The colour of cities and family stories with Sara Emami

Our conversation with Sara, one of HNC’s Research Assistants, about her current research, why she loves the colour of cities, and how digital apps might help older adults stay connected.

How did you hear about HNC? 

I saw an email that was asking for volunteers to do the Brightside resident survey distribution in the fall of 2021. It was kind of unexpected! I wasn’t sure if there would be a need for a new research assistant but I was talking to Meg Holden about my thesis, because it was connected, and then she offered me the position starting in 2022.

How does what you’re doing with HNC connect to your life purpose?

I think it’s a famous statement that we are made of our actions. So many people wonder: what is the purpose of my life? What am I doing on the planet!? And after thinking about it a lot, maybe one answer for me would be to help others. That’s how I can find meaning in my life. When I help others, I feel fulfilled. 

In this case, Hey Neighbour aligned with my purpose. I’m glad I have the ability to help move this project forward and take a step toward my goal. I think when I helped conduct the resident survey and talked with older residents, I thought: they really need someone to talk to, to hear what they’re thinking and share it in a way that could help them down the road. 

When did you come to Canada?

I moved to Canada in 2019, from Tehran, Iran. Ghazaleh (another HNC research assistant) actually helped me a lot! It’s nice to know someone who has the same language and culture. But for the first year I was here, I didn’t have any purpose and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. My husband was studying and I was a newcomer, exploring. That was one of the hardest years of my life, I felt lonely and isolated. I had my husband so I wasn’t alone, but I didn’t have a community or friends, and my family wasn’t here. But that’s how I started working on finding something to make myself feel better.

Tell us more about how you found connection in your community.

I applied for SFU’s master’s program and that’s how it changed. At first, I tried to find a job but in the process of applying, doing a few interviews, and talking to a few firms in the industry…I realized that the regulations and policies here in Canada are different than in Tehran, so I needed to update my education on Canadian policies. So I felt the best thing to do was to go back to school and study. 

I also saw that my husband had his own friends, community, and goals through school and I felt I needed and wanted that. I wanted to experience studying at a Canadian university.

What was your academic background prior to coming to Canada?

I have a Bachelor’s in urban planning and a master’s degree in urban design in Tehran. All of them are related to their own context. I knew the theories and all the logic behind doing something in Tehran, but to apply this in Canada, I needed to learn more.

You’re working on your second master’s degree?

Yes, I’m finishing my first year now. I have an interesting course actually in the summer, I’m going to Finland in August. It’s a course about sustainability and comparing Finland to Vancouver and it’s going to be a great experience to travel around the world and see different designs and plans.

What are you most looking forward to about that trip?

Actually…I don’t have any idea about what will I see or do there, but mostly I’ve heard so many great things. For example, Nordic countries do a lot in terms of equal opportunity for men and women in the workforce. Also, they offer the best childcare services and social housing options. And they are leaders in sustainable architecture. I’m looking forward to learning how they do this. 

Do you like to travel?

Yes, it’s one of the best things in my life! My family loves to travel and I had the privilege to explore many cities and go to different places with them. I think that’s how I was interested in cities and how I came across urban planning for my bachelor’s degree. I love to go to different cities and walk through them without a plan! I just walk around, exploring local cafes and seeing what people are doing.

What do you like most about cities?

The first thing that was interesting for me when I started travelling was the colour of cities. I always saw my city as a gray city because I couldn’t find colours where I was living. Most of the time we had pollution so I had an image that it was “gray”.

When I went to other cities, I noticed how they use colour, and their facades are beautiful and engaging. The other thing that’s interesting is the public spaces. We don’t really have plazas (in Canada) like plazas in Europe. I loved going to places where so many people are walking, sitting, and playing. I think it’s interesting how flexible and adaptable those spaces are. Someone could sit, play, and sell something: the combination of all the activities is so lively. Or someone would dance! I really like watching that, because we don’t have much of that in Iran.

Of the places I travelled to, I found Italy had the best examples of plazas. There was a big plaza in Venice adjacent to the water with a lot of cafes where you could sit silently for hours and watch the world around you.

You moved from Victoria to Vancouver: what was that like?

It was life-changing for both of us (my husband and I). We were feeling lonely and isolated in Victoria. We lived there for a year because the pandemic happened right after we got there. So we were isolated in our home during the lockdown. The city was very quiet, it was small. When you went out, you wouldn’t see so many neighbours or have random encounters with people. We come from a big city with lively nights. 

Moving to Vancouver allowed us to have access to more people and we got the vibe that it’s more liveable and we could find more friends. For me going to campus and having classes was also interesting because I could find more friends. Everything got better when we moved. But Victoria is a nice place for vacation!

What’s the difference between where you live now and your home in Tehran?

In Vancouver, we live in a 5-storey building with around 50 units in it, not too different than our last home in Tehran (in Victoria we lived in campus housing, a townhouse). So I’m familiar with this housing type but it’s somehow strange for me because we barely bump into our neighbours in this building. There’s another unit right next to ours and our doors are so close but for almost a year, we thought it was vacant. But there are people living in it!

I have seen some familiar faces for example once or twice in the elevator but not any conversations and I’ve only interacted with a few people. The chances of running into someone should be higher! The only encounter I’ve had is with a unit at the end of the hall because he has a dog and he (the dog) likes to come to check things out.

I asked my father-in-law about this: what is the difference between this kind of building and the older, organic structures of neighbourhoods where residents knew all their neighbours and were close to each other? Now that we are living in multi-units, the chance of encounters should be more because there are more people. But why is it that we don’t talk to them and we barely know our neighbours? 

And I remember growing up, we were living in a 3-story building and it was a family building so we got to know our neighbours because they would always invite us for meals. When I say ‘family building,’ I mean that there was a building with three units: our neighbours (mother, daughter and her family in one unit), the son and his family in another, and us living in the third unit. My mother would go and cook with our neighbour or they would go shopping together. There was always lots of conversation. Then we moved to a 5-story building with 9 units and it changed suddenly because we didn’t have any previous or family connection with our neighbours. People moved and we didn’t even know they left, that kind of thing. So it’s happening all over the world, not just in Vancouver or Iran. But I’m curious about what makes the difference.

What did you learn from the Living Together Symposium?

During the symposium in June, we learned about how certain design elements can help increase the number of encounters you might have with neighbours, which over time can grow into relationships. Things like adding a courtyard to a building or adding amenity spaces or wider corridors or exterior corridors. And of course events and other types of more intentional activities or programs can help, but I think maybe you need to have people dedicated to it.  Everyone should want to build relationships with their neighbours, but sometimes we need a bit of help. 

The ideas for physical changes to buildings were from a presentation about the FLUID sociability tool, which is trying to predict social relationships and how a change to physical form (in the built environment) will change the chance of having interactions with neighbours and forming social connections. That was interesting for me to learn, because of my research focus, and because the FLUID tool is also something that wants to reduce social isolation between neighbours.

It was also just interesting for me to be in person and great to see so many faces and talk. Everybody had different backgrounds, there were different housing providers, people from different cities, and researchers. You could really hear different perspectives and put them together to find a common vision.

What is your master’s research focusing on? 

I’m focusing on digital technologies and bringing people together and doing citizen engagement. For my thesis, I’m trying to see how some of the digital applications – like Facebook Neighbourhoods and Nextdoor – enhance social connectedness for older adults. I’m trying to see if this kind of networking technology can really help people be less isolated and feel that they can find friends, talk to people and socialize. If they can minimize their loneliness.

What are you doing for Hey Neighbour?

Right now I’m working on a comparative report from the surveys that were conducted last fall, comparing and analyzing the survey data. Actually, the idea for my thesis came out of the focus groups we did for this comparative analysis! I heard from a lot of the people in that group that during the pandemic, the Internet was a lifesaver for them. They couldn’t go to yoga classes and that was the place where they got to know other neighbours and made friends. After the pandemic, they said that having Zoom classes and other activities was somehow helping them not be depressed as much. 

I started thinking about what if, for example, applications for local social networking would be worth exploring. Would it be helpful for seniors to socialize with each other and to get help for their healthcare needs? I wanted to see if this kind of application could help them.

One of the ways they socialized was just to get help setting up technology. I have to explore this because there are real barriers for seniors. So I have to see if the barriers are bigger than the positive outcomes.