Episode 17: Researcher Christiana McFarland intersects economic assets, sustainability, growth





We are navigating a critical juncture in our economic future, says Christiana McFarland, Research Director at the National League of Cities (NCL). It is clear that urban areas are attracting incredible growth, but in the big picture, this is not sustainable. Intrigued by Christy’s work in the published report, “Bridging the Urban-Rural Economic Divide,” RFI Chief Futurist Connie Reimers-Hild, Ph.D., draws out Christy’s thoughts in terms of the overall narrative of the rural-urban “divide,” accessible leadership and what the truest forms of rural-urban collaboration look like.

“I’m hopeful in those leaders who are on the ground and understand not only the constraints, but are starting to view their communities through an asset-driven lens as opposed to a deficit driven lens.”
Christiana McFarland
Research Director, National League of Cities

About Christy


Christiana McFarland is Research Director at the National League of Cities, an organization of 120 staff and researchers dedicated to helping city leaders build better communities. Working in partnership with the 49 state municipal leagues, NLC serves as a resource to and an advocate for the more than 19,000 cities, villages and towns it represents.

Christy leads NLC’s efforts to transform city-level data into information that strengthens the capacity of city leaders and that raises awareness of challenges, trends and successes in cities. Her areas of expertise include economic development, workforce development and municipal finance.

She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in urban planning and economic development at Virginia Tech to continue to explore how to provide research that helps leaders make better decisions, and how to bring information to life for city leaders, so they can do their jobs better.


Christy’s Recent Work



Bold Voices Student Segment

 Listen at 13:53 of Episode 17!

“I really have a passion for helping people,” Sydney Armbruster, a senior disease and human health major at Peru State College.

Sydney spent her summer as a serviceship intern in Omaha, Neb., with the Omaha Municipal Land Bank, a local governmental nonprofit organizations that was established by the Nebraska Legislature to develop housing strategies for regional organizations in rural communities across Nebraska.

“Once I got to Omaha, I learned a whole new world that joined housing and healthcare,” she says. “It definitely opened my horizons to what the world has to offer and how many people are working for positive change in the world today.”

Learn more about Sydney’s Serviceship experience! »


Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Rural Futures Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Connie. And joining us today is researcher and maverick, Christy McFarland. She’s the research director with the National League of Cities, and she’s also pursuing a PhD at Virginia Tech to explore her amazing work even deeper which we’ll talk about here in a minute. So Christy, tell us a little bit more about yourself.

Christy McFarland: Thanks, Dr. Connie, it’s great to be here with you. So I am a researcher with the National League of Cities. I always like to use the word applied before researcher, so I’m an applied researcher. We’re very much with data, but also with leaders in local communities across the country and city staff as well. As you mentioned, I’m getting my PhD. I’m a perpetual student both in and outside of the classroom. Of course, I’m also a mom of two small kids, four and six. I also love to play tennis.

Dr. Connie: Good, funny as I hear all that, it makes me wonder what you’re not doing because just working and pursuing a PhD is a lot. Let alone when you throw in a family, and you want to have a life outside of that as well.

Christy McFarland: Yes, it’s definitely a lot. But my husband and I have a great partnership in that way.

Dr. Connie: I think in this modern era when you have a lot times dual career couples or couples with kids or dogs or all these other responsibilities you have to have some sort of partnership or team on your side to make it all work. Tell us a little bit more about yourself as a leader and how you create this full life that you’re experiencing.

Christy McFarland:That’s a really interesting question. And it’s something that I’ve needed to reflect on because I think it’s a role that I’ve grown into. I would say a defining characteristics of my leadership style really is to lean into uncertainty. And I think that goes for my professional and personal life as well. Specifically, on the professional side, what I’ve realized over the past few years, is that we are often confronted with some predominate narratives whether it’s in the media or just in our professional circles or whatnot. And specifically, in my role with the National League of Cities, and there’s been a lot of attention on local communities and geography and the role that cities and towns play in the broader national economy. And really understanding what the perspective is from a national media driven, maybe political perspective, and then what we’re really hearing on the ground from those people who are in the trenches every day really working to build better communities. Being able to identify where I see those disconnects and where there may be some uncertainty and gray areas, and really using those as the opportunities for a research direction and as a guide for where the next great research idea may come from.

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Dr. Connie: So tell us a little bit more about your work around exploring the rural-urban, both conversation but diving a little deeper into that, economy and for the coexistence of that economy and the importance of the relationship between rural and urban areas.

Christy McFarland: I have been very struck over the past few years with the very disparate outcomes that truly do exist in some rural and urban communities but also the overriding narrative about the fate and the relationship between urban and rural communities. I think most of what we’ve been hearing and most of what tends to be understood about urban and rural communities is that they do not operate in the same world at all. And that’s not actually the case. When we drill down and we really get a handle on what is happening in urban and rural places, we find yes, rural communities very much are stressed at a foundational level. But they also operate within a regional economy, and we’re finding many places where rural communities are leveraging their assets to build relationships in a broader, regional economy. You had referenced merging the urban-rural economic divide, and what we found in that research is that again, yes there are some significant divides between urban and rural communities, particularly when we’re talking about things like education and broadband access. And we know that those are critically important to the economic prospects of any place. But, we also found some other interesting findings that point really to opportunities for more shared prosperity between urban and rural communities. In many states across the country, we found that business is an export and that’s very critically important to economic growth. We found that rural communities have a growing share of businesses that export whether that’s through manufacturing or agriculture or otherwise. So we know that there are opportunities and assets there. We also find that many rural communities are outpacing their urban counterparts in their contributions to state GDP. So again, we see that there are glimmers of opportunity. There are particular places that are leveraging their unique assets. They’re building stronger relationships with their urban counterparts, and we’re seeing that there are possibilities there.

Dr. Connie: Well, I so appreciate this work. I just returned on a trip from Ohio where I was able to meet with a number of ag leaders. And the number of stories that people tell about one woman, for example, actually runs a multi-state ag insurance agency with a number of partners. And one of her partners was telling me that her brother lives in a rural area of Ohio but has worked with Japan to develop edible soybeans. And that market has grown so much that his business has really expanded, so it’s an international business. It started from a person living in a rural Ohio. But the segment, the customer segment they serve is very urban. And so, I think those economies really come together in incredible ways. And sometimes we just don’t recognize it like we should.

Christy McFarland: I think that’s a really good point. Up until, the past 20 or 30 years or so, I think what we have been seeing in terms of how the economy operated is just that smaller places would catch up with larger places and vice versa. And things would sort of take care of themselves through the economy. That’s not necessarily the case anymore, and we need to be much more intentional about our economic development strategies if we want to see shared prosperity. So like you were saying, really getting able to isolate and understand what the assets are in particular places.

Dr. Connie: Well, and one of the quotes I love from the report you were talking about was, “It’s time for the narrative to shift from urban versus rural to a shared economic future. Bridging the economic divide between urban and rural areas will require states, regions, and localities to understand and bolster the relationship between urban and rural areas in economically meaningful and strategic ways.” I think that just that summarizes a lot of this so well but also helps people reframe some of the questions that we need to be asking to create a more sustainable future for our country and also the world.

Christy McFarland: I think this conversation around the urban-rural divide really forces us to think a little bit differently about the future both of leadership, of economic development, of the way that we approach our communities. Specifically, on the leadership front, we talked about the fact that in the past the economy sort of sorted itself out in ways that we’re not seeing anymore. So in that way it really does require governments at all levels as well as partners from private sector, nonprofits, and others to really come together and to teach a collaboration to think about intentional ways to improve the economic outcomes, not only of rural communities but ways that urban and rural communities can work together. I really feel like that’s where the leverage is going to be. And again, in terms of economic development as a field and how we’re thinking about that and how that field is evolving, again, becoming much more intentional and strategic and it requires that leadership. But it doesn’t mean working against the economic forces that are occurring to make large communities economically viable. It doesn’t mean that rural communities need to be working against that, or it doesn’t mean that rural communities even need to try to replicate what’s happening in large communities. What it means for the future for rural economies is that economic developers across the country need to take stock of what assets exist locally, how do those play within a regional economy and how can they potentially complement what’s happening in the urban area? Is there an exciting urban market that really can be served by some rural interests as well? And I really feel that that’s the way of the future.

Dr. Connie: Well, give us some examples of the communities you see working in this way where they’re really thinking about how do they link these systems in rural and urban together to create a more vibrant economy, but also a more thriving area for people to live?

Christy McFarland: There are examples across the country, and I think those are the important stories to lift up, right? We’re working right now in the state of Virginia, for example, trying really to understand what are the assets that are unique to rural parts of the state and how do those align potentially with what the needs are of more urban areas of the state, so that’s one example. We know that Oregon is home of the top hops growers, which I find to be really interesting. And the rural growers of hops in that state really rely on the sophisticated tastes of their urban consumers within the state of Oregon as well. So, the entrepreneurs who are growing hops are relying the specialized beer palate of those in the urban area. They’re purifying the type of hops that they’re growing and then expand to the global market. So that type of relationship between urban and rural is not only a direct market for rural entrepreneurs in the urban area, but also sort of a test bed before they’re able to branch out and be successful in the global marketplace as well.

Dr. Connie: Well, I think that that shows an exciting linkage, right? So thinking about how do we work together within this space. So we are co-testing and co-creating these products together so we aren’t just growing something over here that might not fit the palate of the audiences we’re trying to serve but really zoning in on those audiences and being very entrepreneurial in terms of how to create the products that people really want to buy.

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Dr. Connie: So and a lot of this really centers around the food systems, expanding those food system beyond the farms and really helping people understand what that means. We all eat; we all wear clothes. I think these are important pieces of what rural does provide. But tell us a little bit more about those states that maybe don’t have a strong ag sector. What advice would you give them in the rural-urban connect?

Christy McFarland: Again, I think it’s critically important to understand regionally what are going to be the drivers of the economy within that region going forward. And are there complements in both the urban and rural communities to help realize that growth in the long term? So again, it doesn’t necessarily need to mean that rural communities are replicating success of urban areas or that they just need to wait for urban area growth to sort of trickle down to rural communities. There really can be a synergy there particularly when working through a regional perspective.

Dr. Connie: Now thank you. I know we’ve talked to a few states. Leaders from South Carolina, for example, that are really struggling around, okay, what do we do here? Because states like Nebraska, others have this strong rural sector and that strong rural sector really is the bread and butter of the state in so many ways, but also is what really bolsters our rural sector. And I think that’s important, but other states don’t necessarily have that. And so thinking about how do we expand it here in places like Nebraska but also earn to together with states like South Carolina that don’t feel their ag sector is what really makes their rural areas prosperous. So thinking about it in new and different ways, I think is just so important for everyone.

Christy McFarland: Yeah, I think that’s right. And there are also, like you had mentioned, there are also states that have thriving rural areas. And I think what we’re finding in a lot of those places too, is that you get urban and rural communities are linked together because of the growth that’s happening in rural communities. So for example, with gas and oil production and extraction in the northern states, for example, thinking about the services that are required whether it’s the drill services or otherwise to help that industry continue to grow. We’re seeing those type of service sector jobs grow in the urban areas but they’re very much connected to what is happening in the rural places as well.

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Welcome to Bold Voices, our segment with rockstar students from the University of Nebraska who are making a difference in rural.

Katy Bagniewski: Hey podcast listeners, it’s Katy, production specialist of the Rural Futures Podcast. With me today is Sydney Armbruster, a senior Disease and Human Health major at Peru State College. Welcome Sydney.

Sydney Armbruster: Hello, thanks for having me Katy.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah, we’re so happy you came on the show. Can you start out by telling our listeners a little bit about who you are?

Sydney Armbruster: I really have a passion for helping people and learning about the human body, and I hope to become a physician assistant someday.

Katy Bagniewski: So I know you have a rural background. Tell our listeners a little bit about your connection to rural.

Sydney Armbruster: I’m originally from Fall City, Nebraska, which is a rural community. My specific interests in rural is in the healthcare field. And I hope to be able to help out and serve in underprivileged areas when I get licensed as physician assistant.

Katy Bagniewski: So, you got to contribute to the Rural Futures Institute through our Serviceship project this summer. Can you talk about a little bit about that?

Sydney Armbruster: I got sent to the Omaha Municipal Land Bank. And once I got to Omaha, I learned a whole new world but joined Housing and Healthcare which really interested me, but was something that I never even thought of before. We basically worked with foreclosed houses. We worked with the foreclosure team to get those houses, and then we sell those houses. And then whoever buys the house has nine months to redevelop that house. So actually we’re bettering the communities in more than one way. It made me grow as a person and will definitely shape how I practice medicine in the future.

Katy Bagniewski: How do you think that those skills would translate into a more rural community?

Sydney Armbruster: Right now there’s a lot of housing crises in rural areas. And Land Bank is actually working on moving their services to rural areas because of the crisis. And it would work the exact same way we work in those underdeveloped parts of the communities and hopefully get them back up to functioning pace. And it would affect the community just as much as it does in urban areas.

Katy Bagniewski: How has the Rural Futures Institute impacted your college career and your future plans?

Sydney Armbruster: RFI has been one of the best experiences of my college career thus far. I’ve gained friendships, mentors, and many memories. It definitely opened my horizons to what the world has to offer and how many people are working for positive change in the world today.

Katy Bagniewski: Well, thank you so much, Sydney, for talking to me today and discussing this interesting intersection between housing and healthcare and how it really affects both urban and rural.

Sydney Armbruster: Thanks for having me, Katy.

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Dr. Connie: Okay, Christy, I’m going to ask you to put your futurist hat on now for a second. I want you to think about how do you think these changes will impact the future? How do you see the rural-urban dynamic evolving?

Christy McFarland: I think that the urban-rural dynamic will evolve to a place where, from what I know about city leaders in other community leaders and town leaders across the country, they will find a way. There are solutions when the right people are at the table. And my sense is that we’re getting to a critical point where we need to really start identifying solutions that work for both urban and rural communities and for shared prosperity within the regions. In terms of what the future looks like, again, I’m hopeful in those leaders who are on the ground and understand not only the constraints but are starting to view their communities through an asset-driven lens as opposed to deficit-driven lens. And when you do that I think the possibilities really become more apparent. And again, we are seeing that in communities across the country, and I’m hopeful that others will take that lead as well.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I so agree. I know there’s challenges, and we at Rural Futures Institute aren’t trying to diminish those challenges at all but surely think more on the mindset of possibility and abundance and what can be created. I think it’s so important. So we are actually recognizing that there’s opportunity here rather than just focusing on the challenges.

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Dr. Connie: Now I know you’re one of the people on this planet that really takes her work very seriously, but also gets out there and experiences these crops and these rural areas for herself. So I’d love for you to share with our audience what you do for fun that also helps you think of the research and push your research forward.

Christy McFarland: Yeah, well my husband and  I have recently become whisky-hobbyists, if that’s a word. We very much enjoy getting out into Virginia and exploring the distilleries that are local here. There are quite a few in Virginia and it’s just been a really fun experience. I think, when we get out to these places it’s very interesting to see, for example, the methods that are used when these distilleries are dealing with different types of grains. It’s not a high-tech type of process. It’s very much being able to feel and to smell all of the different grains that are going into whether it’s rye or bourbon or whatnot. It’s a great experience really to get up close and personal with the products that we love to taste test for ourselves back at home. And to have an experience not only with the products but also with the people that are making it.

Dr. Connie: But I think this is just a huge asset rural communities definitely have. A little later today I get to go down to Kimmel Orchard. And it’s a 90-acre orchard famous for apples but has a variety of fruits and vegetables as well. And every fall, they have an AppleJack festival in Nebraska City which is a town of about 7,000 people in southeast Nebraska. And literally, 50 to 70,000 people will come down there and participate in that festival over the course of a three-day period. And it’s been named one of the best festivals pin the nation for a small town. It’s such a great economic boom for the area, but it also just provides that experience you’re talking about. People coming from rural and urban areas alike to be able to pick apples and get outside, have some family fun. But really get to also experience what a great apple, what great products and produce actually taste like straight from the place it is grown and produced. And on the side of education, it really has allowed us to really relate to people in a different way through the lens of food and agriculture. We talk about the university work and the work in extension and research and that stays. And so those are just amazing places and assets to have so that we can all come together around these issues and help grow our economies but also the quality of our lives together.

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Dr. Connie: So, Christy, tell us a little bit more about your work and what you’re doing in work with your PhD and what your research looks like.

Christy McFarland: So we had done this initial research on the urban-rural economic divide and wanting to understand where there are opportunities for regional economic development that helps strengthen and see prosperity throughout regions as opposed to just to build parts of regions. For my PhD work, what I’m looking at is in covering that a little bit more, so really understanding what are the connections from an economic development lens, whether that’s different types of industry and how are they connected? I’m looking specifically at the ability of conglomeration and clusters, economic clusters, to help facilitate regional economic development. And I think recently when we think about conglomeration which is sort of the clustering of economic activity along one smaller place, we think of that as the key driver of divergence among urban and rural communities across the country. But we’ve really only looked at that through the lens of major regions across the country and maybe why are the coasts doing better and the Midwest is not doing as well. But we haven’t really taken the approach of really understanding, okay, let’s dig deeper into regions that include both urban and rural counterparts and understand can this cluster of economic activity encompass both urban and rural communities and help bridge urban and rural economy in a more productive way, building whole region?

Dr. Connie: The work you’re doing really, I think, is an incredible innovation in research itself in terms of changing the narrative but also adding the substance behind it that it needs. So as we come up even to more elections and the topic of rural versus urban reemerges in the media in the narrative, I’m excited that so many of us now can use the work you’re doing to really have a different, more robust conversation around this issue.

Christy McFarland: Yeah, I think it’s really important that we have the information. I think one side of the story has been told very well. And again, it’s not to say that rural communities don’t have their challenges because they certainly do. But it’s also important for the other side of the story to be told as well so that we can start to look towards solutions. I’m with the National League of Cities. Cities are certainly in our name, so I’ve gotten some funny looks when I start to have this conversation with people. But we really do represent cities and towns of all sizes across the country. So our interest really is in strengthening the economy and the quality of life in communities across the country whether large or small.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I appreciate that point because I think that is,  a person hears the word city and you automatically think of like New York. You don’t think of West Point, Nebraska. So appreciate you bringing that forward because the work you’re doing, really I think is helpful to anyone working in this space at all. There’s a lotta good statistics. I think there’s great examples of communities really rethinking their economic future but also sustainability and growth. And your work is really unleashing a whole new conversation that we all need to be a part of and help support.

Christy McFarland: From my sense, too, again although we certainly represent cities and towns across the spectrum and this research really is in the vein of trying to support economic growth throughout regions, there is also an incentive I would say for more urban communities to start thinking with this frame as well. Particularly as communities start to grow, they’re becoming more unaffordable. There are problems with transportation and traffic issues. And it’s going to be incumbent on urban communities as well to think in a more regional frame in order to help balance some of these negative consequences of growth.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, in Nebraska what we’re seeing is really the growth happening in those micropolitan areas. So, the areas that are not considered major urban centers but are big enough that people want to live there but still have that quality of life, the space, more affordable housing, great schools. And so I think this is something that’s really part of this narrative, right? People really want this quality of life, and now people are so mobile. I mean, here we are both working from home to record this podcast that they can do that. And I think there’s so many ways we can help people realize their potential wherever they want to live. But both rural and urban areas can think about that. Like what do people want? What are they looking for? And how do we become providers of that lifestyle? As long as people are connected, they can do so much now from anywhere in the world, and that is really shifting the possibilities around where people want to live, but also where they can live.

Christy McFarland: Yeah, I think that’s right. We can’t underestimate the importance and the vitality of our urban areas and the reason why they are successful. People still do want to be near other people, but there are others. And there are other ways to be successful as long as those connections are made in a strategic way and an economically viable way. And maybe we just haven’t gotten there yet, but I think that is the path we need to continue to go down.

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Dr. Connie: So Christy, what parting words of wisdom would you like to leave our audience with today?

Christy McFarland: I hope that the research that we’ve done at the National League of Cities and that we’ll continue to do and also the work that you all are doing, really can help people change their direction a little bit just in terms of tweaking the way that we see the world and putting an asset-driven lens on the work that we do because I think that really can open up some new possibilities.

Dr. Connie: Great, thank you so much, Christy! We appreciate the work you’re doing and your time to come on the podcast.

Christy McFarland: Thank you.