Most of future population growth will take place in the world’s cities and towns. Yet, there is no well-established, consistent way to measure either urban land or people. Even census-based urban concepts and measures undergo frequent revision, impeding rigorous comparisons over time and place. This study presents a new spatial approach to derive consistent urban proxies for the US. It compares census-designated urban blocks with proxies for land-based classifications of built-up areas derived from time-series of the Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL) for 1990–2010. This comparison provides a new way to understand urban structure and its changes: Most land that is more than 50% built-up, and people living on such land, are officially classified as urban. However, 30% of the census-designated urban population and land is located in less built-up areas that can be characterized as mainly suburban and peri-urban in nature. Such insights are important starting points for a new urban research program: creating globally and temporally consistent proxies to guide modelling of urban change.