UN-Habitat Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif: Planning principles and implementing the New Urban Agenda

  Maimunah Mohd Sharif, the first Asian woman to serve as Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat).  (Source:  Star2 )

Maimunah Mohd Sharif, the first Asian woman to serve as Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat). (Source: Star2)

Maimunah Mohd Sharif, the first Asian woman to serve as Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), sat down with Gus Greenstein, Publications Director for the Oxford Urbanists, to discuss UN-Habitat and her views on urban planning. Among other things, she emphasizes the need for bottom-up planning approaches and strategic collaboration between academics and practitioners. 


GG: What is something people tend to misunderstand about UN-Habitat?

MMS: I think people know about UNICEF. They know it’s about children. People know about the UNHCR. They know it’s about refugees. But when it comes to UN- Habitat, human settlements, and urbanization, it’s a little less specific. There are many factors involved, and the word “urbanization” can be quite abstract for some. The mission we’re trying to communicate is: “giving good quality of life to the people.” This is UN-Habitat’s duty.

GG: In the last decade or so, what have been some of UN- Habitat’s biggest weaknesses? Which of these are you trying to address as its leader?

MMS: Every organization has its strengths and weaknesses. I think we have been weak in communicating – in telling people what we are doing – even with the media. In addition, we are looking into how we can further share our expertise with cities, mayors, and politicians. Third, funding has been low. But after 2016 and the formalization of the Sustainable Development Goals – and with everybody talking about the New Urban Agenda and urbanization – we think that this is the time for us to rise up. To show that UN-Habitat is relevant.

But after 2016 and the formalization of the Sustainable Development Goals – and with everybody talking about the New Urban Agenda and urbanization – we think that this is the time for us to rise up. To show that UN-Habitat is relevant.

GG: You speak a lot about implementation. You say it’s not only about finding the right policies, but about implementing them, because policies won’t matter if they’re not implemented. But development organizations have been thinking hard about implementation challenges for a long time, and many efforts to improve implementation have largely failed. What do you think they're getting wrong?

MMS: I was mayor of Penang, I have previously been active in the UN, and have held a number of other hats. In those capacities, I would always say: if you have a strategic plan but don’t look further down the road, into implementation, the plan will only collect dust in the cupboard.

When it comes to implementation, you have to involve the public. Because you have to have public buy-in. If you have buy-in from the people – and it’s not us wanting to implement something, but rather them wanting us to implement something – then it’s easier. Non-governmental actors may even help look for the necessary funding. They become part of the team. They feel a sense of pride, a sense of belonging. So in all of our work, I always tell my staff: “Involve the public. Involve the public.”

Doing so may mean things take longer. I know it’s not easy. I’m feeling that now. I was able to work in a bottom-up way in Penang, as mayor, but I am now working with more people - with ministers and many mayors. But I believe in bottom-up approaches, alongside top-down ones, which help provide the vision. You need a convergence of ideas.

GG: When it comes to municipal or national governments improving their sustainable development strategies, what are the easiest and most effective things they could be doing that they’re not doing now? What’s the low-hanging fruit?

MMS: To me, it’s management by walking. You walk, you see, you manage. That is the low-hanging fruit. You go to the ground. You find what you need to fix, and then you do it. But more often than not, leaders don’t go to the ground.

GG: “Management by Walking” – Is that your term?

MMS: Yes! Behind the scenes, you are managing. But when you manage by walking, the people see you. They see the mayor visiting the market, the rural areas. And you see what is not right. Often you find quick wins that you wouldn’t have found otherwise. 

  Penang, Malaysia - where ED Sharif served as mayor prior to assuming leadership of UN-Habitat.  (Source:  ExpatGo ) 

Penang, Malaysia - where ED Sharif served as mayor prior to assuming leadership of UN-Habitat. (Source: ExpatGo

GG: You’ve said that “an environment fit for women is fit for all.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

MMS: It’s not to say that we women are weak by nature. But let’s say, for example, that men can walk up a certain slope. Us women, because we bear children, et cetera. – we sometimes need a different slope. And this works for men, too. This idea also comes into play when thinking about the elderly. And it doesn’t only apply to walkways. We need to keep this in mind when thinking about public transport, lighting, and the bigger things like the economy.

GG: I want to ask you about interdisciplinary collaboration on urban development issues. One thing we’re trying to do with the Urbanists is bring all kinds of academics together – anthropologists, economists, mathematicians, etc. – to discuss. In your view, which disciplines are still underrepresented in urban development discussions?

MMS: I cannot pinpoint any single discipline. I think the key is involving humane disciplines. It can be any discipline - even engineering - but it must be humane. Human architecture, for instance. I think it’s the human aspect that’s sometimes lacking. For example, in urban planning, we talk about safe cities. To do this, we often put up CCTV, all the technology. But actually, you can create a safe city through design if you are humane enough – if you think hard about human nature and human needs.

GG: In the space you work in, tangibly trying to improve the lives people living in cities, how do you think universities can better contribute? Or what are ways in which the contributions of academia have been insufficient?

MMS: Universities are definitely very important. When I was a mayor, I involved universities in my committees and projects. As an academic, you have time to do research. As a mayor, as an Executive Director, I don’t have time to do research. I have the challenges, but you have the time to do the research. If you work together with me, we can test your research through implementation.

Then you can go back to the university and improve your ideas. So there will be a cycle of improvement. If UN- Habitat goes at it alone without connecting to universities, then we’ll have limited knowledge. We need new ideas coming in. That’s why I chose to visit Cambridge and Oxford. We need to “think, do, share, and partner.” Together, we come up with good recipes. Then we implement them.

If UN-Habitat goes at it alone without connecting to universities, then we’ll have limited knowledge. We need new ideas coming in.

GG: How do you think graduate students can engage in urban development efforts in a very tangible way – to bring their research to bear on real communities? How can they get involved in practical work?

MMS: Some students, even doctorate students, come to UN-Habitat to do internships. There’s an exchange program. Students can also send a synopsis of their research. If it fits with the challenges of UN-Habitat, we’ll definitely listen. For example, we’re now thinking hard about our new strategic plan. That’s why I wanted to talk to young people at Oxford, to hear what they think are the most pressing issues we need to address with the new plan. We really want to know. Sometimes in Nairobi, we lack the research inputs.

I think it’s very important for students to make themselves visible. Just email us. Organizations like UN-Habitat and UNDP will definitely be interested.

GG: When it comes to pressing urban development issues, I’m personally interested in the tension between the need to make cities more dense and compact for environmental reasons and the forced displacement that density efforts can entail. How do you think about this challenge? Are there certain principles you stick to?

MMS: Previously, we were talking about zoning. But with zoning, you can sometimes increase commute times. So zoning is not such a popular idea anymore. We also talk about urban sprawl. But this isn’t a very popular idea anymore, either. Sites of urban sprawl are becoming new cities, new towns. Then came the idea of compact cities, where people live, work, and play in the same place. Horizontal, low-density cities will be workable if we link them with public transport. But we also need to think about building vertically, making cities more compact.

However, we can’t choose just one solution. It depends on the situation. That’s where research is needed. We need to think through the particulars. What are the specific challenges? For example, because it’s an island, Singapore says it can’t afford to have low-density sprawl. So it depends on the situation. And planning will never be 100% perfect. There are always things that will need to be improved.

GG: New research is showing how some cities are growing phenomenally fast, projecting that some of them will soon become more populous than some of the biggest nations on Earth. But then you also have smaller cities, which are not growing as fast, and in some cases shrinking. When it comes to sustainable urban planning, do you think that the same principles apply to both scales? Are these comparable urban projects? Or when it comes to cities like Lagos, are we dealing with an entirely different situation?

MMS: I think the basic principles should be the same. When you plan a city or development, you need to think about the objective. We might be talking about ending poverty, climate change, or SDG 11. We have to be honest about the objective, regardless of whether we’re in an urban area or rural area. Then we need to think about the development plan components that will achieve this.


Maimunah Mohd Sharif is the first Asian woman to serve as Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). Before assuming leadership of UN-Habitat, she served as Mayor of the City Council of Penang Island, Malaysia.  She holds a Master of Science in Planning Studies from the University of Science Malaysia and a Bacehelors of Science with honors in Town Planning Studies from the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology in the United Kingdom. 

Gus Greenstein