Getting to know Ghazaleh Akbarnejad

One of Hey Neighbour Collective’s research assistants talks to us about liminal spaces, the importance of green space, and what housing is like in Tehran.

We recently sat down with Ghazaleh over Zoom to chat about her work with the Collective and her experiences with liminal spaces and architecture. She’s working on her Master’s degree in Urban Studies at SFU and still found some time to share some of her project work and why she loves green space.

Hi Ghazaleh! Your name is lovely – how do we pronounce it?

It’s a Persian name! It’s pronounced gæ-zɑ-lɛ and my family calls me Ghazal, pronounced gæ-zɑl.

How do you locate yourself academically?

I’m doing a master’s degree in Urban Studies and my background is in architecture. I received my first master’s degree in Architecture from Iran, designing and researching residential complexes with a focus on liminal spaces.  I’m from Iran originally and came to Vancouver to study at SFU.

It can’t be easy being so far away from your family, especially during a pandemic. How long have you been away?

I was here for two and a half years before I could go home and visit family and friends. I took a month off recently to go back and it was great seeing them again. I hope I can go back to visit again when I graduate. I’ll defend my thesis this summer (2022): hopefully! That’s the plan. I would like to stay here and work full time. 

What are liminal spaces, and why do they interest you?

Liminal spaces are the “in-between spaces” or transition spaces. In buildings, they’re spaces such as entrances, corridors, and stairs. They’re the threshold between two spaces, where there is a high chance of encounters for people. Often, liminal spaces are places we don’t think of – they’re not at the forefront.

They’re a bit mysterious and the way they are designed is connected to cultures, too. 

Where I come from in Iran, liminal spaces in traditional residential architecture are varied and impacted by the culture and climate of the regions. For example, in central cities of Iran, like Yazd, there were often long entrance hallways or corridors through the main door of a house, leading to a central courtyard (the heart of the house for activities) which was surrounded by other, living, semi-open and indoor spaces.

This reflected the culture of the region, providing a hierarchical boundary between the inside and outside so that the family’s privacy position was protected. This also led to cooler air temperatures of spaces in the hot and dry climate of Yazd (see this article for visuals and examples).

In the North of Iran on the other hand, with rainy weather and climate similar to Vancouver, the architecture of traditional houses and transition spaces consisted of several semi-open spaces in the form of balconies – called Talar – with high visual connections to the outdoors and with fewer elements of privacy. These balconies were the heart of activities for the family, offered connections with the outdoors, and provided great air circulation in the damp weather of the region. So, there are not only social but also energy efficiency and environmental values and outcomes in designing these spaces (see this article for some visuals and examples).

What are other examples of liminal spaces and how do they impact social connectivity?

Many of the buildings here in Vancouver have rooftop gardens that are shared between two multi-unit buildings, and they play a role in connecting residents or providing a platform for activities. Or for example lobby areas are the transition spaces where people bump into each other. The way they are designed, furnished, and activated impacts how people use them and how much time they spend in them.

Are bigger hallways or lobbies more social? 

Not necessarily. It really depends on where they are located, how they are designed, how they make people feel. The quality of the design matters a great deal:  the lighting, ventilation, colours, furniture etc. An example of a poorly designed space would be an amenity room in a building that’s located somewhere where nobody ever passes by, so they don’t use it at all. 

Programming is also important in how shared spaces will be used, which is something that the Collective is focused on. How is the space activated by residents, owners, or property managers? I think these are all factors in thinking about how we can better use liminal spaces that might otherwise be left empty and underutilised.

The more energy you put into them, the more activities take place in these spaces. Another factor impacting the use of these spaces is the needs and priorities of the residents, in terms of using and spending time in them. For example, families with small children and those with pets might tend to spend more time in a shared rooftop garden so that the children can play in an outdoor safe space or for pets to walk, than those who spend most of their time working outside the home.  

Liminal spaces have potential and they should be taken care of in order to make them something active and social. Entrances are a good example. Primarily, they are transition areas, to give people space to pass to get through the building. But, they are also places where people interact naturally. So why not use their potential to further connections? 

What are some barriers to residents feeling a sense of social connectedness in buildings?

Language and cultural differences can be a barrier to social connectedness in buildings. Although cultural exchange can be fun for many, sometimes misunderstandings in humour or values can present barriers to people forming deeper connections and friendships.

How is the rent in Tehran?

Density is high in Tehran and there is less and less single-family housing, but also less green space due to affordability and lack of land compared to the housing demand. Single-family and low-rise buildings are being converted to high-rise multi-unit dwellings. Unaffordability is a crisis in Iran, the price of housing is so high, currency values are low and wages aren’t keeping up. The density is much higher than in Vancouver. But overall, it’s the same general issues in terms of accessing affordable homes that we face here!

An image of pedestrians walking around the pedestrian-only Shahrdari Square in Rasht, just north of Iran.
Shahrdari Square, in Ghazaleh’s hometown of Rasht, north of Iran (Shahrdari means “City Hall” building in Farsi; Shahr = City). This is the heart of Rasht City for its residents. A few years ago, a renovation took place in the streets around this place so that no vehicles were allowed into this area. The streets have since become a social and cultural plaza for pedestrians to walk and gather, for artists to play their music and for makers to display and sell their wares.

How did you hear about the Collective?

I communicated with SFU Urban Studies professor Meg Holden in the summer of 2019 and told her about my interests and experiences and she told me about Hey Neighbour Collective! I was so surprised and really happy about the opportunity. When I came to Canada that September, I joined the Collective and started working with Meg and other SFU professors, research assistants, HNC directors, and partners of the project. At that time it was all in-person, community of practice meetings. It was really great learning for me to understand the context of housing in Canada and Vancouver. The policies are so different from Iran. My expertise was mostly on housing in Iran cities. 

I started thinking about my Master’s thesis topic while continuing my role as a research assistant in the HNC until this past November (2021) when my Mitacs internship ended. HNC shaped my master’s thesis research, especially my work with HNC partner Catalyst Community Developments Society at a building based in Richmond. I’m researching how the residents experience social interactions and the sense of connectedness in their neighbourhood’s public realms. It’s about the social outcomes of affordable housing in relation to the neighbourhood public realm in the Richmond City Centre Area.

Do you live in a multi-unit building?

Yes! I actually live in one of Concert Property’s buildings (an HNC partner)! I have a student income and a roommate and we were searching for two months, it was very frustrating. Now we have a nice two-bedroom apartment. I plan on staying! It has good access to a variety of locales and access to transportation. Maybe HNC can branch out to help people find places to live!

Has working with HNC made you a better neighbour? 

I’m starting to notice things about neighbourly connections and tenant-landlord relationships more than before. When there is something I can help with, or if there’s something my neighbours need, I remind myself that I’m responsible too. If there’s a problem in my unit that I can not fix, or if there’s something I can do to make the building situation better, I talk with the building manager. I haven’t done a “large” favour for my neighbours yet, but previously when I lived in a single-family home we had a great relationship with our neighbours and we would give each other food and they would sometimes bring things. 

Tell us more about the work you’ve done with Catalyst

I have been doing a study with one of Catalyst’s buildings, a below-market rental building in Richmond. We did collaborative online mapping and interview exercises with residents during the pandemic. I asked residents to add places of joy, happiness, and social connectedness to the geographic map of their neighbourhood and explain their experiences. 

We did this to identify those “third” places, the public and semi-public places, as well as shared spaces in their buildings that they like and maybe want to improve. For example, we talked about the building’s rooftop garden, favourite walking routes and the parks they took their pets to and the reasons why they liked those places. There was a lot of input on that map, and I’m working on a mostly qualitative analysis now and writing the chapters of my thesis to present the findings and draw conclusions. 

Is it true that the more green spaces you have, the better?

From an urban planning and health science perspective, of course, there are a lot of benefits, including physical and mental health impacts and improving quality of life. Evidence from this study shows that spending at least two hours in nature per week was associated with good health and well-being. I think if there could be enough green spaces provided in all neighbourhoods that would be great! 

You hesitated a minute there…why?

My hesitancy would be comparing the benefits of removing green space to putting more affordable housing in place. Green space is great, but if there is a housing crisis and lots of empty and underutilised land available, we can use some of it to develop more affordable housing. The balance between the density of housing and the supply of green spaces is necessary in order to create access to both green spaces and enough housing options.

My personal experience is that when I lived in my previous home in the Kitsilano area, there were a lot more green spaces and parks than in my current neighbourhood. They were always quiet and some were underutilized. There was a lot of yard space around single-family homes. I found myself going for walks more often because I found a lot of peace and energy from nature when I walked in that neighbourhood.

Of course, here (where I live now) the access to public transit and other amenities is much better, but compared to my previous neighbourhood I find there’s more noise pollution from the cars and streets… Burnaby Central Park is nearby, but to get there, you have to pass by and across streets that are busy. Maybe that’s the reason I don’t find it as comfortable to get out into green spaces now. I definitely feel the difference. 

Autumn in the Arbutus Ridge neighbourhood of Vancouver, BC is awash in colourful fall foliage including yellow and red maples.
Autumn in the Arbutus Ridge neighbourhood of Vancouver, the previous area where Ghazaleh rented and her first home in Canada

What other projects are you working on?

We started two sister urban consultancy cooperatives with all women of colour! We’re originally from Iran, the Philippines, Peru, and India with different backgrounds but we’re all candidates or alumni of the  SFU Urban Studies’ master’s program and our backgrounds range from communication and social policy to urban planning and architecture. It’s a great network and community to discuss barriers and challenges in the planning profession. 

We recently received a Feminist Recovery Grant from the Women And Gender Equality Department to do a project called Towards a More Feminist City of Surrey. The cooperatives are called Citopia and City in Colour.

Part of the grant is to review the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) efforts in the city of Surrey’s civic institutions including the City of Surrey, SFU Surrey, Surrey Library. These include learning about and building on the hiring, retention, and upward mobility practices and policies in these institutions, specifically for racialized women in the workforce. We want to see what this looks like both in practice and policy, then try to improve them, hopefully! It’s a three-year project through Women and Gender Equality (WAGE).