How Does a Popular City Avoid the Curse of Success?

Raleigh regularly tops "Best City" lists. Mayor Nancy McFarlane explains why that can be a challenge.

Nancy McFarlane, a political independent, has been mayor of Raleigh since 2011. A former City Council member and a pharmacist, McFarlane launched a company that provides medication infusions to at-home patients with chronic illnesses. She campaigned for the mayor's office on a platform of smart planning, citing Northern Virginia--where she grew up--as an example of unwise urban policy. She recently spoke with National Journal about leading one of the nation's most desirable cities. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

Q: Every time you see one of these lists of the best places to live or best places to raise a family, Raleigh is always near the top. What's going on?

A: I think the community has done an excellent job of planning what they want to be. It's really been a collaborative effort. There are just so many pieces that go into it. Geographically, we're halfway between the mountains and the beach. We have three major universities in the region. We have the Research Triangle Park. We're the [state] capital, but we do not have any one major industry. So if something starts to go down, there's enough diversity in our economic base to cover it. We've been very mindful of how we look. We've put a lot of investment into our parks and greenways.

I think fundamentally what it boils down to--especially now with a more globalized economy--is if a business is looking to relocate somewhere, they have to be where people want to live.

Q: Technology gives people more mobility and more choices. Are you saying that quality of life issues aren't just about lifestyle, but also about attracting and keeping business?

A: I own a business. You've got to have the workforce, whether you are hiring new graduates or experienced workers. This area really appeals to a very wide range of individuals. The arts and culture scene is amazing. We've got a lot of entrepreneurs. There's a lot of support here for entrepreneurs. A lot of it is the tech industry. There's a lot of opportunity in town.

Q: This stuff feeds on itself.

A: It does, but you can't ever take it for granted.

Q: Do you approach economic development as a region, or do you compete with cities like Durham and Greensboro?

A: We're like siblings. We're happy when each other does well, but secretly we want to do the best. We want mom to like us best. We want to grow. But I would never try to take a business from Durham to come here. Some of it is chasing companies, some of it is fielding inquiries. We have highest per capita of Ph.D.s in the country, we have a very well-educated workforce. Although once in a while, I get comments like: "I just moved here and I love it, but can you keep anybody else from moving here?"

Q: You just anticipated my next question. How do you make sure you don't have clogged highways and sprawl and overtaxed schools and everything else that comes from growth?

A: To me, it's all about the plan. And I think a big piece of that is going to be regional planning. I grew up in Arlington, Virginia. I get it. We already have a line from Raleigh to Cary, [N.C.,] to Apex, [N.C.]--eventually, it's going to be one big blob. Transportation to me is key. We're looking at a planned regional light rail eventually, which really opens up the potential of the region. Nothing produces economic development like rails in the ground.

Q: How to you balance the interests of your urban residents versus your suburban residents?

A: I don't think it will ever be one or the other. It depends on where you are in your life. If you are 25 and you just got a job and you're hanging out downtown, then you want one thing. If you're 35, and you have two kids, you might want another. I do know that the largest segment that is growing is single-occupancy households. Where are they going to want to live? It's all about options. It's not about one or the other. That's the great thing about cities. The real challenge is getting this to not become just like the places everyone moved here to get away from.

Q: Is there another city that you emulate?

There is no city, honestly, that I would like us to be a lot more like. But we do have a great music scene. I would really like us to own that, like Austin, [Texas,] has.