In an interview to Meera VM, UN-Habitat’s Executive Director ‘Maimunah Mohd Sharif’ speaks about the Future of Cities and implementation of the ‘New Urban Agenda’

  • The New Urban Agenda (NUA) is an accelerator to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 11 – Sustainable cities and communities.
  • NUA envisions the Future of Cities in 2030 as “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements to foster prosperity and quality of life; cities for all where no-one & no-place is left behind.”
  • NUA was formally adopted by the global community including India during Habitat III, latest of the UN’s 20 yearly conferences on Housing and Sustainable development in Quito, Ecuador, 2016.
  • UN-Habitat’s organized World Urban Forum – 9 (WUF-9) at Kuala Lumpur in February 2018 to work out an action plan to ”localize and scale up the implementation of the New Urban Agenda”

Sustainable urbanization is vital for India which is a home to 1/6th of humanity. However, urbanization in India is on the cusp of a disaster. The impending crisis is clearly reflected in various sustainability rankings [i]. Be that as it may, India has initiated the course correction and reiterated her commitment to the Principles of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, 2015) and New Urban Agenda (NUA, 2016) propagated by the United Nations.

UN-Habitat’s Executive Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif is a global leader advocating sustainable urbanization. She is the first Asian woman to be appointed as UN’s urban chief in January 2018. A Malaysian national and a trained town planner herself, she is the former mayor of Penang (Malaysia). I interacted with her during UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum – 9 (WUF-9) at Kuala Lumpur in February 2018 regarding UN-Habitat’s action plan for implementing New Urban Agenda. I followed up on the subject with her recently. Here are the excerpts from our conversation [ii].


Please share your vision for the future urbanization and mission for the tenure as ED, UN-Habitat.

It is still very early days as I have only been in the role for two months [at time of writing] so I am still crystallizing my vision, but I am extremely passionate about putting people at the centre of our sustainability work. My time as a mayor taught me that, you could have the most modern technology or the top of the line infrastructure, but it will be in vain if it is not what the community needs and wants. I think this is very clear in the frameworks laid out for us by the Agenda 2030 and the New Urban Agenda.

What kind of commitment (in the context of New Urban Agenda) do you expect from India?

As all over the world, India is also going through a process of urban transformation. India recognizes that the process of urbanisation– if not well managed, will have grave implications on quality of life, public health, economic vitality and on sustainable development. It has embarked upon the journey to facilitate planned urbanization through its various flagship programs and missions to reduce the gaps in livability of urban poor and marginalized groups. India is a chair of UN-Habitat Governing Council and is fully committed to Principles of New Urban Agenda and SDGs. India has also emerged as a strong advocate for climate change and vigorously promoting the renewable energy sector on a regional and international platform. It is in the process of contextualizing, localizing and aligning the spirit of global frameworks in its policy initiatives to ensure a faster transition towards meeting nationally and internationally agreed on targets on sustainable development.

What are the main challenges in the implementation of NUA? WUF-9 being a non-legislative forum, how you will persuade nations to keep their commitments of bringing comprehensive National Policy and implementation of NUA?

The New Urban Agenda is an extremely dynamic document and reflects for the most part what cities and nations were already doing for their citizens in terms of sustainable urban development. In addition, there are several accompanying frameworks and tools being developed by UN-Habitat and its partners that outline what these changes look like at the local level. We are helping governments to expand their capacity in implementing the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goal 11 in line with their international commitments.

What is the next step after Kuala Lumpur Declaration? What sort of feedback is expected from the participant countries in July 2018?

“The Kuala Lumpur The Declaration calls to further develop the role of UN-Habitat as a focal point in the United Nations system to support all countries and mobilization of stakeholders in the implementation, follow up and review of the New Urban Agenda, including through scaled up normative support. The Declaration also recognizes the value of the Forum convened by UN-Habitat as an inclusive platform to collect inputs from a broad range of stakeholders and to feed these into annual and quadrennial reporting on progress in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

Immediately following WUF 9 we convened an expert group meeting and write-shop in Granada, Spain, supported by the Regional Government of Andalusia, with representatives from all major stakeholder groups. The meeting started drafting the first progress report on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. As the NUA has been adopted only 18 months ago, the progress report will highlight illustrations of early implementation of innovative policies, plans and projects in all regions. More importantly, it will also propose an inclusive and coherent reporting system with quantitative and qualitative indicators, which will incrementally grow over the years, as capacity increases. The reporting system will be designed to demonstrate how countries, cities and communities are collaborating to build the foundations for sustainable urbanization.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations is expected to share this report on the occasion of the High-Level Political Forum in July 2018 in New York, alongside the progress report on the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 11 on making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. This synchronized reporting will demonstrate how the NUA can serve as an accelerator for achieving the SDGs.”

What kind of support will be given to Mayors and National Governments for the implementation of NUA by the UN-Habitat?

UN-Habitat will provide technical support to, and build the capacity of cities, national and local governments in addressing sustainable urban development challenges taking into account commitments under the SDGs and the NUA, and based on our experience, partnerships, approaches, best practices and tools developed over the years including the following areas:

  1. Development of national urban policies which promote integrated, compact, inclusive, resilient, and connected cities and regions.
  2. urban planning and design covering the development of integrated local and national spatial frameworks,
  3. urban data analysis including the use of the City Prosperity Initiative to measure progress and assess investment opportunities, currently adopted by over 500 cities globally,
  4. urban basic services including improved access to water, sanitation, energy, transport and mobility in cities and towns,
  5. municipal finance and local economic development including enhancing revenue collection through property tax and other mechanisms;
  6. housing and participatory slum-upgrading with emphasis on promoting the city and national policy and legal frameworks for pro-poor housing, energy-efficient affordable housing, and housing finance,
  7. support to national land policies, information systems, regularisation of customary tenure, land administration, and development and implementation of land tools including fit for purpose land administration, a continuum of the land rights social tenure domain model for registration of informal land rights, land use planning, and land conflict mediation.
  8. Promote an implementation facility for sustainable urban development which will support local, national, regional and global initiatives.

We will support improvement of urban form, land markets, and infrastructure as key ingredients for promotion of city competitiveness at national, regional and global level. Our work on safety and security in cities, risk reduction and rehabilitation which demonstrates the nexus between development, peace and humanitarian work will also come in handy as cities respond to both natural and made disasters – climate change, conflict, and migration among others. In doing this, we shall endeavour to promote partnerships between governments, the UN system, and other stakeholders including civil society, private sector, development partners and banks, women, youth, grassroots and informal sector organisations, etc.

NUA brings issues like migration and landlocked countries in the ambit of Urban Policy. How will this make difference?

In 2015, there were 244 million migrants in the world. One in five international migrants moves in order to live in the world’s top 20 Global Cities[iii]. It is known that international migrants tend to stay in cities[iv]. NUA acknowledges this fact and its implications.

Nonetheless, when talking about migration and landlocked countries, we have to acknowledge that the larger bulk of migration is occurring within national borders. Internal migration is a larger phenomenon than international migration but there is limited data on the phenomenon (e.g. in India inter-state migration averages about 5-6 million individuals per year).

However, the reality is that migrants, whether being international, national, in landlocked or any sort of countries are often spatially segregated from local communities, and often excluded from local resources. Moreover, they can increase pressure and competition for host communities. Likewise, migrants are often excluded from decision-making and not included in urban planning participatory processes. In several of our projects, we have found that migrants are more likely to be excluded from opportunities in cities offer as they:

(1) work in the informal sector, (2) face discrimination in the housing market and (3) have average lower wages than the native population. They also tend to live in overcrowded situations, to be victims of forced evictions and homelessness, and face discrimination in access to housing, education, and employment.

The NUA gives attention to the unique and emerging urban development challenges facing all countries. Most important, it calls for Governments to “ensure the full respect for human rights and humane treatment of refugees, internally displaced persons, and migrants, regardless of migration status, and support their host cities in the spirit of international cooperation”; and “to ensure the equal use and enjoyment of cities and human settlements that seek to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and safe, affordable, accessible, just, sustainable, and resilient cities.”

The integration of migrants in urban development is therefore fundamental for sustainable urbanization. To achieve this integration successfully, migrants need three key factors [v] :

  1. Access to education and sufficient language skills
  2. Access to decent employment
  3. Access to adequate housing and basic services

The acknowledgement by NUA of migration challenges and opportunities in cities gives a strengthened impetus for UN-Habitat to work with National and Sub-National governments to make sure migrants’ human rights are respected and no one is left behind.  We expect to contribute to changes in the way migration and diversity can be viewed as an asset rather than a threat and contribute to creating cities for all and shared by all.

Studies show the existence of Environmental Kuznets Curve i.e. increased environmental degradation during the initial stage of economic growth and improvement of environmental performance only after achieving advanced economic stage. What can be done to avoid EKC for future development?

The advantage of this knowledge is that we can use it to avoid some of the mistakes of the past. It is true, that cities are traditionally seen as less green. For example, they account for around 70 percent of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. But it is also true that, if they are well-planned, compact cities can reduce pollution and increase energy efficiency over supplying goods and services to a widely sprawled population.

You were Mayor, now you are Executive Director, UN-Habitat. What are the initiatives by you as Mayor that you want to replicate on the global scale?

In my capacity as mayor, I had a strong focus on capacity and knowledge building, conducting specific training on the New Urban Agenda with my staff and stakeholders, including education and awareness with councillors, local leaders and youth. In addition, I made conscious efforts to link all our city work specifically to the NUA and the SDGs. During that time, I was also the President of the Malaysian Association of Local Authorities and in that capacity, I held workshops to advocate for the localisation of the NU. Now that I am the ED of UN-Habitat, I have a much broader perspective. Instead of only looking at the city, I now incorporate the views of national, regional, territorial and local governments and work with everyone from ministers to communities to achieve the NUA and the SDGs.

Personally, I believe in teamwork and partnership; we cannot do this alone. Our role as UN-Habitat is to provide countries with the tools that they need to implement the New Urban Agenda.

I thank you and wish you the best. But before ending the conversation, please tell us few things about your inspiring journey from Mayor of the Penang to Executive Director of UN-Habitat.

I feel very privileged to have served in the positions I have, and I feel as if they have all been preparing me for my latest role leading UN-Habitat. From studying to implementing and now overseeing policy development and sharing best practice around the world, everything has been leading to this point. I feel very honoured to be leading the UN’s lead agency on the sustainable urban development and human settlements at a time when more than half of the world’s population lives in cities and it is such a critical part of our development.

I love to travel and to spend time outdoors to refresh my mind. I also enjoy farming and cooking to relieve stress. I enjoy reading books on management, leadership, motivation and self-improvement. When I finish my tenure at UN-Habitat I will retire but I hope to continue to use my experience as a planner, a mayor and as ED to give service to communities through a non-governmental organisation or community group.


References & Foot-notes:

[i] List of city/country performance rankings

      • WHO 2016 data on air pollution: 14 India cities are in the list of 20 most polluted global cities.
      • Arcadis Water Index (2017) ranking for 50 cities: Mumbai at 49 & Delhi at 50 are placed at the bottom.
      • Arcadis sustainable cities index (2016) of 100 cities measuring people, planet and prosperity performance: 4 Indian cities included in the report along with their ranks are Bengaluru (91), Mumbai (92), New Delhi (97), Kolkata (100).
      • Yale University’s Environmental performance Index (EPI 2018) ranking for 180 countries: India ranks 177th.
      • Global Competitiveness Index (GCI, 2017-18) ranking for 137 economies: India at 40th rank shows better economic performance compared to environmental.

[ii] This transcript combines in person communication with ED-UN Habitat during WUF-9, Malaysia and the subsequent electronic follow-up

[iii] Data is from UN-DESA (2015) and the World Economic Forum. The WEF defined a global city as one that holds a fraction of the 19% of the foreign-born population living in a city. This percentage can be concentrated in around 20 cities listed here: Beijing, Berlin, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Chicago, Hong Long SAR, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Moscow, New York, Paris, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto, Vienna and Washington DC

[iv] International migrants tend to stay in cities, for instance, 92% in the US and 95% in the United Kingdom.

[v] OECD Workshop on Migration and Cities, Berlin, 2017. & Mediterranean City to City Migration Project, Policy Recommendations, 2017

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