Alumni Council member Sameh Wahba MUP ’97, PhD ’02, KSGEE ’13 is a true Harvard citizen with his Master in Urban Planning (MUP) degree from the Graduate School of Design (GSD), his PhD from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and completion of the Kennedy School of Government Executive Education’s International Finance Corporation Infrastructure Executive Program.
An Egyptian national who is now based in Washington DC, Wahba is Global Director for Urban and Territorial Development, Disaster Risk Management and Resilience at the World Bank Group where he oversees the formulation of Bank strategy and the design and delivery of all Bank lending, technical assistance, policy advisory activities and partnerships at the global level. Prior to joining the World Bank in 2004, he worked at the Institute of Housing and Urban Development Studies in Rotterdam and at the Harvard Center for Urban Development Studies.
In this Q&A, hear more about Wahba’s career including how the strong international exposure he received during the MUP program helped to prepare him for his current role, his co-authorship of World Bank’s flagship publication “Regenerating Urban Land: A Practitioner’s Guide to Leveraging Private Investment,” and what characteristics some of the world’s most competitive cities share.
1. What was your work experience/background before coming to the GSD?
I came to the GSD after receiving my M.Sc. in Architecture from Cairo University in 1995. I worked as a teaching assistant at Cairo University’s Department of Architecture and Urban Planning and as a project manager with an architecture and planning practice in Cairo.
2. What made you decide to pursue planning as a career?
I always wanted to work on something that takes architectural design beyond the realm of the individual building, that would have more of an impact on society, and I was really interested in housing and urban development issues. And while design matters, there’s much more that influences the planning and investment decisions made in a city including land and housing markets and politics. So I wanted to approach planning in a way that combines economics, finance, legal, spatial, and policy issues.
3. What made you come to GSD?
The GSD integrated architecture, urban design, and urban planning programs all under one roof (and what a roof is that of Gund Hall!) so it was the perfect transition for an architect wanting to combine spatial issues with policy, economics, and finance. The urban planning program had strong international exposure with excellent faculty including Bill Doebele LLB ’51; José A. Gómez-Ibáñez AB ’70, MPP ’72, PhD ’75; Mona Serageldin MCP ’66, PhD ’72; Francois Vigier MCP ’60, PhD ’67; and Jerold Kayden AB ’75, JD ’79, MCRP ’79. And then there’s all that Harvard has to offer including Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), and Harvard Business School (HBS).
I am especially interested in housing, land, and slum upgrading; spatial and territorial development; local economic development and city competitiveness; urban resilience; and disaster risk management.
5. Tell us about your professional career and how the GSD prepared you for it?
After receiving my PhD in 2002, I worked as a housing and urban specialist at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies in Rotterdam. I then joined the World Bank in Washington DC in 2004. As an Urban Specialist, I led lending projects, policy advisory, and analytical work on urban infrastructure, municipal development, housing and post-disaster reconstruction and recovery in many countries in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean regions. In 2010, I moved to Brasilia as Sustainable Development Sector Leader responsible for coordinating all World Bank’s infrastructure, urban, and social development programs in Brazil. In 2012, I managed the Global Urban Development and Resilience Unit, which was responsible for the Bank’s global urban strategy, partnerships, and analytics. In 2014, I managed the urban and disaster risk management units in Sub-Saharan Africa. In mid-2016, I became the global director overseeing all World Bank’s regional operations, analytics, partnerships and the global agenda. I oversee a team of 300 urban and disaster risk management professionals and an overall portfolio of $6-8 billion of annual lending and $25-30 billion in commitments.
The GSD prepared me through a mix of multi-faceted education in various interrelated fields combining practitioners with applied research and professional work through the Center for Urban Development Studies where we worked on various World Bank and other donor-financed housing, urban development and cultural heritage projects.
6. What experiences at Harvard do you look back on as having been most helpful in your career?
Without a doubt, it was the ability to have cross-sectoral education and develop a customized curriculum over the course of both the MUP and PhD programs that was tailored to my aspirations and needs. My classes spanned urban planning, economics, finance, real estate, legal and policy issues across Harvard (GSD, HKS, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), etc.) and MIT. And I also got the chance to work with faculty as interesting and diverse as Ed Glaeser RAE ’17; Rem Koolhaas; Nic Retsinas MCP ’71; and Alan Altshuler at Harvard, and Judith Tendler at MIT.
7. What advice would you give to current and future students?
Work hard, explore all the learning opportunities across the University (if you can work alongside your studies to apply your learning, don’t miss the chance), and above all make sure you have fun and enjoy your time in Cambridge, meet people from all over the world and build your network.
8. You co-authored the Bank’s flagship publication “Regenerating Urban Land: A Practitioner’s Guide to Leveraging Private Investment” that has been downloaded almost 10,000 times. How did this publication come about? Do you have any success stories from local governments who have leveraged private sector investment in urban regeneration initiatives after reading this publication?
Seeing the transformation of Washington DC’s southwest neighborhood and Anacostia riverfront over time and having extensive discussions with the policymakers and technical team that made it happen was an eye-opener. Many of our partner cities are hungry for this kind of practical knowledge about how other cities have done urban regeneration projects: how was the vision formulated, how was planning done, the process of reaching out to stakeholders, how to ensure an inclusive development, how was the land question addressed in terms of ownership and assembly, how was the prioritization of investments carried out, how was the overall development financed, how was it implemented (what institutions and regulations), how were the sequencing and phasing done, and how was social impact, especially gentrification, addressed. We picked eight case studies (DC, Singapore, Seoul, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Shanghai, Johannesburg, and Ahmedabad), which we’ve studied in-depth to extract lessons learned on what worked and what did not work. We organized this material under a project cycle framework and provided a wealth of practical material (including bidding documents, model contracts, etc). Also, we brought Andy Altman LF ’97, who was the deputy mayor of Philadelphia and the head of the Olympics Legacy company, as an advisor to the team. The result is this comprehensively researched and very practical material for policymakers and practitioners. You can find this and other flagship publications and know more about our priorities at www.worldbank.org/urban.
Many of our partner cities today–including Fortaleza, Brazil; Kigali, Rwanda; and Da Nang, Vietnam–are drawing on the lessons learned from this publication and some of the technical training we have arranged for our client cities including learning from the experience of leading Japanese cities in urban regeneration and land value capture.
9. 80% of global economic activity is generated in cities today, but not all cities are able to enjoy economic prosperity. You have spoken on how cities can become more competitive; can you share the highlights with us?
The best thing about our work on competitive cities is that it showed that everyone can do it. Our research found that the most competitive cities–in terms of attracting investment, creating jobs, and boosting incomes–are not the largest cities or typical household names; instead, these were medium-sized, secondary cities such as Bucaramanga, Colombia; Tangiers, Morocco; Coimbatore, India; and Kigali, Rwanda. They have developed their competitiveness by working across four areas: (i) policies, regulations and institutions to strengthen their business environment; (ii) streamlined access to land and infrastructure; (iii) skills development and environment for innovation; and (iv) expanding access to capital and finance for firms. Mayors have also combined their policy wedge (the areas they can influence) with coalitions with the private sector, neighboring municipalities for metropolitan area development, and lobbying central governments for adopting national level reforms. You can find more on our work on competitive cities at www.worldbank.org/competitivecities.
10. What are you working on today?
Currently, our top priorities at the World Bank in urban and disaster risk management are to help local and national governments (a) cope with a massive urbanization process occurring at unprecedented speed and compounded by the challenges of conflict and a changing climate; (b) cover a huge urban infrastructure financing gap (in the trillions) by leveraging our funds, attracting private investment, structuring land value capture schemes, expanding municipal own source revenues, and reforming intergovernmental fiscal transfers; (c) tackling territorial and spatial inequities in cities and regions; (b) scaling up city resilience through planning and investment; (e) mainstreaming disaster risk management across development sectors; and (f) strengthening post-conflict reconstruction and recovery efforts.
We are building a major new City Resilience Program at the Global Program and scaling up our local government capacity building support especially in integrated land use planning, municipal finance, and disaster risk management among other things. We are also developing new knowledge and advisory initiatives on urban regeneration and smart cities, which are two issues gaining traction with our partner cities.
11. Tell us about your work/life balance? What occupies you when you are not working?
Work-life balance is, unfortunately, something very elusive to me. I really, really, really like my work. And I am unable to disconnect, although I’ve tried. So I find my balance and sanity in family, music, good food, traveling and discovering new places, and the little pleasures of life (like reading the FT Weekend and The Economist with an expresso in the hammock).
12. What would surprise us about you?
I travel a lot (which is obviously not surprising given my work). This leads to some unusual situations like seeing the cherry blossom in Tokyo last year rather than in DC and knowing the restaurant and music scene in Seoul, Singapore, and Paris more than in DC. I am crazy about football and a huge Arsenal fan.