Karen Marzloff

by Emily Corbett

Friday Morning Coffee

For months in our office we all kept having these exciting, creative ideas that would pop up and then almost immediately get buried again under the daily work that pays the bills and keeps the business running. “Oh yeah, we should work on that some time…” was a consistent refrain. So finally we decided to make a dedicated place in our busy schedules to focus on these projects.

Morning coffee is already a ritual in our office, so to make Friday conversations special, we bring in pastries, too. The added bonus is that we get to spend time together as an office exchanging ideas, conversation and frequently sketches. Over the 8 months since we started we have worked on competition projects, designed a Parking Day intervention, planned Archi-Hour (a local architect happy hour), started an office blog, and listened to our colleagues’ travel adventures.

The next step for us was to invite in people from outside our office who are doing interesting and creative work in the Seacoast. We wanted to hear what they are excited about and what drives them in their work (and also to eat more pastries). Our first Friday Morning Coffee guest was Karen Marzloff.

Karen has been instrumental in establishing many creative endeavors here in Portsmouth that provide outlets for independent voices, a few of which include: The Wire newspaper, the RPM Challenge, Seacoast Local and PS21 (Portsmouth Smart Growth for the 21st Century). PS21 is hosting a “Tactical Urbanism” event in the West End this spring, led by Mike Lydon of the Street Plans Collaborative and co-author of Tactical Urbanism: Short Term Action for Long Term Change.

As an architectural office we have a particular interest in the work Karen has done with PS21 because it aligns with our own interest in shaping the built environment (especially the one we directly inhabit). She shared with us her thoughts on local leadership and community engagement.

Here’s my take on our conversation:

Gaining Perspective

Karen is a New Hampshire native, but returned to the Seacoast by way of time spent in Washington D.C., San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Experiencing these major metropolitan areas gave her insight into how different voices shape a city. Eventually, she missed the physical geography of New Hampshire, from the mountains to the ocean. She realized the Seacoast had access to many of the resources she had in a bigger city, and the ability to create opportunities if they didn’t already exist.

Something she prizes about discussing ideas here is the ability to have ‘pie-in-the-sky’ conversations, but to simultaneously recognize and work with the reality on the ground. This imaginative and can-do spirit leads to projects like PS21’s Tactical Urbanism event, where the a temporary change in the environment guides and engages people to make a leap of imagination about the creating the kind of city they want to live in.

Cultivating Conversation

Karen described how PS21 grew out of recognizing a need for cohering conversations – civic conversations where people could keep an open mind and learn something new from each other. To achieve this, PS21 needed to reach out to multiple demographics and convene people over time to bring diverse voices and experiences to the table to shape the city’s future.

The 20th century model of planning doesn’t address our current demographic shifts, climate change and other contemporary issues pressuring our urban dynamics. Modern life is disconnected from the planning process. Even though anyone can show up at City Council and contribute, if people only get 3 minutes to speak on a topic, there isn’t a place for the depth of comment needed for a conversation. And, as more residents move here from other places, they don’t always know how they can be involved.

The first PS21 event, a showing of the movie “The Human Scale” in which Danish architect and urban planner Jan Gehl talks about community without cars, got 75 people to come out to the showing. PS21 then hosted a discussion on the book Walkable City by Jeff Speck, which enabled a safe, open and generative conversation. People who had been in strong public opposition over questions of growth in Portsmouth were now sitting at the same table talking about a walkable city.

PS21 also seeks to give shape to a voice for the community. A lot of people liked the last Master Plan for Portsmouth but not everything outlined in that plan was realized. Portsmouth Listens was created as a way to get more feedback from the community, but still only had a limited effect. There is sense of urgency in Portsmouth around city planning and decision-making, both because of the increased level of development and because we are a coastal city that will see the effects of climate change. Some would argue maybe not enough urgency has been expressed towards the issue of climate change in Portsmouth.

Identifying Solutions

How do we get more people involved in shaping our community? How do we move forward rather than just focusing on all of the problems?

Karen pointed us to ‘Solutions Journalism Network,’ one example of a group looking at solutions including both successes and failures (what is working? what isn’t? why?). As a group of journalists, they are acknowledging the role that media plays in framing our understanding of issues and shaping our conversations.  

Karen was particularly excited about the book The Local Economy Solution by Michael Shuman. The book looks at local economies and highlights solutions that create thriving communities: more economic “ladders," with more rungs that are closer together.

A strategy described in the book is ‘pollinator businesses’. These businesses grow deep rather than wide and find other ways to uplift the community--working toward community engagement, building connections and building trust. One example of this is Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, MI. Rather than franchising or trying to replicate their successful deli in other locations, the owners focused on their own community by developing aligning businesses(e.g. a bakery, a creamery, a coffee company) that are also located in Ann Arbor, supply the deli, and also operate as their own businesses.

Building Connections

To enable solutions there must be trust built in the community and relationships take time.

In her work with Seacoast Local, Karen is always looking for ways to build connections. For example, asking local businesses to think about what other local businesses could provide their procurement needs. Can a network of similar businesses work together to secure bulk pricing or group discounts for local services?

To lead on this and many other initiatives Karen reminded us that people want to be attracted to an idea and involved in an idea. Having conversations, identifying solutions and building connections are her path to making change happen.

We want to thank Karen for sharing her thoughts with us. Please check our blog for more in our Friday Morning Coffee series to come!

For Further Reading:

  • Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time – Jeff Speck
  • The Local Economy Solution – Michael Shuman
  • Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading – Ari Weinzweig
  • ‘Book 1: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business’
  • ‘Book 2: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Being a Better Leader’
  • ‘Book 3: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Managing Ourselves’
  • A Country of Cities’ – Vishaan Chakrabarti
  • Solutions Journalism Network 
  • TED Radio Hour: Building Better Cities