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In Oxford, UN Habitat chief urges interdisciplinary collaboration

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Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif.<br />Photo: Twitter/MaimunahSharif

The Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif has come a long way from Kuala Pilah, the rural Malaysian village in which she grew up. But she has far from forgotten her roots.

The first female mayor of Penang (the second-largest city in Malaysia) and the first Asian woman to hold the UN Habitat ED post, she has spent her first three months as ED traveling the world with one central message: bring communities, large and small, into urban planning processes.   

In a roundtable discussion hosted this past Saturday by the Oxford urbanists, ThinkCity, and the Oxford Sustainable urban Development Programme, Sharif shared her personal story, outlined her mission, and sought input from students and faculty from a diverse set of backgrounds.

Her aim, she says, is to crowd-source ideas for how to “localize” the New urban Agenda.

In Oxford, Sharif described a challenging childhood. One of six children, she would often tap rubber before making a three-mile journey to school. Her childhood home had no electricity. She did her homework under a kerosene lamp.

Such an upbringing, Sharif says, instilled into her a deep conviction for change. From the age of ten, she knew she wanted to break “the vicious cycle of poverty.” Watching her mother make sacrifices, she committed herself to advocating for female-forward approaches in whatever she did.

Sharif received a scholarship from the Malaysian government to pursue education in the UK, completing her A-levels in Bournemouth and a bachelor’s degree in urban planning at Cardiff University. Her first trip to Bournemouth was the first time she had left her hometown.

Upon graduating from university, Sharif returned to Malaysia to work as a city planner in Penang, where she rose through the ranks, eventually becoming mayor.

Among her first objectives: introducing gender-responsive participatory budgeting and planning. 

It was in her time as mayor, Sharif says, that she came to believe in the necessity of people- and culture-centered planning, in contrast to what she believed was an overemphasis on construction and architecture for its own sake.

“Urban planning is not about engineering,” Sharif opined. “It’s about inclusivity. It’s about building a community. Planners need to have this in mind before they begin anything.”

As Director of Planning for Penang and then as mayor, Sharif promoted cultural preservation through urban regeneration as a way to foster inclusive development. She was the first General Manager of the George Town World Heritage Site, inscribed by UNESCO in 2008.

For Sharif, inclusivity also means combining as many heads as possible when engaging in strategic planning, and involving communities from the start.

On her first day as Executive Director of UN Habitat, she held an internal town hall meeting aimed at promoting core values of trust, communication, and governance.


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