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United Nations Human Settlements Programme: Maimunah Mohd Sharif—on her experience with urban planning and future development

byNoah Cedric Kohlmayer
onMarch 28, 2022

by Noah C. Kohlmayer
HAF Intern

Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, gave a public lecture on March 14, 2022, organized by The Bartlett Development-Planning Unit, University College of London.

UN habitat executive director, Ms. Mohd Sharif, is learning on the cutting edge of innovation.

New tools must be applied: reforming and rethinking for unknown parameters in our environment. Ms. Mohd Sharif questioned the audience on how to approach and deal with urban planning, identify challenges, and assist future challenges? As planners: look at infrastructure with a technical view. When zoning a space, planners should think of the parameters of the environment and the local people. The moment you plan and build, it is costly. Think about the criteria you want to achieve—especially the needs of the people.

“A supply-led approach to hit provision has often led to unintended and negative consequences for the people,” remarked Maimunah Mohd Sharif. We need to have a demand-driven, not supply-driven approach in the future. An excellent way to approach future urban development is a participatory approach with the selected community to better understand the wants and needs of the community and even discuss the contribution it can make to the project.

Ms. Mohd Sharif brought an example at hand. She mentioned a drain built against gravity after a flood, which worsened the next one. On that note, she mentioned visiting and talking to the engineers of a development project in Cairo for a new bus lane in between busy public streets. At the Cairo development project, the project leaders told Ms. Mohd Sharif after she had suggested a change in the planned pedestrian access to the bus stations: “If a woman designs a city, it is a city designed for all.”

The prioritization of affordable housing was another heavily underlined aspect Ms. Mohd Sharif stressed. It should be seen as an investment into jobs since the youth only get to have an education if they have a roof over their heads, particularly in countries of the global south. An integrated approach needs to be applied to integrate and plan for future challenges and resilience. We need to make that impact for a changed, sustainable future. “Think global, act local. Think local, act global,” Ms. Mohd Sharif echoed the popular phrase for response to sustainable development. I believe this statement to be a significant and impactful one.

The talk continued with the speaker enlightening the audience about the 765 million people still without access to electricity, and 2.6 billion people without access to clean cooking (those use plastic instead of wood or gas ovens since it is more affordable). The executive director for UN Habitat went on to say that the world is full of ongoing conflicts and war tensions; there will not be development. “No peace, no development” was her conclusion.

Building and planning equitable and sustainable cities are important, but how would we ensure actionable knowledge? We need to co-produce knowledge with various actors in a city. Bringing in people from different stages of life, backgrounds, and knowledge is essential to hear as many opinions and perspectives as possible, as well as to enjoy a better quality of life. Ms. Mohd Sharif stressed that shifting governance from looking at dealing with disasters to dealing with disastrous reduction is a big problem.

Securing government assistance sustainably is how future development plans should be implemented: affordable housing, a participatory approach, and combined solidarity between citizens, as well as between citizens and nature. “I am actively nurturing the civil life of cities and territories. I am a civil servant.” Maimunah Mohd Sharif said, which later Prof. Levy commented on by saying, “I love how you said you are a civil servant! We need more civil servants“ . She went on to say that this is a sense of public service that, for her, is so central to the solidarity and mutual care the conference has been talking about.