Can podcasts change our cities?

Welcome to the second episode of my podcast. This time I invited Mustafa Sharif, who is an urban planner at AFRY, podcaster and urban influencer at Urbanistica podcast, TEDxTalk content researcher and Co-Coach at TEDxTalk Stockholm and also a Placemaking Europe leader.

Marcin Żebrowski: Mustafa, thank you for coming here. 

Mustafa Sherif: Thank you so much. I’m honoured to be here. 

It’s, to be honest, a bigger honour to me because I’m just starting with my podcast in English. I admire how you grew your podcast, so thank you one more time.

Thank you, I’m really happy that you invited me because we share the same passion – we want to contribute to creating content. I was so happy to see that you want to scale your podcast up and make it more international. So I will be so happy to be part of this step. I also think that podcasts and in general the work that is being done by creative, motivated people to make urbanism and cities more popular is great.

Before we go further, and before we talk about how podcasts can influence our cities, I wanted to ask you to introduce yourself a bit. 

My name is Mustafa Sharif. I was born in 1993 in Iraq, Baghdad, a beautiful city with many people. I have a big family (two sisters, one brother, my parents) and due to the war and terrorism in my country, we moved a lot of different cities within the country. But after that, decided to leave and move to Sweden, to a beautiful city called Helsingborg in the south of Sweden. From there, we got a new life and we just continue to reach our goals and dream even bigger. Then I started studying architecture, urban planning, traffic engineering. I am an urban planner with a focus on social sustainability and also running the Urbanistica podcast. 

You moved from so far away to cold Sweden, How was it for you? I’ve also been living in Sweden and for me, even though I was coming from nearby – Poland, it was a bit of a hassle and struggle to adapt.

It was crazy. I will be honest with you, it was so crazy. Because there is a big difference in weather, in culture and city design, basically everything. So when we moved from a very hot city (where we had a record like I think 50 degrees in the summer when your mobile is not working anymore) to Sweden we ended up in the south, which is considered very sunny, but it’s dark, it’s very cold. But anyways, we adapted and now it’s going good. But for instance, my father still didn’t adapt to the situation where the sun goes down at 2 pm. But we’re surviving.

It’s inspiring, when we talk right now, you have developed your podcast, you are an urban influencer, you are an urban planner, but how did it start for you? How did you start to get this interest in architecture, urban planning and cities in general? Was it Sweden that inspired you? Or was it even before? 

Well, to be honest, when I was in my country, when we were moving between different cities, I was trying to pay attention to some elements that change. The people, transportation. There were green parks in the previous cities, but they were not in another. So when we moved to Sweden, and we had the time to settle and I could do what I like, I wanted to start studies and a career. I’m good at drawing and business and I was like: “Okay, you are doing what you like and become an artist or an architect like Zaha Hadid – the great architect from Iraq.” I look up to Zaha Hadid. And then there is Jan Gehl. That’s how I started my interest getting into architecture. 

Interestingly, you’ve managed to talk to Jan Gehl. And that’s a very big achievement because he was an idol for me as well. when you start to get into the topic of cities or just how to design cities, in general, you can’t talk about urbanism without mentioning Jan Gehl.

I’m in love with what he does. I’m in love with him. He’s great. I love the way he talks. So I was very inspired by him. He was in Stockholm, I met him, I talked to him, I even took a selfie with him, it’s a big thing to do. 

We’re inspired by him somehow because he shares his work. Some people are within the field of architecture and urban planning and you know, they are just doing their job. They are designing, they are working for their companies, and so on. And there is a pool of people within the same field, who love to share their knowledge, their love for cities, and they are the ones writing books, recording movies, giving lectures or having podcasts as well. 

What was the path for you to end up with such a well-established podcast about cities?

The thing that told me that I should start a podcast is I’m very passionate about the topic. When I see Jan Gehl publishing books, giving lectures in universities… For me, maybe it’s too early to publish books -I don’t have enough knowledge. But at the same time, I have enough knowledge to run a podcast, to invite people who can share their knowledge. So I can be the platform until like senior and then maybe I publish a book. as I’m coaching and I am a content researcher at TEDxStockholm. I love storytelling and I’m passionate about talking to people and listening to them. 

I thought: let me combine these three elements that I love. I asked myself: should it be a blog or a podcast. Podcasts are great because you can do something else and listen. So I said: I have no reasons not to start this.

Okay, let’s go for it. I just kicked it. And I started.

It was very similar to me as well. And now I’m even happier that we are talking right now. Those three elements: I love to talk, I love to present, then there is urban planning – I love to plan cities, to design, to read about them. And the third thing was that I also wanted to share the knowledge I have about cities because I believe that cities are something that we all live in and we all can influence them. I’ve also been a part of TEDx Copenhagen. Somehow, I put it all together.

That’s amazing. I love it. That’s why TEDx is so inspiring to me. The kind of storytelling they do, the way they share the message, and also how professional they are, in what they are doing. It’s very impressive. And I hope we aim to do the same with the podcasts.

What does creating podcasts mean for you? You have over 35,000 of people listening to your podcast. Do you feel responsible for the message you share?

Well, I feel extra happy. The first reason is that I could deliver something. I feel even bigger happiness when I know that people take into consideration and listen to something that I delivered. And I think it’s a bit hard to say, I feel more responsible now. Because it’s not one person anymore. My first episode was just listened to by me and my father. But now, the audience is very big from, I think, 110 countries… I’m thankful. And yeah, it’s a big responsibility, because now I need to take up very important topics, and not just for fun anymore. Of course, we should enjoy the important topics too, but the quality needs to be higher.

So there is a kind of responsibility following the numbers, the establishment of the podcast, right? 

Yeah. And like, I need to be more present in LinkedIn or on Instagram, because people are there, I cannot just leave them alone…

Podcasts are something that people listen to a lot nowadays. By gathering such a big audience, you might have people that will take this message from you, and maybe share it further. What do you think is most important when we talk about cities? Is it about education? Should we try to popularize cities in our podcasts? Or should it be more about insights of what is an urban planner/designer or an architect doing? 

I believe it’s not, it’s not education, because we have responsible departments or universities courses, with very well educated people and professionals to do the educational part. And the professional part is where people practice in their design studios, municipalities. I believe the podcast is about inspiration. Because when we host people from academia, practitioners, the aim is the inspiration. Because during your life, you’re gonna study and you’re gonna work, hopefully, but maybe your studies will not be inspiring, or your work might not maybe be inspiring, but podcasts will open up inspiration. 

I’ve been thinking about it because many people are not studying anything related to cities or architecture, but I believe that everyone can influence her or his city by the decision he or she is making every day. The ones about which means of transportation he or she will use and so on. And if it’s only about the inspiration, maybe sometimes people will lack the tools to change the cities that they are living in. So do you think that inspiring is enough? 

Well, what I believe is that inspiring is a kickoff because I cannot deliver everything in my podcast: education, practical tools. But in the end, my goal is inspiring people. If you get inspired, then you will go by yourself, you will define your tool, and maybe you start to study it more. I have many listeners that contacted me and they are as you mentioned, not really into the urban planning field, but they just listen because they think it’s really fun to listen that we promote a sustainable lifestyle, using public transportation instead of driving our cars. So for me, I think what I can do is inspiring. And then the other part, the listeners should take their responsibility and act from the situation that they have and the tools and the resources that they have. 

Who is like your listener? A person who is just interested in cities? Or maybe you also have some city planners, or people working in the municipalities? What is the profile of the people that you are inspiring? 

When I planned the podcast, I said, I will have a very nice target group, and it will be: the urban planners, architects, traffic planners, people working with the actual city planning, municipalities or land developers. Then I started to run the podcast and after many months, I got messages from students, people from the textile industry, from people coaching – very far away from what I was thinking about. So now, the target group is the same, I’m aiming for the people who can change the cities by their profession, that is what they get paid for.

But at the same time, I am also trying to inspire the others that are not really into this profession, because now they are part of the community. I need to pay attention to them and say: “Thank you so much for being here”. 

That’s an interesting difference because when I was starting my podcast, I didn’t aim to reach the people within the field at first. Of course, I mean, I wanted to make them interested in the podcast as well. But I was targeting a vast group of people, no matter if they are studying urban planning, finance or something else. I wanted to make people feel responsible for the city so that it can be listened to by my grandmother, and she could say, ‘Marcin, I like this aspect and I didn’t know that I could do this in my city…’. or something like this. The target group determines the language you use, right? Because when you are directing those people within the field, you use more advanced nomenclature. It’s way different than your target people who don’t know cities ‘in theory’ too much. 

What do you think like when you realize that more people are listening to you than only people within the field? Did you feel this necessity of changing your language? 

Well, let me just comment on your targeting. I think this is the beauty of making content that we are different in how we can cover different groups. Back to your question about how if I adapt to the new listeners or the new target group. Of course, I show more respect and my approach depends on the guest as well. We can start at an advanced level, but if needed we come to the basics. I try to find the balance so that both of them will still enjoy it. 

Exactly, we are both urban planners, so we could easily start talking about those urban planning specific nomenclature, compare planning systems in Sweden and Denmark, or in our home countries of Iraq and Poland.

Another thing I wanted to discuss is your partnerships. Your podcast is being also supported by  H22 City Expo from Helsingborg, you are a part of Placemaking Europe and you are also supported by KTH Royal Institute of Technology from Stockholm. 

How do these collaborations help you to create the podcast and share your message? 

The thing behind the collaborations is what I believe in. I believe in the CO-creation of a city and I need to show this – it is my belief. While designing cities together we collaborate with different stakeholders, but also the podcast is a way to show that as an urban planner, I stand for collaborations. 

And that’s why I started to reach out to different actors or platforms that are matching with my message and pitched my idea about the podcast. I said,” Hello, I’m doing this, what do you think about collaborating?”. Some of the collaborations are paid, some of them are not paid, but what I gained is, first of all, is the knowledge that they have. And second, their platforms – access to even more interesting people. When I interview them, they publish it on their platforms, they are of course bigger than me. But some of them were very big in the beginning, but now you know, when time passed, I am kind of bigger and then I helped them to grow as well. It’s a win-win. It’s a collaboration, so there is respect from both sides. And it’s very lovely, and I’m so happy, so respectful to them, that they understand that podcasts can change many things.

How is it to record a podcast in three different languages? Wow.

Well, it’s a bit of an interesting story. The thing is that I started my podcast in Swedish because my first guest wanted to speak Swedish. And then I asked myself: why should I limit myself? My goal is to influence as many people as possible. So I switched to English, and then I realized that my first listener was my dad. We speak Arabic, I am from Iraq, from the Middle East – so of course, I should pay something back as well. It gives more possibilities for the guests too; if you cannot do good in English, you can do it in Swedish or Arabic, or the opposite. I’m not perfect in English, or Swedish or Arabic, but at least I can have a conversation because the host is the storyteller. It’s about the guest, not about me. 

It was a big step for me too when after half a year of recording my podcast in Polish I started to do it in English. And of course, I do speak English, but I felt more comfortable in my mother tongue. 

I understand you. You’re stepping out of your comfort zone, and you’re doing very big things because your podcast will grow and will inspire more people. And I wanted to support you in this step. Because it’s very important. You’re switching the language, and now you’re scaling it up. I’m very happy that you’re doing it. Are you gonna keep doing it in two languages, right? 

Yes, yes, I will keep it bilingual. I will release episodes in Polish and English, and who knows, maybe in the future, also, Swedish or Danish. There’s one more thing I wanted to ask you. You established your podcast very well and you are one of the leading podcasts about design and arts in Sweden. How did you manage to do it so fast?

When I started my podcast was not even on the list of 100 the most popular podcasts. And now after one year, slowly, slowly I reached like top 70, top 50. And yesterday, at the beginning of January 2021, I opened the statistics and it’s number two on the design category in Sweden, which is very big. And I was like, ‘Whoa, when did I jump?’ 

Really congratulations. You’ve also released so many episodes (more than 170 now!). How did you manage to keep up this crazy pace?

Mustafa Sherif: I was planning to publish a new episode every week. But then when it was Covid19 all my activities were down. I couldn’t do anything and I decided that I should invest this time in producing content. I remember when it was Covid19 at the beginning of 2020 and all the podcasters were thinking like ‘Oh my god, what should we do?’. They were panicking. If you go to some podcasts you can see that there is a gap – no episodes – at the beginning of the pandemic. And for me, this was my kickoff. I thought that I should do as many as possible to get noticed on the market because everything stopped and it’s only Urbanistica that would be running so people will listen to it. And that’s how I started to produce four episodes every week. And now I’m continuing but I’m doing two per week and I am learning so much. 

I agree with this Covid pandemic part that there was some kind of struggle and some people were thinking that during the pandemic, people probably will not listen to podcasts anymore, because they’ve been listening to them mostly during the commute to work. But I also don’t think it’s like this. If you’re following your favourite show, I guess many people will just listen to them anyways. I know some people who just started listening to the podcast during the lockdown phase. And I started my podcast during the pandemic as well, because I saw an opportunity in this.

Exactly, it was very smart, I think you did the right thing. And this is also the difference between people. If you look at things as a problem or issue and panic about it or see it as an opportunity. I believe as urban planners, we should always see every single thing as an opportunity and try to do something good out of it. 

What was the biggest challenge that you had so far? As we said before, by more listeners, there are more collaborations but with that, there are also more expectations. How does it change how you approach the podcast creation? 

Well to comment about the numbers of the listeners, first. Many people when they start on the day one they say ‘I want to have 1000 listeners’. I think that numbers kill people in a way. If they don’t see 1000 people like what they do, they would be like; ‘God, this is not good’. But what I believe is that if you’re passionate about one topic, and you start to produce content, in the long run, you will attract people that are passionate about the same thing. So in the long run, you will win and you will see the numbers as well.

But if you believe in yourself – your dream and your passion, you shouldn’t pay attention to so many numbers. 

And the biggest challenge for me is the technical part. Because I like the way of storytelling I have, I’m fine, I can manage that. Communicating – as well. I can do that in three languages – people understand me, we can have a conversation, but the technical part is harder… When I have a guest there are many things to think about: how we put together the microphones, the audio level and so on. I tried to learn this audio or technical part of a podcast from YouTube and sometimes it works but sometimes it doesn’t. If you go back to the first episode of my podcast you cannot listen to that. 

I agree about the numbers, I mean, I think if you have something interesting to share, and especially the knowledge, the approach, the experience you gain by working as an urban planner, I think it is very inspiring to people. Of course, we will not force anyone to listen to the podcast about cities. But I think it’s very important to me that cities are something that influences almost everyone. Almost 70% of people in the world are living in cities, so it should be a common topic for all of us. It’s also always interesting for me to get to know about the challenges that people have because it’s not always that sweet. Once we are sharing something we focus on our success, we post something on LinkedIn, because we are proud of it. We hardly ever share our failures.

I want just to mention the biggest person in urban planning Jan Gehl. I think everybody on this planet working and related to urban planning and design wants him to talk and he didn’t say no to me. When I did the podcast with Jan Gehl during the Covid, he was isolated in the countryside, and many big channels talked to him that time. But he said yes to me as well and I think it’s a very big message from his side. So it shouldn’t matter how big you are, you should share your knowledge. You should stand for what you have to say. 

Speaking about this, what was one more thing that you learned from Jan Gehl?

The fact that I was able to talk to him was mind-blowing. Every single sentence was a big lesson for me. The main message for me is that we need to be careful when we talk about smart cities, especially because my podcast focused on smart cities. He said that we need to be careful with people that want to sell us devices just because of making money, but not because of their wish of making a city smart and social. Is this smart city solution applicable, like in Africa, or my country? Or it’s just about money? If it’s just about money, maybe it’s not scalable, or it’s not sustainable. 

You talk a lot about smart cities at Urbanistica. And I have some problem with defining what a smart city is. I think that we might have this nomenclature struggle in general in the field of urban planning, design and architecture. We use a lot of these popular ‘good’ words like; sustainable or smart, but sometimes it’s hard to say what is behind those words. What was the beginning for you when you started your podcast and why you wanted to focus on smart cities? What do you think about this tricky naming in general? 

Yeah, this is the thing and one of the reasons that got me to start the podcast. I was a bit angry about all these buzzwords like urbanism, smart city, future city, sustainable city or green city. I wanted to figure out what it is about. That’s why I’m hosting different people, citizens and professionals and asking them to share their knowledge. In the end, it’s up to us to combine, to build up our perception about those things. In the end, these words are not mirroring what it is about. I can say a smart city, but the technology that is used in this smart city is for ex. causing a lot of CO2. So that’s why we need to be very careful with what we say. I also started talking about sustainability or planning. Now we see theories like 15 minutes city, 10 minutes city, 1-minute city and so on. I know, there are many interesting theories behind it but we need to be careful about it and question it. ‘Okay, if I do a 15-minute city, what is it about? If I am all about living locally?’. ‘What happened with my relationship with the neighbours and so on?’ So I think that’s why you’re running your podcast and why I run my podcast. It is to question these theories.

I would like to go back a little bit to your roots and you studying urban design, urban planning, architecture and those city-related topics. Because when I was trying to explain to my friends or family, what am I doing as an urban designer, it was always hard to do it. I would say that I’m designing as an architect, but on a bigger scale, or I’m planning the whole district and so on. Was it the same for you when you started studying? Was it easy for you to share your profession with people?

I understand how you were struggling because, at first, I did the traffic planning, more like traffic engineering and then civil engineering and architecture. Then I end up with urban planning and design. So every time I needed a different story, but when people ask me what I do in urban planning and design, I say that I do everything but not the buildings. And people understand it. I mean hope they understand. I say: ‘everything you see outside of your building, is what urban planning and design is about’. 

Did you just learn this approach yourself actually during your studies?

I got it after, to be honest. When I started to work. Part of my work now, as I mentioned, is social sustainability, and part of my work is building cities for children. And it’s about having children to participate in urban planning. So I need to choose very simple words to explain what I’m doing.

And what do you think about this whole idea of designing for kids? Isn’t it a bit excluding? Does designing for kids make sense or we should just rather say let’s design for all? 

I have kids in mind, but in the end, it’s about designing cities for all people. But I think those different approaches base more on activism. Some people would advocate for design cities for women, for girls, some of them support designing cities for greenery, some others say let’s design cities for children. From my side, I believe, or I’m passionate about designing cities for children, which but it doesn’t mean that I don’t want to design cities for girls or the others because kids want the basics that we all need. They want the walking paths to be nice. Both for them and their caregivers. They need greenery, they need all the things that make sense for all the people. I don’t see another approach to designing cities than designing cities for people.

I think that’s my favorite part of designing from kids’ perspective, that they are treating the whole city as a playground. They are seeing those playful, joyful functions in a simple bench. They can jump on, jump off, run around. I think that this is something that adults are not seeing anymore. That’s something that we should also introduce to the adults again – the playfulness of the city – the simple joy of living in a city. 

This is the thing, what I like whether designing cities for kids or children – it’s not about making the city as a playground, but making it interesting, giving it identity to different places, avoiding copy-pasting things. So people start to be curious and feel in love with their city. I think this is a good approach for us, to try to make it more interesting, more liveable for people. Okay, what is the city for kids like? There should be outdoor facilities or bathrooms as the main part of cities for kids. Because if you’re a caregiver or a parent to the kids, and he or she wants to change or, or go to the bathroom if there is nothing, no public bathroom, you need to go home, and then you will lose the relationship with the city, maybe you will even end up staying at home. The environment for the kids should change often because you’re learning so much outdoors. The facilities are the key and if you scale them up, you will see that the people or adults will also take part in these public facilities – it’s not only for kids. So it’s a win-win for kids and all the other people.

To conclude our conversation I would like to talk about a podcast as a tool. I want you to try to answer the question: if a podcast can shape our cities? Or even is it possible for a podcast to be an official tool in urban planning and city-making?

We are on our way with the podcasts being official tools. I will give you an example of what I experienced with my podcast here in Stockholm. When there is a new development they put images – visualisations, they write text, and maybe add videos, but now they link the podcast to the project as well. When I saw that we have a big project for a bridge, I did a podcast with a project leader and then the podcast became the tool of explaining the project. We are on our way. This will be a kind of official step that when you start a project, you do a podcast and you inform people, you talk about what you do and explain it to them in such a way. And honestly, it is already a tool for urban planners and designers. We have a method of measuring the greenery in the city, it’s a special method in Stockholm city and my colleague didn’t know how to do it, how to use this method, but I did an episode with the one who created this method. So she got the whole explanation in easy steps from my podcast. So she listened to it, learned it and submitted the project. 

So a podcast is already on the way to be a very official tool of urban planning and design! That’s, that’s a brilliant example. I can imagine that in the future, maybe after a public hearing of a project, the outcome of it will be not only in a written form in a pdf, (and let’s be honest, people rarely read those reports) but also as a more accessible podcast interview. 

Exactly. I think it’s because of the speed and the time – it’s convenient because you can say wash dishes and listen to it and at the same time get informed about the development plans of your city. Before we were reading every single email, because it was interesting to us, but now you receive an email, or a newsletter and you just delete it, but a podcast is something convenient for you to listen to. I imagine that in the future, before a public hearing or during the public hearing, you can just record people and see if they accept the project. I think that we can do many things with podcasts when it comes to urban planning and design. Yes, podcasts are a very nice synthesis of information it is. So I could just imagine maybe in some decades or even years, that a podcast is used, for example, for an architecture office to pitch their ideas apart from a presentation board. To just really feel their emotions behind the proposal. Yeah, it’s already happening. Why are podcasts important? Because as I mentioned, it’s about timing and speed. And you see now big companies Amazon, Spotify, or Apple investing money into podcasts, so it means something, right? I think we should, as planners, architects, take the opportunity and be more creative and use different media to deliver our message. 

I’m very happy that we managed to answer this question and that we had this statement at the end. Mustafa, thank you very much for the talk, your enthusiasm and time. 

Thank you so much, I wish you all the best!

If you want to listen to our interview, feel free to check it below:

34: Can podcasts change our cities? (guest: Mustafa Sherif – Urbanistica Podcast)

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