly consisting of Angeles National Forest and sparsely populated regions to its north. California law makes no distinction between “city” and “town”, and municipalities may use either term in their official names.
In the context of the insular areas of the United States, the word "unincorporated" means that the territory has not been formally and irrevocably incorporated into the United States. (See: United States territory.) Unincorporated insular areas are therefore potentially subject to being sold or otherwise transferred to another power, or, conversely, being granted independence. There are currently five major unincorporated U.S. insular areas: American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
U.S. mail delivery
Many unincorporated communities are also recognized as acceptable place names for use in mailing addresses by the United States Postal Service (USPS) (indeed, some have their own post offices), and the United States Census Bureau uses the names of some widely recognized unincorporated communities for its census-designated places (CDPs) for which it tabulates census data.
However, the USPS is very conservative about recognizing new place names for use in mailing addresses, and typically only does so when a place incorporates. The original place name associated with a ZIP code is still maintained as the "default" place name, even though the name of the newly incorporated place is more accurate. As an example, Sandy Springs is one of the most populated places in Georgia, but is served by a branch of the Atlanta post office. Only after the city was incorporated in 2005 has "Sandy Springs" been approved by the USPS for use in mailing addresses, though "Atlanta" remains the default name. Accordingly, "Atlanta" is the only accepted place name for mailing addresses in the nearby unincorporated town of Vinings, also served by a branch of the Atlanta post office, even though Vinings is in Cobb County and Atlanta is in Fulton County. In contrast, neighboring Mableton has not been incorporated in nearly a century, but has its own post office and thus "Mableton" is the only acceptable place name for mailing addresses in the town. The areas of Dulah and Faria, California are unincorporated areas in Ventura County between Ventura and Carpinteria have the ZIP code of 93001, which is assigned to the post office at 675 E Santa Clara St in Ventura; thus, all mail to those two areas is addressed to Ventura.
If an unincorporated area becomes incorporated, it may be split among ZIP codes, and its new name may be recognized as "acceptable" for use with some or all of them in mailing addresses, as has been the case in Johns Creek and Milton, Georgia. However, if an incorporated area disincorporates, this has no effect on whether a place name is "acceptable" in a mailing address or not, as is the case with Lithia Springs, Georgia. ZIP code boundaries often ignore political boundaries, so the appearance of a place name in a mailing address alone does not indicate whether the place is incorporated or unincorporated.
Some countries have some exceptional unincorporated areas:
Countries without unincorporated places
Many countries, especially those with many centuries of history using multiple tiers of local government, do not use the concept of an unincorporated place.