We grabbed coffee with Ali Sutherland-Brown to talk about cities, storytelling, and what it's like to be a working mother. We got some great book and movie recommendations too!
Ali is a Principal at Karp Strategies. As the first employee after Rebecca Karp founded the firm, Ali has been instrumental in helping build the company into what it is today. With over 13 years of industry experience, she previously worked at the NYC Department of City Planning and the Institute of Urban Design. She is a proud Coro Leadership New York graduate and holds degrees in Urban Planning and History/American Studies from MIT and Princeton, respectively. While trained as an urban planner, she is also an ardent advocate for creative and adaptive communication: “A good idea doesn’t mean very much if you can’t communicate it well.” She is also obsessed with behavioral economics and organizational psychology. Karp Strategies could not have grown to where it is today without Ali’s fierce commitment to the company and its people and passion for the work.
How do History and American Studies inform your practice of City Planning?
There’s always context and history you have to appreciate. American Studies is an interdisciplinary subject, and it totally changed my perspective on the different lenses through which you can think about and experience a place. You need to know its streets, its maps, its music, its novels, and its people—just to name a few elements of what ‘place’ really is. This idea is central to my work, and I use it to examine creative ways of understanding. Beyond that, part of the reason I love this field is that while I may be an expert in methodology, I am not an expert about every place we work in. Humility is critical, and my job is to understand the expertise that already exists in communities. You can find all of that if you take an interdisciplinary approach.
How has your experience living in different cities guided your understanding of urban planning?
I didn’t really know what urban planning was in undergrad—I just always knew that I loved cities and had a strong reaction to space. Living in different cities made me realize how much I’m affected by the built environment. For example, when I was an undergrad, I really thought I was going to be a TV writer and producer. But when I spent a summer interning in LA, I realized I just couldn’t live in such a car-centric place. Manhattan, Brooklyn, Cambridge, Chicago, DC, LA, and Ottawa—they are all so different but fundamentally led me to this career. I do this job because I want to positively affect how we experience cities and highlight how place and space affect our physical and mental health.
Why is the craft of writing and storytelling important to your work?
Everything is fundamentally about communication—every job comes down to your ability to communicate well with the people around you. This allows you to get what you need from your job, motivate other people to do their jobs, and be satisfied throughout it all. Ultimately, there is no shortcut to having an open line of communication or establishing empathy with someone—and this is the #1 thing I try to bring to my leadership at the firm and to clients. Just have the conversation. Prepare for it, especially if it’s a tough one. And see the situation from the other person’s perspective before you ever show up in the room. Written communication is also incredibly important because one of our primary jobs as urban planners is communicating the content we’ve created. We’re not doing our jobs effectively if we are not, for instance, writing as crisply and cleanly as we can. ‘Storytelling’ doesn’t have an implication of falsehood, to me—it’s all about getting your message across.
What has been your favorite highlight of working at Karp Strategies?
Growing the company! As someone with a degree in Urban Planning, I never thought that half my job would be helping to build a company from scratch. To the extent that people become urban planners because they’re excited to build something—a park, a facility, a district, a city—this company is what we’ve built. And by ‘we,’ I mean everyone who works—or has worked—here has contributed to its DNA. This has been one of the most unexpectedly rewarding experiences of my life. Making Karp Strategies the best company it can be is such an immense but rewarding challenge because if we can do that, then we can keep doing this great work.
Tell me a life-changing moment that helped shape who you are today.
Having my daughter—she’s two years old and is the best person I’ve ever met. Mostly, she makes my life much more complex, and also weirder and more wonderful than I thought possible (you can’t really anticipate the experience of dancing to Cookie Monster’s interpretation of a Swedish electropop beat until it happens to you). As this relates to work, historically in the US, there’s been a mistaken impression that working mothers are distracted and, therefore, less valuable as employees (I highly recommend Jessica Grose’s recent book on the subject). But working mothers are the most efficient and empathetic people you’ve ever met. Falling under the category of ‘cliche for a reason’: parenthood has changed my perspective on everything, including what work can and should be. And for what it’s worth, I’m immensely grateful to work somewhere that doesn’t just tolerate but celebrates my family and intense responsibilities at home.
Last TV show I binge-watched: Yellowjackets
Restaurant (delivery) I’d recommend to close friends: Mint Heights
Best concert I’ve ever experienced: Belle & Sebastian
A book that changed me: Anything by Lauren Groff and James Baldwin, Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), Priestdaddy (Patricia Lockwood), Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Joan Didion), Why We're Polarized (Ezra Klein), The Image of the City (Kevin Lynch)
A movie I’d pay to see again and again: Charade, Rear Window
My heroes are: Nora Ephron, Barack Obama, Kathryn Bigelow, Lorne Michaels, Jean Michel Basquiat, Daniel Kahneman, Holly Whyte