More to cities than skyscrapers - new U.N. urban chief

by Gregory Scruggs | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 7 February 2018 17:12 GMT

UN-Habitat Executive Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif attends the United Nations flag raising ceremony at World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur. February 7, 2018. Handout pic courtesy of UN-Habitat.

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"Urbanisation can be an opportunity for development and a tool for development"

By Gregory Scruggs

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations chief in charge of cities says urbanisation is about much more than building skyscrapers.

It is people that really get her going.

In her first media interview since becoming head of the U.N.'s urban agency, the ex-mayor said it was city dwellers who make for good urban outcomes, not buildings, and her mantra was to listen to the people so as to design better lives for them.

"Building skyscrapers is not urbanisation," Maimunah Mohd Sharif told Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Urbanisation is a process."

And it is a process that can improve lives - provided local governments follow recently adopted United Nations guidelines, said the new UN-Habitat executive director.

The former Malaysian mayor assumed the post last month, at a time when rapid city growth around the globe squeezes resources - from homes to hospitals - and widens the gulf between the urban rich and rural poor.

"Urbanisation can be an opportunity for development and a tool for development," she said at the Ninth World Urban Forum, which opened in the Malaysian capital on Feb.7.

But infrastructure alone does not make for a sustainable city, said the former mayor of Penang Island and a career town planner.

She described her ideal outcome as one where both urban and rural areas had access to the same facilities, be it schools or healthcare. ""At the end of the day we want to have a good quality of life for our stakeholders," she said.

UN-Habitat Executive Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif speaks at World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur. February 7, 2018. Handout pic courtesy of UN-Habitat.


Sharif took on the job as her agency seeks to galvanise support for the so-called New Urban Agenda, a 20-year roadmap for sustainable cities.

The World Urban Forum is the first U.N. gathering on cities since the agenda's adoption at the Habitat III summit in 2016.

Despite delivering the urbanisation agenda, UN-Habitat has struggled in recent years to attract funding from national governments, its primary donors.

The Nairobi-based agency received just $2.5 million of its most recent, two-year $45 million budget for core operations.

"I'm trying to build back the confidence of the donors," Sharif said.

At three weeks into the job, she said it was too early to discuss her fundraising strategy, but said preliminary meetings with national government representatives were promising.

"I want to build trust," she said.

Asked for the urban thinkers that have most inspired her, the career civil servant cited an experience when she was mayor of Seberang Perai and discovered that 42 percent of the municipal budget was spent on solid waste.

A campaign to cut citizens' waste shrank that figure to 32 percent by 2015. As a result, she said:

"The people are my guru."

(Reporting by Gregory Scruggs. Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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