The Pride of the City


She Builds Cities


Date: 09.02.2014 | Leslie Woo | Arizona, SHOWCASE


I recently had the fortune of connecting with one of this planet’s great champions for celebrating the unsung heroines in our communities. Martha Mayhood Mertz

Martha is the founder of Athena International and author of the inspiring book – Becoming Athena. The book recounts Martha’s journey to establishing the Athena awards and the Athena Eight Principles of Enlightened Leadership:
1. Live Authentically
2. Learn Constantly
3. Advocate Fiercely
4. Act Courageously
5. Foster Collaboration
6. Build Relationships
7. Give Back
8. Celebrate

She Builds Cities

“Our best leaders are like great gardeners. They cultivate and nourish a whole lot of new leaders to grow up around them.” Polly Bunting.

In her own words:

“It had long been our hope that the Athena philosophy would encircle the globe. We knew that the voices of leadership were as out of balance, in gender terms, in other countries as in our own.”


She Builds Cities

Date: 20.01.2018 | Leslie Woo | Chicago, SHOWCASE


If ever there was a personification of enthusiasm and passion for community and what it takes to make places for people its Ruth A. Wuorenma.

Ruth created Neighborhood Capital Institute, an Illinois not-for-profit policy and practice corporation – now that’s refreshing in the land development industry!   A land use and zoning attorney by trade who became a commercial real estate developer in the US and Europe. Ruth has taken these early skills and taken the path less worn by the majority of her peers. She is a gem amidst such a rocky industry. It is perhaps why our kindred spirits locked when we first met. We share common values, despite such different backgrounds, about the need for everyone to have a sense of belonging to a place they can call home.   Our paths continue to cross as we both participate on the Urban Land Institute Public Development and Infrastructure Product Council for the the past several years.

She Builds Cities

Ruth A. Wuorenma, President,
Neighbourhood Capital Institute

WHAT is the secret sauce for cities?

In her own words:

“I love your question – especially since it allows me to use my favorite metaphor.  The secret to successful City (or district) building is not a “secret sauce” but the “chef in the kitchen.”  Cities (and their districts within) are like pantries with lots of wonderful ingredients stored there, often under-utilized (in a kitchen it might be flour, in a City it might be a public library,  a transit stop, a historic building or a pocket park long ignored).  BUT there’s no cake until the chef uses her knowledge to blend them – and blend them in the right proportions, in the right seque

nce and using the right timing. (She also needs to have purchased the ingredients at the right price but that’s a different discussion.)

Successful cities or districts cannot be built by committee;  committees simply don’t work if there isn’t unified project management driving committee decisions. They also cannot be built by a number of lone wolves, going it alone.  Lone wolves (whether private sector developers or a public agency) can do some fabulous things, often much quicker than a leadership team working across silos, but so much opportunity can be missed when focused only on individual mission (things like adjusting an access point or a view corridor can have significant implications on local life for decades to come).In a perfect world, cities need a “development chef,” someone at the helm who understands, values and will champion the built environment.  This person (or department) must work with  peers (other public entities and agencies) to create, then execute, a master framework plan consistent with their respective missions to the greatest extent possible, yet one that remains focused on a greater good than any one entity could achieve by itself.”

Marilee Utter

She Builds Cities

Denver, Colorado, USA
MARILEE UTTER President, Citiventure Associates
Former Executive Vice President, Global Councils, Urban Land Institute

I was introduced to Marilee Utter while undertaking a leadership fellowship through the International Women’s Forum in late 2011. We had been matched as part of the mentorship program. One needs to understand the rigor of the IWF mentorship program, the detailed questionnaire, the extensive interview, the angst, and soul searching each fellow goes through want to find the “perfect” mentor.

For those of you who have ever filled out an online dating questionnaire, you can appreciate how much energy goes into wanting to put your best foot forward. Thank goodness the staff at IWF understand what we need more than we do ourselves because I said that I did not think it was necessary to be matched with someone in my field of business – transportation + land development = urban city building.

I was looking for a fresh perspective – maybe someone like the CEO of a large global corporate conglomerate – you know – a private sector perspective for a public policy geek.

I could not have been more wrong. As I always say now – “you don’t know, what you don’t know,” and I clearly did not know that a fresh perspective could come from a tired male-dominated industry in the form of Marilee Utter. Marilee is west coast, sun-kissed wonder, living in Denver, and whose office is the globe. With a background in banking, municipal real estate, land development, public-private partnerships, and now the creative force behind the expansion of the 51 Councils worldwide of Urban Land Institute, Marilee’s smarts can only be outweighed by her warmth. Here is someone who has really been a city builder from all sides of the board table.

What has been your most important lesson as a city builder?

She Builds Cities

“Never draw a picture without a proforma. So many times, the public sector wants to do the planning, which quickly leads to images and diagrams, Usually “just conceptual” with virtually no concept of what the costs will be to the challenges the private sector will face in doing the development. By forcing even a basic financial model to accompany the drawing, it reminds everyone that the public and private sector will need to work together to realize a transformation. It also keeps projects from starting with an unrealistic but appealing ” Disneyland” development plan that raises expectations, undermines trust, and creates bad feelings down the line when it has to be scaled back in line with the market.”

Sania Yau

She Builds Cities

Sania Yau
Date: 04.07.2020 | admin | Hong Kong, SHOWCASE
SANIA YAU, former President & CEO, New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association

Sania and I have identical matching royal blue Chinese jacquard jackets that we bought at a touristy little store on our way to visit the Tian Tan Buddha (Giant Buddha) on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. Our time together has always been bookended with superb retail adventures. Sania is a complex person, always full of surprises.

We met through the IWF Fellowship program, and this statuesque, serene and classy lady operates in one of the world’s most remarkable cities, Hong Kong, tackling one of the most important urban issues – mental health. Daily she is bringing those who suffer from its prejudice, a meaningful role in society. This makes my job of building a light rapid transit lines seem like a piece of cake.

Sania & Leslie at New Life offices, July 2012
Sania is a thoughtful and kind person whose passion and commitment to change is unrelenting. She is also a remarkable innovator, experimenting with many new and exciting social enterprises in Hong Kong that have born true results. This speaks to her understanding of a complete and fully integrated city. Her commitment to her work is only outdone by her commitment to her glorious family.

Sania left a phenomenal legacy, and her untimely and tragic death has left a distant ache in my heart.

She Builds Cities
She Builds Cities

What has been your most important lesson as a city builder?

“Mental Health is Everybody’s Business, and Mental Health Matters” are the two mottos that inspire my career in mental health social service for the last 30 years in Hong Kong and overseas. Advocating the importance of wellness has been one of the top priorities in my work as health is not an absence of disease but a holistic concept, i.e., body, mind, and spirit. Living in a fast-paced city like Hong Kong, to live healthier and happier, being mindful, or “slow down” is something we need to attend.

One of the “baby” achievements is my passion and conscientiousness to bring a “recovery model” from overseas to Hong Kong since 2009 and to measure its impact through evidence-based practice. Recovery is a human right movement for people in recovery from mental illness.

Through system transformation, people in recovery reclaim their sense of identity, dignity, and meaning in a less stigmatized and non-discriminating society. As well, they would be able to participate in the community as an equal member. Though we are still in the juvenile stage of development, we have been influencing other service providers and hospitals to join hands in this new development.”

Alison Nimmo

She Builds Cities

Alison Nimmo CEO, Crown Estates UK
Date: 08.03.2015 | Leslie Woo | London, SHOWCASE

Alison Nimmo, CEO, Crown Estates UK – formerly in charge of the London Olympic Development Agency and remaking Manchester after the IRA bombing, which is where I first met her. Smart, stylish and total success in the very male world of UK development.

Ms. Alison Nimmo, CBE, FRICS, has been the Chief Executive Officer of The Crown Estate since January 1, 2012. Prior to this, Ms. Nimmo served as a Director of Design and Regeneration at the Olympic Delivery Authority where she had, for the past five years, held responsible for delivering the overall design and early delivery of most of the venues, Olympic Park and long term legacy for the London 2012 games.

Her previous roles have included a central role in the London 2012 bid team and Interim Director who led the establishment of the Olympic Delivery Authority; Chief Executive at Sheffield One; and Project Director at Manchester Millennium Ltd responsible for the regeneration of Manchester city center following the terrorist bombing in 1996.

Ms. Nimmo has been a Non-Executive Director of Berkeley Group Holdings plc since September 5, 2011. She is a Visiting Professor at Sheffield Hallam University. Ms. Nimmo is a Chartered Surveyor and Town Planner who specializes in regeneration and was awarded a CBE for services to urban regeneration in 2004.

The Guardian Interview: Alison Nimmo, Crown Estate, chief executive

Alison Nimmo: Breath of fresh air for royal property giant
RICS Inspirational Speakers: Alison Nimmo FRICS CBE

Alison Nimmo FRICS CBE, Chief Executive of Crown Estates, is responsible for a £10bn public property portfolio and kicked off the first of RICS’ inspirational speaker series on Wednesday 19th February 2015 at RICS London HQ.

She gave a fascinating insight into her career, which includes being a town planner in Northern England, the rebuilding of Manchester city center after it was bombed, the building of the Olympic Park and now sees her as Chief Executive of the Crown Estate, overseeing projects ranging from the redevelopment of London’s West End to managing a 12 nautical mile seabed off the coast of Scotland.

Mayor Hazel McCallion

She Builds Cities

Former Mayor Hazel McCallion
Date: 20.05.2013 | admin | Mississauga, SHOWCASE
Mississauga, Canada

When I first met Her Worship Mayor Hazel McCallion in 2001, she had already been Mayor of the City of Mississauga for 23 years. She had been appointed by Minister Chris Hodgson to chair the Smart Growth Panel for Central Ontario, a region that was exponentially growing in leaps and bounds, with rapid sprawl and infrastructure failing to keep up. She had become known as the Queen of Sprawl, and it did not go unnoticed that she was chosen to lead the vision for managing that growth/sprawl.

I had the privilege of bearing witness to her transformation over an extensive three-year planning process. How does one stay driven and focused on the success of the municipality you lead, while also being open enough to transform your whole view and outlook? Respect for others and brutal honesty.

Always able to hit on an issue like a laser beam, she has taken the smart growth philosophy and sought the impossible – transforming a sprawling suburban mall into a thriving intensified urban center – something many other politicians would not even dare to attempt.

Mind you, Her Worship has an approval rating over the last three years, around 78%, down from her prior track record of 92%. She is loved by the folks of Mississauga. Her gentle hand ad kind heart reached me personally in 2012 when I received a handwritten sympathy card from her when my dad passed away. We had not seen each other for almost a year.

Today, at the age of 99, she describes herself as a conservative with a liberal point of view, a social conscience, and always looking for reform in other words, a modern woman. She has announced that she will not run for another political term in 2014. Despite this, she remains focused on the revitalization of the city’s waterfront and the delivery of their first-ever light rapid transit—an eternal city builder.

What has been your most important lesson as a city builder?

She Builds Cities

“One of the most important lessons is to involve the people of the community. I think we have done a good job of this in Mississauga, where we frequently engage our citizens in numerous public meetings, symposiums, etc. regarding the City’s plans on any number of given projects. By doing this, we engage the community and obtain valuable insights and ideas that we can then incorporate, thereby ensuring that the public’s voice is heard.” 2013

Cities are built over decades, and 92-year-old Hazel McCallion, the eleven consecutive term Mayor of the Mississauga population over 700,000, has presided over enormous transformation and success.
Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, (aka Hurricane Hazel) 92 yrs old. Serving over 30 years as Mayor of Mississauga, Canada’s 4th largest city


She Builds Cities

Mumbai, India
ElsaMarie D’Silva Founder & CEO of Red Dot Foundation and
President of Red Dot Foundation Global, (Safecity)

It was luck that sat ElsaMarie next to me at room of thousands at the International Women’s Forum conference in Chicago in 2016. We exchanged a short conversation, along with my daughter, Laurin, who was my conference guest. My daughter is a chemical engineer and ElsaMarie is a trained airline cabin safety instructor and network planning specialist.

ElsaMarie described how after 20 years in the aviation industry where she worked with Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines as Vice President Network Planning & Charters and as the Presiding Officer of the Internal Complaints Committee at Kingfisher Airlines, a life changing event caused her to switch her career.

On 16 December 2012, in Munirka, a neighbourhood in South Delhi Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern, was beaten, gang-raped, and tortured in a private bus in which she was travelling with her male friend. There were six others in the bus, including the driver, all of whom raped the woman and beat her friend. This was one of the escalating number of violent aggressions that women faced in trying to get to work or home. ElsaMarie was compelled at act.

ElsaMarie started Red Dot as a way crowd source map locations through a smart phone so women would know where to avoid and where advocates should work with local communities to address male aggression. ElsaMarie speaks now on the big stage globally about her work and her drive to build cities that are safe for women, is an inspiration.


She Builds Cities

"In the last few years with my work at Safecity and its intersection with urban design, I have learned that we need to engage citizens of all sections of society in city planning and design especially women. We also need more disaggregated evidence based data which will inform our decision making. With data and citizen engagement we can build for better and have safe, inclusive, resilient cities."

Amanda Bürden

She Builds Cities

Amanda Bürden
Date: 11.04.2013 | admin | New York, SHOWCASE
New York City, USA

AMANDA BURDEN Director of Planning, New York City and Chair of the City Planning Commission

Amanda Burden FAICP, Hon. AIA received her Master’s Degree in Urban Planning from Columbia University. She was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg in 2002 as Director of the Department of City Planning and Chair of the New York City Planning Commission.

President’s Medal 2012

There is no question that under Amanda’s leadership, New York has experienced a renaissance with more development of parkland, waterfront, and infrastructure over the last ten years than in the 100 years before it. Vin Cipolla, president of the Municipal Art Society of New York.

Chairing the City Planning Commission since 2002, Burden, age 67, has revolutionized its role in the city, transforming a once-sleepy bureaucratic agency into an activist department championing good design by using zoning as a weapon to enforce her vision. Meryl Gordon for the Wall Street Journal (Champion of Cities, Jan 23, 2011)

Sigrid Duhamel

She Builds Cities

Sigrid Duhamel
Date: 04.07.2020 | Leslie Woo | Paris, SHOWCASE
SIGRID DUHAMEL, Chief Executive Officer, Real Estate Investment Management. France
Former President, CBRE Global Investors
Former, Director of Real Estate, PSA Peugeot Citroën, Paris France

Paris 2013: Sigrid Duhamel describes the project she is currently working on for me at the tea room, Angelina, on rue de Rivoli in Paris. She is about to tackle the redevelopment of the 168.5 ha soon to be closed Aulany-sous-Bois manufacturing plant for PSA Peugeot Citroën. The conversion to a brownfield redevelopment site, was an incredibly controversial decision by PSA, as it fell victim to the recent fall of the European economy. But as always, where tragedy hits, an opportunity also opens a door.
Sigrid Duhamel graduated from ESTP and an MBA from INSEAD. She began her career at Bouygues Construction (1990-1994) before joining the U.S. group United Technologies, where she focuses on mergers and acquisitions (1996-1999). It then performs the same activity at Cap Gemini (2000).

She Builds Cities

After a few years in the recruitment of executives at Eric Salmon & Partners, she joined the American investment and real estate developer Tishman Speyer fund in London (2005-2008).

Since 2009, she directed the operations of real estate abroad Carrefour Property. Recently Sigrid was appointed to Chair the Urban Land Institute District Council for France. Upon her appointment, she stated, “I want my turn to continue the work done by Erik and enhance the development of links between the private sector and the public because it is essential. With my position at PSA Peugeot Citroën, my desire is to bring the real estate sector a better knowledge and understanding of user needs”.

Patricia McCarney

She Builds Cities

PATRICIA MCCARNEY Changing How Cities See Themselves
Date: 11.02.2015 | Leslie Woo | SHOWCASE, Toronto
from Urban Land Institute Toronto Blog
Women's Leadership Initiative Profile: Professor Patricia McCarney
Posted on February 4, 2015, by ulitoronto

Patricia McCarney
By Robyn Brown and Emily Graham
Looking back over her illustrious career is not something Patricia McCarney does often, in part due to her fervent working pace. She describes her journey as both “strategic, and serendipitous.”

McCarney is a Professor of Political Science and Director and Founder of the Global City Indicators Facility (GCIF) and the Global Cities Institute (GCI) at the University of Toronto. She is also the President and CEO of the World Council of City Data (WCCD), which is the host of the first international set of standards for urban metrics, known as ISO 37120. She has written seven books to date, covering topics such as cities and global governance, sustainability, climate change, education, and local government in developing nations.

When asked about her advice to young professionals, McCarney emphasizes, don’t let anything stop you. Early in the conversation, she jokes about taking her then eleven-month-old daughter Georgia (now a real estate professional and fellow ULI member) on a business trip to Asia. “It was a 12-hour flight, and the flight attendant put Georgia in a bassinet and attached it to the wall of the cabin, and thankfully she was quiet for the entire trip. Just before we landed in Bangkok, I took her out of the bassinet, and the other passengers applauded for such a well-behaved baby.” When Georgia was six and her son Ben was a baby, she took them with her to South Africa so that she could help the office of President Mandela write a National Urban Strategy for South Africa.

She admits the early years were difficult, but parenthood wasn’t going to slow her down. “You do the best you can, and you’ll make mistakes, but that shouldn’t hold you back. Nothing is perfect, but it all fits,” explains McCarney. “My kids have a wealth of rich cultural experience, and they value that exposure in retrospect. I also have a supportive partner that felt exactly the same way about my career, and that helped a lot.”
While working towards a Masters in City Planning at the University of Manitoba, one of McCarney’s professors, Mario Carvalho, picked up on her worldly interests and encouraged her to study international development at one of the six North American universities offering the course at the time. She followed his advice and went to Boston to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “Again, a professor took note and asked me if I’d like to move to Nairobi for a position with the United Nations to build a database on cities.” She jumped at the opportunity and returned to Boston afterward to finish her Ph.D. Being at MIT led Patricia to positions with UN-Habitat, IRDC, and, eventually, the World Bank. “Honestly, that first position was pivotal. I still employ skills I learned in Nairobi,” says McCarney. “When you’re young and opportunity knocks, when you don’t have children or mortgages, definitely take advantage.” Again, some things are strategic, and others are serendipitous.
Part of her position with the World Bank required globally comparative city-data. McCarney realized how difficult it was to come by accurate information. “Most cities weren’t even defining city limits in the same way, so we couldn’t measure population size accurately, never mind police officers per 100,000 or crime rates or emergency response times or anything really,” she says. A clearly defined set of city indicators was desperately needed to produce reliable data, so she set to work in establishing the GCIF.

“We took into account what cities were already measuring without enforcing arbitrary indicator priorities.” The World Bank and the GCIF collected data from nine pilot cities: out of the 1,100 indicators they brought to the table, only two were comparable. “We started building standardized definitions and methodologies, but that was only the beginning.”

In 2012, Patricia and Helen Ng (now the Executive Vice President of the WCCD) went to the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) in Geneva, with 255 cities onboard reporting 75 indicators. “We built an incredible network of cities and could now have a legitimate conversation regarding city services and quality of life through Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the Americas from the data collected. We posed the question to ISO: could this become an ISO standard? The immediate answer was ‘probably not.’ But a few months later, the ISO came back to us.” As it turned out, Japan and France were also interested in developing ISO Standards for cities. “TC 268 was then created, and we went through what’s called a Living Lab, a kind of fast-track to building an ISO standard.”

Though it usually takes six years to build an ISO Standard, two years later, ISO 37120 was published and officially launched at the Global Cities Summit, held here in Toronto on May 15, 2014. The fast track involved ballots going out internationally to many countries and stakeholders with hundreds of comments coming in about the indicators which they then had dispositioned at ISO meetings worldwide.

“It was not easy, but we got it.” Once the data is certified, cities become part of a global registry, and data becomes available through the open data portal. “We’re now building the front end of the portal so that citizens or lawyers, planners, or real estate developers can log in and look at city data in comparative frameworks. Land density, transportation, emergency response, finance, and so on, it’s a huge resource.” This information also helps respond to a lot of the ranking systems that lack credible data.Under ISO, cities were surprisingly cooperative and wanting to report information for certification. It has been incredibly organic and self-propelled.

“I know you’re interested in leadership,” Patricia jokes, “but it’s all about perseverance. Helen and I really persevered.” Her advice to younger generations? “Step up,” says Patricia. “It’s important to develop confidence early on, and demonstrate your strengths to your boss. Take the initiative where you know you’re capable.” According to McCarney, managers are usually so busy; they rarely have the time to mentor junior staff.

“They simply don’t have time. Working nights, weekends, attending to endless emails – in the end, if you need to find someone to mentor you, step up, and say here I am.” One example she cites is of a young statistics intern who recommended a specific program to help organize data, and ended up helping translate a PowerPoint and going with her to Shanghai to attend a United Nations World Cities Summit “He jumped right in at those meetings in Shanghai, and he’s only 22.”

“When younger staff members stand up, give their informed opinion and think about things their bosses haven’t considered, it resonates,” explains McCarney. “It’s a great help and demonstrates the ability that may have been missed otherwise.” Also, Patricia points out, as a woman, it is specifically important to develop confidence early on because you need to have the ability to stand up for yourself or ask a question if something is amiss.

“It may be uncomfortable, even gut-wrenching at the time, but there are some battles you need to fight. If you know it’s right, take it on. Be conscious and be aware and hold your ground.”
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Mitzie Hunter

She Builds Cities

Mitzie Hunter
Date: 04.07.2020 | Leslie Woo | SHOWCASE, Toronto
Toronto, Canada

Toronto, Canada
MITZIE HUNTER Ontario Member of Parliament, Scarborough Guildwood
I have known Mitzie for over a decade and honored to call her a friend. Mitzie’s optimism is only outpaced by her passion for creating a more just society where the less fortunate have a voice and hope for a fulfilled future. We first met in early 2000 while working on Toronto’s bid for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

Her rise as one of the main influencers in Toronto’s urban discourse is becoming legendary. As a first-generation immigrant from the Caribbean, Mitzie brings a perspective that is relevant and poignant for any modern global city.

The former CEO of Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance (CivicAction) she led a non-partisan agenda, building strategic partnerships, and launched campaigns, programs, and organizations that transform our region

What has been your most important lesson as a city builder?

“I was most inspired as co-chair of the Emerging Leaders Network seeing the power of rising leaders as they become city builders. I can see that these young leaders in our network and Fellows program will eventually lead our cities, province, and nation. We must constantly give space to rising leaders so they can hone their city-building skills.”

Melody Adhami

She Builds Cities


Date: 02.01.2018 | Leslie Woo | Uncategorized

President and COO, Plastic Mobile

Once again I am moved and inspired by the breadth of power, talent and passion, that Melody Adhami has assembled, in this votive to 150 women in Canada entitled Your Turn: Powerful Thoughts from Today’s Women to the Next

Melody’s after hours labour of love came to life on November 28th 2017 in a glitzy and beautiful event in downtown Toronto. I was fortunate enough to be invited to contribute (I am page 94) and share the evening with the likes of  IWF Fellow Janice Macdonaldand her family and friends.

THANK YOU MELODY for shining some many points of light onto women who are energizing this hopeful country.

She Builds Cities