Episode 5 – Belonging to our Cities

A Conversation with Urban Planner, Mustafa Sherif

In this episode, I sit down with Mustafa Sherif (LinkedInInstagram). He is the creator and host of the URBANISTICA podcast. He is also an Urban Planner working at AFRY in Stockholm, Sweden. 

Mustafa was born in Bagdad and came to Sweden with his family at age 17. He received a degree in architecture and later when on to complete a Masters in Urban Planning and Design from the Royal Technical Institute (KTH).

This is a wide-ranging conversation with someone that has given a lot of thought into how cities should be designed and how do these decisions affect people. We cover a lot of topics including how he defines the concept of “home”, what makes a good city and how Urban Planning has changed over the years to become more inclusive. 

I hope you enjoy the joy of this fascinating interview about belonging to our cities. 

 Please find below the show notes including links to everything we talked about. 


Q (Question): Where is your favorite place and why?

A (Answer): Piazza Duomo, Milano, Italy. Because of the people. There are no trees, nor fountains, just people. Being among people, watching them even, brings joy. 

 – Jan Gehl – FAIA is a Danish architect and urban design consultant based in Copenhagen whose career has focused on improving the quality of urban life by re-orienting city design towards the pedestrian and cyclist.

Q: Where does your story start? 

A: Born in Bagdad, Iraq, in 1993. His parents’ concern and threats of security forced Mustafa’s family to move from within Bagdad to other parts of Iraq, before eventually arriving in Sweden. 

Arrived in Sweden as 17 years old, and his family decided that was no going back, Sweden was going to be permanent. 

Q; How did you get interested in Urban Planning?

A: After learning Swedish, Mustafa enrolled in university went on to study Architecture. He later went on to study Urban Planning and Design at KTH (Royal Technology University) in Stockholm. This opened up an opportunity to study in Milan as an exchange student, which he describes as one of the best experiences of his life. 

Q: Can you recall a moment where you felt like you didn’t belong?

A: Yes, every time we landed in a new place, city, or country. In the first moments, it feels like this is not our place. During these moves, we kept reminding ourselves

Q: What was it like moving to Sweden?

A: Mustafa’s moved to many different places within Iraq. He was one of 4 siblings and his father feared for his and his family’s safety. Eventually arriving in Sweden. 

His curiosity led him to ask why he felt happier in some places, and what of that is a product of the larger scale of experience, outside buildings.   

Q: How do you define “home”?

A: Home is made up of two components, the ‘hardware’ and the ‘software’. Hardware refers to physical and tangible things like a house, dwelling, or property of some kind. This is something that you own. The ‘software’ is the emotional, cultural, and spiritual aspects. It was not until his parents bought their place in Helsingborg that he was able to call this place home. Now he bought a place in Stockholm and is happy to call it his home. 

Q: How did you get into Urban Planning?

A: He always held the “vibe” of a place, and wanted to understand why he felt better in some places and worse in others. He started in architecture, but it was not his “why”. He felt that life is much larger than individual buildings. Urban planning offered a way to see how many different aspects come together to create life. 

Urban planning offers also the possibility to change things, to improve the lives of others. 

“In most dense cities in the world, 

Q: Can you explain what the Placemaking movement is about?

A: Placemaking started in the ’70s, and it has grown a lot since those early days. Placemaking is about making a space that no one likes or wants into a place where everyone feels welcomed and wants to be. It acts on the principle of co-creation and inclusion, where everyone plays a part and has a say in defining how the space should be used and transformed. It is a truly welcoming and inclusive method for creating places where everyone belongs. 

Q: Why isn’t Placemaking the norm? How was Urban planning done 20-30 years ago? 

A: Urban planning was top-down. The urban planners would create a scenario for people to follow. Little attention was paid to people’s needs. The USA is a typical example of how urban planning can go wrong. There the planning was made around the highway and cars. 

Placemaking is a global organization ( ) 

Q: What projects are you currently working on?

A: Currently I am involved in a Placemaking project in Helsingborg. We are applying this method for designing a park and public square. It will be finished in about 2 years (2023) since placemaking does take its time. 

Q: How are things changing on a Political level? How are cities changing their approach these days?

A: There is now a very clear and widespread awareness that cities and urban spaces can no longer be designed around the car. They are also looking at being more inclusive. Take Stockholm as an example, for every urban project there is a law that says that every stakeholder must be consulted, and how can this feedback be included and incorporated into the project. 

It is quite normal for Urban Planners to spend a lot of time talking to people and asking them about their wants and desires for the space. It is then their job to document and interpret these stories into decisions within the planning. 

The result will be a shift in the scale of cities. Cities will become more accessible and liveable, much in the way the cities in Italy are on the right scale. 

Rapid-fire questions

Your favorite city and why?

Milano, for the art and culture

Which place would you like to visit (that you haven’t visited before)?

Time Square, NYC. After watching it on screen, it would be great to experience it in person. 

Books that you recommend?

“Koden För En Bra Stad: Haussmanns Paris” (The code for a good city, Haussman’s Paris). A critical take on the (re)building by Napoleon 3rd. 

Where can people learn more about you and your work?

Mustafa’s Podcast, “Urbanistica”

Arch daily: 

Final words from Mustafa

Ask yourself how much space is enough for you? How can we be more aware of the space we live and use every day? People should be more conscious about the space they are using and what kind of places they would like to live in. 

Thank you for listening. Please don’t forget to like and subscribe! 


Music by Ergy, aka Hugues CoudurierFacebook

Thank you for listening! 

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