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Urban Utopia: The Ideal City doesn't exist

Liveable Cities & Sustainable Urban Development 

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Who is Mustafa Sherif?

When Mustafa Sherif was at University he would hide when it was time to give a presentation. Public speaking was a nightmare for him. However, a passion for making cities liveable made him realise the importance of community engagement, sharing conversations, listening and speaking. He now hosts and has recorded over 400 episodes of the Urbanistica Podcast - An international podcast about the making of smarter and more liveable cities. He’s also Urban Planner & Studio Manager at AFRY and Placemaker EU Leader.
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The Urbanista podcast met up with Mustafa for a fascinating chat about liveable cities, the Nordics, placemaking and 15 minute cities. But first we wanted to know, what motivates him?

“I’m motivated by a love for making cities for people. I do anything possible to make cities liveable: urban planning, community engagement, placemaking, etc, sharing conversations, all the things an urban planner loves.
When I see families and children are happy in the city, I can see our projects have changed people’s lives. In the beginning of my career, we went to a school and talked to children to try and understand their dreams and needs and it was very emotional. I saw kids with physical problems because they didn’t have a lot of physical space to move, no playgrounds, very urban, etc. And the teacher told me that they are suffering because there is no chance for them to move.
I realised how the work of urban planners can affect people’s lives. I realised the impact of what we do. How we can create good lives. So, I promised myself I would try to change this as much as possible.”

How did we get to this place where our cities are designed around mobility and cars and transport?

“It’s a sad story. The transition to modernism started around seventy years ago. We started to dream of modern cities where one person has designed a person’s life based on their own assumptions and ideas. Usually, this person was an architect or planner, etc. We focused on many things, but not on people. That’s why this cooperation is important. It should not just be one person’s view, that doesn’t work.”

What is your focus now?

“I work a lot with social sustainability. The challenges of social segregation, which is relevant to my work in Stockholm, and how to make cities liveable during different times.”

Sustainability is often divided into three areas: materials, economy, social. Are Nordic cities treating these three elements equally, or is the social aspect often forgotten?

“For me, the social aspect is my focus. However, it depends on the city and the priorities are often connected to budget. Barcelona is very socially minded, Paris more on the ecological aspect, others concentrate on building roads. We can say that the shift is generally toward cities for people.”

Are Nordic cities more advanced than other cities?

“There is an outdated image of the Nordic cities. I hear people talking about a Nordic image from many, many years ago. What is happening now is not the same as that image.
Every city has its challenges, there is no utopia and there never will be. In the top ten cities to live in we see Nordic cities, but it depends on the criteria. Just look at how different the Nordic cities are. They all have their challenges.”

Which do you think are most liveable?

“It’s so difficult to compare. In terms of tech, Sweden is second only to Silicon Valley. But they do not have cycling infrastructure like in Denmark. Every city does something well, but cities are complex and none of them is leading all the others.”

Are enough places applying Placemaking principles to their urban planning?

“There’s a lot happening. It’s often placemaking by other names. Also, the principles and method of placemaking are not fixed but instead change according to the local context. But overall, we can see it’s moving in the right direction, it’s becoming well known and more implemented.”

Are there examples of Placemaking from the podcast?

“Many. You can find them on the placemaking website. I can give you the example of a City in Sweden where the main square was unsafe, for different reasons. We invited stakeholders: shop owners, students, members of the church, residents, and we asked, ‘this is our place, how can we make this place safe? What can we do to make a positive change to this place.’ They then came up with action plans, but we also divided up the responsibilities moving forward. This was positive, it took time, years, but now I go there, and I get a thumbs up.”

Is a lack of money a problem in Placemaking?

“Placemaking is good because the city doesn’t necessarily need to be the sole financier. And these things work better when different groups are invested. then it will last a long time.”

Lately there has been a lot of controversy regarding 15 minute cities. It seems like a brilliant idea. Why do you think there is pushback?

“I love the idea of 15 minute cities. The principle of proximity of services, timesaving, the energy saving, the connection with people.  It meets resistance because it would be a lot of change, requiring a lot of work and unknowns for our leaders. But in my opinion, that should be the job of leaders. Push for ideas. Prioritise people. 15 minute cities are finally a clear idea, concept and gives us a clear vision to work toward.” 

Can it work for any city?

“It’s not copy-paste. Cities have been built in different ways. we are talking about the vision. An idea we can take and apply to our own cities.”

How would you like to be remembered?

“I want to be remembered for the stories I am recording. It’s a documentation of different stories about city life so people can compare. Storytelling throughout history was the connection between places. People doing good things should be telling people what they are doing to show what we are producing, what we are achieving. Storytelling, communication skills are number one.”

Do you have any final messages you want to share with us?

“1.When it comes to storytelling, you have to practise. I used to hide from presentations, but then I realise their importance, so I practised until I was good at it.
2. It’s not about projects and design, it’s about ourselves. we need to reflect, think, think on what we do and create and our mission. every line we throw will have an impact on people.”

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