Posts by Author: Gregory Scruggs

Municipal Financing Is Adapting to a World of Bigger Cities

This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.

As the dust settles from the first World Urban Forum since the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, a trillion-dollar question looms large: How will the world pay for the UN’s ambitious vision of sustainable cities?

While no economist has ever put a price tag on the 20-year quest to implement the New Urban Agenda, a 2015 report called “The State of City Climate Finance” estimated a $4.5-5.4 trillion need in urban financing at the global level. With very few financial pledges made in Quito during Habitat III, it’s clear that countries will not be opening their foreign aid wallets to fully foot the bill.

That’s a major bone of contention for city leaders, like Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas, who feels a special responsibility to deliver on the New Urban Agenda as the leader of the summit’s host city. “The New Urban Agenda bestowed local governments with greater responsibilities they didn’t have in the past, but [national governments] didn’t bestow them with the necessary funding resources,” he told Next City at World Urban Forum 9.

So Rodas is taking matters into his own hands. Last December he announced a goal of zero emissions from public transit serving Quito’s old city, the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, which he hopes will be a pilot project for climate retrofitting historic districts around the world. To get there, he has been in talks with development banks and aid agencies about developing a fast-track line of financing for such projects.

“The idea of having a direct relationship with international development banks for financing could be a way to overcome a potential obstacle to reach financing if you have to go through the national government for a guarantee,” he said.

That’s the kind of creative thinking that gives hope to Sameh Wahba, who runs the World Bank’s urban program. Their financing strategy has also evolved post-Habitat III.

“Our [new] thinking comes from the realization of the limitation of our resources relative to the magnitude of the challenge,” he said. “The fact [is] that the cities needs are getting larger. Our money is no longer anything but a catalyst to larger financial flows.”

To that end, he cited the Bank’s efforts in Dhaka East to turn a flood-prone quadrant of the Bangladeshi capital into a planned urban expansion. But a bank loan alone won’t pay for the expensive new embankments and other hard infrastructure. Instead, land value capture will finance the project—the newly developable land will be worth a lot of money that municipal authorities can tax.

“By reducing the [flooding] risk you can further densify this area and create a larger development potential,” Wahba said.

Dhaka East, where a World Bank loan is just a start to get the fiscal ball rolling, is an example of the World Bank’s approach in its new City Resilience Program, which was announced in December at the One Planet Summit in Paris. Twenty-six cities, from Accra to Panama City, are poised to receive these catalytic World Bank loans.

Once the pump is primed, Wahba is confident that the private sector will invest to turn sustainable urban infrastructure plans into reality. Even though business and banking leaders were more likely spotted in Davos at the World Economic Forum than in Kuala Lumpur at the World Urban Forum, Wahba sees plenty of interest from pension and sovereign wealth funds in making a profit off of new, serviced urban land where there was once something rural.

For urbanization, he said, “There is a major demand from the private sector.”

 

Municipal Financing Is Adapting to a World of Bigger Cities

This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.

As the dust settles from the first World Urban Forum since the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, a trillion-dollar question looms large: How will the world pay for the UN’s ambitious vision of sustainable cities?

While no economist has ever put a price tag on the 20-year quest to implement the New Urban Agenda, a 2015 report called “The State of City Climate Finance” estimated a $4.5-5.4 trillion need in urban financing at the global level. With very few financial pledges made in Quito during Habitat III, it’s clear that countries will not be opening their foreign aid wallets to fully foot the bill.

That’s a major bone of contention for city leaders, like Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas, who feels a special responsibility to deliver on the New Urban Agenda as the leader of the summit’s host city. “The New Urban Agenda bestowed local governments with greater responsibilities they didn’t have in the past, but [national governments] didn’t bestow them with the necessary funding resources,” he told Next City at World Urban Forum 9.

So Rodas is taking matters into his own hands. Last December he announced a goal of zero emissions from public transit serving Quito’s old city, the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, which he hopes will be a pilot project for climate retrofitting historic districts around the world. To get there, he has been in talks with development banks and aid agencies about developing a fast-track line of financing for such projects.

“The idea of having a direct relationship with international development banks for financing could be a way to overcome a potential obstacle to reach financing if you have to go through the national government for a guarantee,” he said.

That’s the kind of creative thinking that gives hope to Sameh Wahba, who runs the World Bank’s urban program. Their financing strategy has also evolved post-Habitat III.

“Our [new] thinking comes from the realization of the limitation of our resources relative to the magnitude of the challenge,” he said. “The fact [is] that the cities needs are getting larger. Our money is no longer anything but a catalyst to larger financial flows.”

To that end, he cited the Bank’s efforts in Dhaka East to turn a flood-prone quadrant of the Bangladeshi capital into a planned urban expansion. But a bank loan alone won’t pay for the expensive new embankments and other hard infrastructure. Instead, land value capture will finance the project—the newly developable land will be worth a lot of money that municipal authorities can tax.

“By reducing the [flooding] risk you can further densify this area and create a larger development potential,” Wahba said.

Dhaka East, where a World Bank loan is just a start to get the fiscal ball rolling, is an example of the World Bank’s approach in its new City Resilience Program, which was announced in December at the One Planet Summit in Paris. Twenty-six cities, from Accra to Panama City, are poised to receive these catalytic World Bank loans.

Once the pump is primed, Wahba is confident that the private sector will invest to turn sustainable urban infrastructure plans into reality. Even though business and banking leaders were more likely spotted in Davos at the World Economic Forum than in Kuala Lumpur at the World Urban Forum, Wahba sees plenty of interest from pension and sovereign wealth funds in making a profit off of new, serviced urban land where there was once something rural.

For urbanization, he said, “There is a major demand from the private sector.”

 

How Politics Derailed a Small Town’s Embrace of Its Migrants

This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.

Tiny Sala, Sweden, is a quiet place 75 miles northwest of Stockholm, home to a famous medieval silver mine and not much else. But in 2015, the 12,000-person town became one of the many experiments across Europe in how to integrate a sudden influx of newcomers.

In the throes of the migrant crisis that saw hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East make treacherous journeys to reach a perceived safe haven in Europe, Sala became the new home of about 165 adults and families, and another 300 unaccompanied minors. Most hailed from Syria and Afghanistan, and didn’t speak a lick of Swedish.

Sweden, a self-proclaimed “humanitarian superpower” with a track record of embracing refugees, received the most migrants per capita of any European country in 2015. All this goodwill has led to glitches, however, and at times the Scandinavian nation of 10 million people has struggled to process so many unexpected new arrivals.

But in Sala—which was chosen to receive the migrants because one of its local hotels was not being used at the time—the process went smoothly. Carola Gunnarsson, who has been mayor since 2003 and who spoke at a special session on migration at this week’s World Urban Forum, was part of the welcoming party. As she managed the arrival of her town’s newest residents, she came away with a vital lesson.

“You have to start the integration process from the first day,” she said.

That meant first making the newcomers feel welcome. Groups from local churches, civic clubs, and soccer teams came to the hotel every day bearing toiletries, toys, and sweaters for the cold Swedish weather. Volunteers played with the kids and taught them local handicrafts. Swedish language lessons began almost immediately. “I was very proud,” Gunnarsson said. “The whole town embraced them.”

The job quickly turned to the nuts and bolts of integration: How to turn these newcomers into productive members of society. Within three weeks, the children were in school. Adults had jobs working in local small businesses. Before long, some of the refugees were even members of the local soccer team. “It was a uniformly positive experience at this stage of the situation,” the mayor said.

Then, the rules changed. Amid rising anti-migrant sentiment in national politics, the Swedish Migration Board decided to move all of Sala’s migrants who had not yet found permanent housing to a location further north. Supposedly, it would be cheaper and more efficient to house everyone in a single encampment. Then asylum seekers lost the right to work until their visas had been processed, which can take up to three years. Suddenly, the migrants who had found jobs at local farms and businesses in Sala were out of work, and budding schoolmates, teammates, and colleagues were isolated from each other.

In a blink of an eye, Sala’s experiment in successful integration of migrants was dissolved by the national government.

“I’m frustrated because I think there’s a place for them in Sweden and in my municipality,” Gunnarsson said.

Sala’s experience is by no means the case for all of Europe, and Gunnarsson readily admits that a smaller town like hers can more easily mobilize the community to come out and help a relatively small number of incoming migrants.

Mannheim, Germany, by contrast, has absorbed 10,000 migrants from southeastern Europe in the last eight years. As a data-driven city leader, Mayor Peter Kurz is less convinced about the salutary effect of migration. “We don’t have the data [to show a positive impact],” he said. “What we see are the challenges—people in the welfare system, people unemployed.”

But Gunnarsson remains steadfast that the Sala experiment was on the right track.

“The government needs to change the rules for us at the local level so we can take responsibility for asylum seekers,” she said. “I see them as the workforce of the future.”

 

The UN’s Top Environmentalist Isn’t Afraid of Cities

A couple in Beijing takes a selfie on one of the city's rare "blue sky" days. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.

There may be better known climate evangelists like Al Gore and Bill McKibben, but in the clubhouse of environmentalists with the ability to effect real change, there may be no more prominent figure than Erik Solheim. As the head of the United Nations Environmental Programme, the former Norwegian minister has one of the world’s foremost bully pulpits to talk about the importance of environmental action.

For centuries, cities have been seen as environmentally destructive, choked with air pollution and industrial runoff. And while many still struggle with the ecological repercussions of bad development, others—even famously polluted Beijing—appear to be turning a corner, implementing greener policies and building for a more sustainable future. Today, in fact, it’s often said that cities are the world’s best chance at averting the catastrophic effects of environmental decline. At World Urban Forum 9, Next City checked in with Solheim to find out whether he agrees, and how an environmentalist views the future in an increasingly urbanized world.

Are urban dwellers the best environmentalists?

There’s a lot of truth in that. You can much more easily use most transport systems if you live in a city. It’s much easier than having a private car. People also tend to use less energy, because it’s more energy efficient living in a building where a lot of the other people are living.

Former UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos was fond of saying “urbanization is a tool for development.” Do you think that urbanization is also a tool for environmental sustainability?

The huge global population can only be accommodated by most people living in cities. If you take Africa as an example, where we have the most rapid population growth, people have to be distributed. There are huge environmental benefits by urbanization.

But most importantly with this strong global trend towards moving into cities, we need planned energy-efficient cities with mass transit systems and a good system for garbage. There are huge opportunities for people moving to cities. And no nation will move into prosperity without urbanization. We should not at all be afraid of urbanization.

Is there a flip side to urbanization’s role in environmental sustainability? Groups like C40 claim that cities are responsible for the majority of the world’s carbon emissions, which is why they argue cities should be the ones to act first. Is urban living with economic growth compatible with a low-carbon lifestyle?

It’s absolutely compatible. The idea that we can defeat environmental problems while stopping economic development and growth is completely flawed. In the developed part of the world, we have had a basically complete de-coupling of all polluters, except the climate polluters, from economic growth. Norway has doubled their GDP in the last 20 to 30 years, while pollution is less.

As natural disasters increase in frequency, cities seem to be abandoning mitigation talk and focusing more and more on climate adaptation. Should mitigation still be just as important as adaptation?

It should be, and it is. The most amazing fact at the moment is that the price of solar, wind and other renewable energies can now compete with coal anywhere in the world, and in America there are five times more jobs in the solar than in the coal industry. China and India are shelving a huge number of planned coal plants, simply because they can go solar. Next month, Prime Minister Modi in India will be launching the global solar alliance, and President Macron of France will try and drastically reduce pollution in big cities to improve air quality. But it’s very good for climate at the same time. There’s no choice to be made between adaptation and mitigation. You need to do both.

I’m hearing less mitigation talk from cities, though, and more focus on adaptation.

I want to challenge that opinion. It’s exactly opposite of what’s happening in huge parts of the world—in China and India, close to 40 percent of humanity—so what’s happening there is of incredible importance. Look at the number of cities now moving into electrical mobility and bike sharing. In Norway, one-third of all cars sold are electrical, 50 percent of all cars are electrical plus hybrid. Europe is moving into restricting private cars, like Mayor Anne Hidalgo in Paris. Ten years back in Paris, there were motorways along the Seine.

There’s a huge move, maybe as much driven by the ambition to make cities green and livable as by climate issues, but that’s fine. China is drastically reducing coal, which, again, I think is more motivated by livable cities and less pollution than it’s about climate, but the result is the same.

Do you have a vision for what cities will look like when they’ve abandoned this kind of fossil-fuel infrastructure? There are two gas stations in sight of each other along the commercial corridor closest to where I live in Seattle, and everyday I walk by wondering if they will still be there in ten years.

I’m fairly sure they will not be there, because you see a drastic and rapid movement towards electrical vehicles. All car makers in the entire world, whether it’s General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota, or the Chinese, they’re all making electrical vehicles. At the end of the day, it will be government action and city action that defines how fast the transformation comes, because you need charging stations, market regulations, and price incentives. But I think it will come very fast, just that some cities will do it first and then when that happens, all will follow.

Sometimes of those moves leave people behind, though. The Port of Seattle is facing a walkout because truck drivers—largely immigrants earning near minimum wage—view tighter emissions regulations that require more recent engines as a cost burden that’s putting them out of business.

More often than not, this is a completely false idea. Electrical mobility is, throughout the lifespan of the car, cheaper, and in the future it will be much, much cheaper.

But we pay for this technology upfront at a higher cost.

Upfront costs may sometimes be higher, and that may sometimes be a big issue for low-income people, but that’s just a matter of organizing the financial market so that you pay over time.

There will always be resistance to change—that’s been throughout history. Nokia went from the biggest phone maker to the tenth biggest in a year and a half because they didn’t believe in smartphones. Those that try to oppose this change, they’re going to lose. If people in some parts of the U.S. oppose the change, the market will go to China, India, or to other parts of the U.S. You need to embrace change, but change in such a way that it will take care of low-income people.

 

Singapore Is Creating a Subterranean Master Plan

This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.

Yingxin Zhou works as a mining engineer in a country with no mines. He’s from Singapore, a city-state of 5.6 million residents spread over just 277 square miles. “We don’t have gold, oil, or diamonds,” he said at this week’s World Urban Forum 9. “But we mine something equally precious: space.”

The central government of Singapore, which sets ambitious goals for economic growth, envisions the population growing to 6.9 million by 2030 in order to keep up with GDP objectives. That means fitting another 1.3 million residents on an island three-fifths the size of New York City.

Singapore has been reclaiming land from the sea since independence, but that’s proving increasingly unsustainable in an era of global climate change and sea-level rise. So where else to go?

Underground.

The country has been moving as much as possible below ground in recent years to free up space, making it a global leader in the underground urbanism movement. Beyond the obvious — like a subway system — a short list of assets that government planners have moved underground in recent years include the world’s largest district cooling system, a water reclamation system that conserves every drop, and even ammunition for the Singapore Armed Forces. Oh, and the country is doubling the size of its rail network, adding another 113 miles by 2030, all underground.

Singapore has invested $188 million in underground technology R&D and reformed its land laws so that homeowners own only the underground space up their basement. This allows the government to use the deeper land without facing private property issues. It’s even working on an underground-space master plan. Prioritizing underground infrastructure despite its higher upfront cost upends some traditional notions about how to build.

“The default option for all utilities is underground,” Zhou said. “If you do not go underground, you must argue for it.” That kind of attitude would be music to the ears of those who lost their electricity during last year’s U.S. hurricanes, as American municipal utilities have been gun-shy about investing in more resilient — but more expensive — underground power lines.

Singapore is at the forefront of a global trend as rising urban density forces cities to think creatively about how to carve out additional space. For a city like Singapore, even putting something like a freight train on the surface seems like a waste of valuable real estate. So the city has built a 23-mile tunnel system to move goods between two aboveground industrial estates.

“When we get 20 hectares of land back, people will be more accepting of the idea of getting our city back from the infrastructure that has strangled it,” argued ARUP engineer Mark Wallace.

Space-starved Hong Kong, where there is no more flat land and height restrictions are hampering further verticality, is another early adopter. The city was honored at last year’s International Tunneling Association Awards for its proposed network of underground caverns that could store everything from cars to data centers to wine.

But Wallace looks to Scandinavia, where land is plentiful, as the progenitor of the underground space movement. Helsinki has been digging into its stable bedrock since the 1960s and was the first city to create an underground master plan as part of a strategy to combat sprawl — why grow out when you can grow down? In the Nordic cold, the subterranean warmth has also helped heat underground swimming pools. From hockey rinks to a church, the Finnish capital is home to an entire underground city, which also doubles as a training ground for the Finnish army should the Russians invade again. (To be fair, Montréal has had an underground city since 1962.)

While David Bowie’s character in the 1980s cult-classic “Labyrinth” sang that he wanted to live underground, humans aren’t exactly bats. Scandinavia has also been at the forefront of regulations for workers confined to underground spaces, mandating 30-minute aboveground breaks as part of its local labor regulations. Hong Kong, where Wallace is based, isn’t so kind. There, he said, the attitude is that spending hours underground “is part of the job and it just becomes second nature.”

Wallace also said there are human-centered design guidelines that can help alleviate the monotony and claustrophobia of underground spaces. The kinds of best practices that he promotes as chairperson of the Advanced Research Centers for the Urban Underground Space are vital.

“If you are going to build underground, you should do it properly,” he said. “Tall buildings are dead easy to take down. The underground? Not so easy.”

 

Reliance on Google Maps Street View Could Create an Urban Digital Divide

A Google Maps depiction of Arroyo Sarandí in Avellaneda

This week, planners, policymakers and urban practitioners from across the world are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9. This story is part of Next City’s coverage of the Forum. For more stories, visit our World Urban Forum 9 page here.

Residents of Avellaneda, a working-class suburb of Buenos Aires with a busy port, have been complaining for years about pollution and trash clogging up the Arroyo Sarandí, a stream that snakes through the town and has fallen victim to heavy industrial use along its banks. But people live along the banks, too, part of the informal populations that dot the Argentine capital’s metropolitan area in so-called villas misérias.

In post after post on YouTube, local blogs and community media document the precarious nature of life in wooden shanties alongside the toxic creek, which is prone to flooding and where noxious gases can cause vomiting.

But you wouldn’t know any of that if you took a Google Maps Street View tour of Avellaneda. A team of researchers at The New School in New York and the University of Buenos Aires used Avellaneda, home to over 300,000 people, as a case study in what they call the emerging “urban digital divide” between places visible on the platform and those that are not.

Try touring any of the streets where residents complain about the deplorable environmental conditions next to their homes, and the yellow humanoid icon that serves as the Google Maps Street View avatar won’t enter. At some of the few formal street crossings of Arroyo Sarandí, much of which has been paved over, Google Maps Street View shows at worst a dry streambed and, at best, a muddy, but clean-looking river.

“You will never know what is really happening in the bad parts of the city,” New School professor Margarita Gutman told Next City during this week’s World Urban Forum 9, an event where optimistic visions of data-driven cities are on full display.

At a time when Google Maps Street View can even display remote trails in Yosemite National Park, Gutman and her team of researchers worry that the Silicon Valley cartography tool is leaving behind people who live in the urban shadows.

“Google Maps Street View is crucial because it is a proxy to the formal city,” she said, and one with increasing relevance in academic circles that can inform policymaking. Recent groundbreaking research used machine learning and Street View to accurately predict U.S. socio-economic demographics based on the make and model of cars parked in front of people’s houses. MIT is using Street View to map out urban expansion. Google itself has cross-checked air quality and pollution monitors against its Bay Area footage.

But with an estimated one billion people living in urban informality throughout the world, fully one-seventh of humanity is at risk of being left behind in the high-tech era of AI and machine learning.

In cities where Google has already sent its famous camera-equipped cars, even highly visible places remain largely out of view. In Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela and a community with many of the trappings of the formal city, Street View shows just two main roads, but not the thousands of alleys where the bulk of the community’s several-hundred-thousand residents live. And it’s not as though the technology doesn’t exist. The tech giant’s “Trekker” backpack offers a camera equipped for two-legged rather than four-wheeled exploration.

Meanwhile, in cities where Google Maps Street View has yet to train its lens, like Nairobi and Mumbai, the precedent set in cities like Rio and Buenos Aires doesn’t bode well for counting in places like Kibera and Dharavi.

All this concerns Gutman because of increasingly prevailing attitudes among urban professionals that metrics and measurement define municipal priorities — call it the Michael Bloomberg effect for his famous dictum: “In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.”

Describing this attitude, Gutman cautioned, “What is not visible doesn’t exist, and if it doesn’t exist, we don’t have to take care of it.”

 

Next City’s Guide to World Urban Forum 9

(Photo: Nazmi Hamidi)

Twenty thousand people. Eight days. Hundreds of sessions. World Urban Forum 9 in Kuala Lumpur promises to be one of the year’s most ambitious gatherings for planners, policymakers and urbanist practitioners. To bring focus to the Forum’s scope, Next City pulled out some of the events and discussions you won’t want to miss. This is just a sampling—the full agenda offers much more.

Deep Dive on Data

For the urbanist quants, there are plenty of numbers-heavy sessions to whet your appetite for figures. Panels will tackle the state of national statistical measurements for following global progress on the SDGs, big data, how data can improve lives in informal settlements, tracking national commitments to the New Urban Agenda, data for better public spaces, urban economics, risk-informed decision making, and measuring urban governance around the world.

Cities Facing Climate Change

Mayors the world over profess that they are best poised to tackle global climate change. What are cities saying about it at WUF9? Tune in to the role of urban planning and land use, how to grapple with climate change in informal settlements, coastal communities in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, a briefing on the #CitiesIPCC conference in Edmonton come March, and C40’s reinventing cities competition.

Housing at the Center

Housing activists campaigned for housing to be “at the center” of the New Urban Agenda. Did they get their wish? Check out a high-level roundtable on that very question. For more pin-point discussions, there are clusters of sessions on informal settlements and the thorny issue of forced evictions. Lots of chatter will cover a global issue — affordable housing — via inclusionary zoning, case studies, density, Portuguese-speaking Africa, innovative models in India, and Malaysia’s unique challenges.

Asia Rising

The world’s most populous continent is urbanizing at a dizzying rate. Want to get a grip on the state of Asian cities and where they’re going? Learn about broad continent-wide dialogues like how Asia can implement the New Urban Agenda (and Southeast Asia, too), how to encourage participatory budgeting in Asian cities, and what wisdom Asian women mayors can offer. Dig into national conversations on Vietnam’s national urban policy, Malaysian urbanization, or the state of Indonesian cities. Go local with a chat about resilience in Hong Kong or hop on a site visit to see Kuala Lumpur or Penang up close and personal.

Migration Matters

There are more refugees and displaced persons in the world right now than at any time since World War II. Can cities handle the influx of newcomers? What about cities losing their best and brightest who seek greener pastures elsewhere? This hot-button issue will be examined from multiple angles. One session will emphasize the positive contributions made by migrants, while another looks at both challenges and opportunities. Can urban planning integrate migrants? With the Mediterranean serving as a major crossing point, two sessions will offer advice for Arab cities. Finally, a case study of a Somali city, Baidoa, dealing with displacement.

Odds and Ends

Underground spaces, landscape design in Asia, implementing the New Urban Agenda in the tropics, integrated transportation in Cairo, and the International New Town Institute presents the 500 Mile City.

 

Urbanizing Malaysia Reflects the Future of East Asia

(Photo by Matiinu Ramadhan)

More people live in cities in East Asia than in any other region in the world. Families that a generation ago were rice farmers now ride commuter trains and frequent shopping malls. Home to 31 million people, Malaysia is larger than Australia and over 50 percent urban. Next month’s ninth World Urban Forum will provide a close-up look at the region’s rapidly growing cities, with Kuala Lumpur as the on-site case study.

Malaysia represents a middle ground between the lesser and more developed countries of the region. With the lowest poverty rate and the highest GDP per capita, a common comparative measure of national wealth, Malaysia trails only Singapore and miniscule Brunei the economic leader of Southeast Asia. But in terms of number of city-dwellers, highly urbanized Malaysia is more like the major East Asian economic powers of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, whom it still lags behind in terms of economic output. As a result, Malaysia may reflect the future of developing East Asian countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, from the financial hub of its capital, Kuala Lumpur, to the foreign-investment magnet of Johor Bahru.

Next City spoke with Khairiah Talha, former president of the Malaysian Institute of Planners, about how the World Urban Forum host country is setting the pace for urbanization in Southeast Asia.

Malaysia’s urban population increased by over 10 percent from 2000 to 2014. How has the country dealt with rapid urbanization?
Malaysia formulated its first National Urbanization Policy in 2006. This was the first national policy that dealt specifically with rapid urbanization. In 2017, the second National Urbanization Policy (NUP2) was launched by the prime minister. The custodian of the policy comes under the Ministry of Urban Well Being, Housing and Local Government.

The hierarchy of plans are closely followed by all agencies and departments at the various levels of government. There may be circumstances that warrant some changes to the legislated plans, but generally, urban development and growth are guided by these plans.

Besides these physical plans, the national government also reaffirms its position on urban development and growth in its five-year economic blueprints. For example, the 11th Malaysia Plan (2016-2020) has an urban policy strategy that calls for compact cities, transit-oriented development, good quality homes, reducing carbon emissions, and increasing the use of renewable energy.

Above all, the goal is for Malaysian cities to be comparable with major cities around the world.

What is the role of cities in Malaysia’s National Transformation Plan 2050?
The National Transformation Plan 2050 is an initiative for the future of Malaysia to transform itself into a developed nation and among the top countries in the world in economic development, citizen well-being and innovation.

Cities in Malaysia will play a leading role towards this end. Seventy-five percent of the country’s GDP is generated in cities. Forty-six percent of the urban population are youth (15-40 years of age), who are encouraged to talk about their future as part of youth engagement in the transformation plan.

In the meantime, cities in Malaysia are making efforts to go digital with artificial intelligence and cloud computing capabilities. The growth of smart cities in most major cities in Malaysia is part of the national strategy. Many cities already have their smart city blueprint, such as Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, Johor Bahru, Petaling Jaya, George Town, Melaka. Many more are following suit.

In what ways is Malaysia a model for urbanization in Southeast Asia?
Besides Singapore, which has put in place the right policies and strategies for urban development, Malaysia stands to be the next best in terms of urban development among cities in Southeast Asia. There are many good examples of urban development initiatives that can be emulated in other cities.

The Kuala Lumpur City Center, where the World Urban Forum will be held, is a compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented redevelopment home to the iconic Petronas Twin Towers and the KL Sentral train station. There are river beautification projects along Kuala Lumpur’s River of Life, the Melaka River, the Kucing Waterfront, and the Sungai Seget transformation in Johor Bahru.

Public transportation has been expanded in the greater Kuala Lumpur initiatives of commuter rail, light rail, metro, and bus rapid transit. Free bus service is available in George Town, Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Shah Alam, and Subang. There are increasing numbers of bicycle lanes and widening pedestrian footpaths in Penang, Kuala Lumpur, and nearby surrounding cities.

Finally, cities are reducing carbon emissions through increased landscaping and planting of trees, preservation of existing parks and forest reserves, and expansion of green spaces by imposing conditions on private developers to provide for more parks in their developments.

 

UN-Habitat’s First Muslim Leader Will Welcome the World to Malaysia

Maimunah Mohd Sharif (Credit: Penang Island City Council, MBPP)

Next month’s ninth World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur will be a coming out event for Maimunah Mohd Sharif, one of the most prominent mayors in Malaysia — not because she will be showcasing her home municipality of Penang Island, but because she will be taking the helm of UN-Habitat, the United Nations’ lead agency on urban issues.

In December, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Sharif, who had served just six months as mayor of Penang Island, an island city popular for its historic district with a population of 738,500. She was confirmed unanimously by the UN General Assembly. Sharif will be the first Asian, first Muslim, and second woman to lead the Nairobi-based agency.

The 56-year-old married mother of two holds a Bachelor of Science in town planning studies from the University of Wales Institutes of Science and Technology and a Master of Science in planning studies from the University of Science, Malaysia.

A career town planner, she began working in the trenches of Penang Island’s Municipal Council in 1985. In 2003, she was promoted to director of planning and development, where she oversaw island-wide planning and urban renewal schemes for the island’s largest settlement, George Town. And in 2009, she became the first general manager of George Town World Heritage Incorporated, an entity formed to oversee the UNESCO World Heritage site at the historic colonial port, established in 2008.

Last year, she was appointed mayor by the state government — local elections were suspended in 1965 — but she barely had time to settle into that role before being confirming to her international appointment on Dec. 22.

Sharif described the new position, for which she was headhunted and did not apply, as “bittersweet” because it will mean leaving behind the plans she had made for Penang Island. “But it is a positive thing and an opportunity for me to work under the UN flag and deal with global issues,” she told the Malaysia Star.

In the weeks since her appointment, colleagues and peers from across the globe consulted by Next City have showered her with praise, calling her “a confident, reliable leader” and “very warm and highly personable.”

“Maimunah is a true local soul,” says United Cities and Local Governments Secretary-General Emilia Saiz. “She has important technical skills and has worked in the field on public space, resilience and all the challenges that cities need to face. She is an activist and true champion on the links between the global goals and the local actions.”

Several former colleagues pointed to the significance of appointing a woman to the leadership role. Cecilia Ng from the Penang Women’s Development Corporation called Sharif “a feisty person and very committed to her job” when the two worked together to establish a gender-responsive budget in the Penang town of Seberang Jaya in the early 2010s.

Ng was impressed by Sharif’s push as councilwoman to allocate funds for the gender-responsive budget and for her willingness to open the process up to the general public for participatory budgeting. “She was very open to new and innovative ideas, which the gender-responsive budget was at that time,” Ng says.

Anwar Fazal, chairperson of Think City, a Malaysian urban advocacy NGO, pointed out the symbolism of her background. “In this age of rampant Islamophobia, she would also be a great model of a Muslim professional woman wearing a headscarf leading a UN agency,” he says.

Fazal praised her efforts leading George Town World Heritage Incorporated. “She had to build it from scratch,” he says. “She worked with UN agencies and fully with civil society groups who she knew played the key role in getting the city listed as a heritage site of UNESCO.” Others see the UNESCO listing as too successful — The Guardian cited George Town as a case study of “Unesco-cide,” when heritage tourism overwhelms a historic community and destroys what made it special in the first place.

As she transitions to the international arena, Sharif will face bigger challenges. Chief among them: how to restore donor confidence in UN-Habitat. Last year, the agency’s governing body approved a two-year, $500 million budget for an ambitious global program of work that includes implementing the New Urban Agenda, a 20-year urbanization roadmap adopted at the Habitat III summit in 2016. But under the leadership of the outgoing executive director, former Barcelona Mayor Joan Clos, funding from member states has plummeted.

“I am sure she is perfectly aware that the donor confidence is just one of the many challenges she will face when taking the driver seat of the UN-Habitat,” noted ICLEI’s Yunus Arikan, who worked with her closely in the run-up to Habitat III and sees her background, personality, and leadership style as “an extremely valuable asset” in upcoming meetings with donor countries.

Early signs to that effect are promising. “Given that the secretary-general has proven to have a good hand in personal decisions and indications I got from people who know her are very positive, I think that there is reason for optimism,” says German diplomat Franz Marré. “We look forward to a personal meeting at World Urban Forum 9.”

 

From Quito to Kuala Lumpur: What to Expect From World Urban Forum 9

(Photo: Naim Fadil)

Fifteen months ago, 50,000 people gathered in Quito, Ecuador, for Habitat III, the United Nations’ conference on human settlements that takes place every 20 years. At the four-day summit, 167 countries agreed on a voluntary, non-binding agreement known as the New Urban Agenda that had been painstakingly negotiated over months of diplomatic talks and years of gathering global input. Crafted from hard demographic data and moving personal stories, the 23-page document calls for compact cities, polycentric growth, transit-oriented development, adequate public space and reining in sprawl.

A little over a year later, the focus now shifts to implementation.

That’s the task that will bring delegates from across the globe to Kuala Lumpur for World Urban Forum 9 (WUF9). Whereas Habitat III was a broad, UN-wide assessment of cities’ role in creating a more equitable, sustainable world, the UN-Habitat-hosted WUF9 is a roll-up-the-sleeves opportunity for city leaders and urban practitioners to turn the aspirations of the New Urban Agenda into a reality.

WUF9 will offer urbanists from around the world an immersive space in which to share ideas and collaborate in advance of the U.N.’s annual review of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in July. The SDGs are a wide-ranging roadmap to improve the planet; each year a different set of goals are voluntarily reviewed by countries who present their progress – or lack thereof – on key issues like poverty, healthcare, and education. This year will be the first time that cities will be on the docket, as the global community reviews its progress on SDG 11, the so-called “urban SDG.”

But even though the SDGs were agreed upon by all U.N. member states at a star-studded gala in 2015 whose attendees ranged from Pope Francis to Shakira, there are still no hard and fast measurements ascribed to the targets in Goal 11, which among other things calls for countries to “strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage” and “provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.”

Kuala Lumpur could be the place where such concrete measurements get established. The creation of monitoring frameworks for sustainable cities would help convert the political promise of the SDGs into action. Clear goals and targets from the UN could guide countries in their efforts to adopt and implement SDG-oriented policies. And if the urbanist community can come up with concrete ways for countries to improve their cities and measure the results, the ideals of the New Urban Agenda could utlimately be reflected in the minutiae of laws and regulations.

UN-Habitat is the UN’s lead agency on urban issues and it will be collecting feedback and best practices in the Malaysian capital to feed into the July review of the urban SDG. The forum will also be a coming out party for former Penang Island city council mayor Maimunah Mohd Sharif, who will make her first public appearance as UN-Habitat Executive Director in her home country. She will offer a vision for her first five-year mandate at the Nairobi-based agency, as well as work to cultivate new funding streams, which shrank under the leadership of outgoing executive director, former Barcelona mayor Joan Clos.

UN-Habitat’s work in Kuala Lumpur will be buttressed by the stakeholders who participated in the Habitat III process that delivered the New Urban Agenda: civil society and local governments. Civil society groups, from business representatives to indigenous leaders, coalesced under an umbrella called the General Assembly of Partners (GAP) in order to speak with a unified voice during the New Urban Agenda negotiations. Now they hope to see their hard work translated into actual policy.

“The New Urban Agenda established the principles and policy architecture for a better urban future,” said GAP Vice-President Greg Budworth of Compass Housing Services, an Australian NGO. “WUF9 is the major UN-Habitat forum post-Quito and it is anticipated that implementation guidelines for nations with the important role of stakeholders clearly described would be a good outcome.”

At major international forums like WUF9, mayors speak through their global network, United Cities and Local Governments. The network’s new secretary-general Emilia Saiz anticipates an important debate to refine the technical details around the New Urban Agenda.

“We would like to see a clear monitoring framework that involves all stakeholders,” she said, adding that the current political climate provides an important additional element. “We would like to defend the legacy of Habitat III that might be lost due to the current national and international context where there is a newfound focus on sovereignty and recentralization.”

 



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Architect Mahmood Fallahian

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