Robyn Lee, on her work with the Collective and the importance of understanding architectural history

We recently connected with one of HNC’s Research Assistants to talk about her work with the Collective, her Master’s studies, and the importance of understanding history when it comes to looking at today’s urban fabric.

How did you learn about the Collective?

I applied to the Masters of Urban Studies program at SFU for fall of 2022. When I was accepted, I was also in the process of looking for part-time research work; this was something I wanted to do while studying and the program is structured to accommodate working students’ schedules. 

But also, a personal goal I had was to look for urban studies-related research work and through different conversations Dr. Meg Holden let me know the Collective was looking for a research assistant, so I applied! I started part-time in the fall but am working here full-time this summer.

What kind of work are you doing right now?

I’m sure you’ve heard a bit from Lainey, but we just finished two residents’ surveys this year. It was a collaborative process: together, we finished the analysis of our survey data and compiled final reports for the two housing providers.

Has COVID impacted your schooling or work with the Collective?

I finished my undergrad in 2019 and worked for a couple of years before considering going back to school– so I was very fortunate that most of my school experience was not impacted by COVID. A small impact from COVID could be that I have more remote-work experience than in-person.

But it’s a bit hard to say at this point because we are in the third year of the pandemic. For now, it is a part of our daily lives and some people have adjusted for this at work – ranging from remote meetings to having more support for time-off. This being said, I am always reminded that it is a huge privilege to have most of my daily life still continue during the pandemic. In terms of HNC, we were able to deliver our surveys in person before December, when the Omicron wave started. For school, I am sure many students can attest to how remote learning makes it harder to meet new people.

Do you live in a multi-family building?

Yes, I live in a strata apartment in Burnaby with my family, but I previously lived in a house (also with my family). Before coming to SFU, I was studying in Montreal so like many other students, I rented apartments there. 

Why did you want to study history and how has that led to choosing urban studies for your master’s?

During my degree, I happened to take multiple Canadian history courses that focused on how migration shapes our environment and asking why our neighbourhoods or communities look the way they do and the people involved in that process. Since policy is always involved when tracking the history of changes to any space, that’s what motivated me to better understand the consequences of higher-level decisions made by urban planners and policymakers on our surroundings.

Robyn Lee in a black coat and toque, sitting on a stone bench in a stone building.

What’s been your favourite part of your master’s program so far?

I think one of the program’s strengths is the flexible and supportive environment. There is a good deal of self-direction, so your homework is going to be something you’re interested in. I haven’t started writing my thesis yet though, so my answer could be different this time next year!   

How have you gotten to know your community?

It still feels a bit early to say that I’ve gotten to know the community here. But I’m grateful to Hey Neighbour because I don’t feel like I am in a bubble of just coursework. Since I am still learning more about housing in the Vancouver context, the insight from HNC members broadens what I already know about this community. We’ve also had a significant amount of in-person work too (like delivering surveys or the in-person focus groups) and it is nice to have these other experiences. 

Maybe if I was living alone I would try being more involved, but for this first year, I just wanted to focus on settling into my new roles. I’m hoping to do some volunteering over the summer and look into other groups to join at SFU. 

What is it like to live with your family?

It’s good, I feel very cared for! I was living away for about five years, so it is a change but I’m lucky to have this option and be back here. 

I have a younger sister, who is also in school at UBC. Sometimes we’ll talk about school together but she did almost two and a half years of remote school which can be really different.  

Tell us more about your survey work with Brightside and Catalyst. 

This fall I supported Lainey with survey distribution for Brightside which involved coordinating a team of student surveyors to visit the buildings in person.  While there was an online version, most surveys were completed by paper. We also conducted some surveys in person for those that preferred completing them with an interviewer. This allowed me to often have pretty lengthy conversations with people — which is always nice and has made me feel more connected to this work.

The Catalyst survey was distributed almost entirely online with a few completed in-person. Initially, not many people were completing the survey so we made some extra efforts to reach people like dropping flyers door-to-door or leaving paper copies of the survey with a return envelope so people could send it back to us. 

The in-person survey conversations always provided an added layer of detail. It will be interesting to compare field notes from this year and last year since this was not an option last year during the pandemic. I am sure I am not the only researcher who felt this way… but it reminded me again of how much I took in-person communication for granted.  

What’s an interesting piece of research you’ve read recently?

In a recent research-team meeting (SFU faculty students within HNC), we discussed a case study of public housing in Taiwan published in 2018. (1) The study looked at  “place relationships” which is another way of describing an individual’s relationship to a place. 

The article was interesting because they grouped their study by the built structure of the housing itself – for example, a “courtyard” layout versus a highrise structure. 

Many aspects of the study were context-specific to Taiwan, so we did a pretty shallow dive into how social housing is built and funded there. Essentially, public housing in Taiwan often refers to housing built by the government to promote homeownership at a below-market price. Importantly, a large number of the public housing projects in Taiwan are within military-dependent villages. The public housing projects in the case study were also in military-dependent communities in the city of Tainan.

We ended up using this research to focus more on the variety of building designs in the Vancouver context and how this could impact social interactions and relationships. 

Relating this to HNC work, many of the housing providers here manage a wide range of buildings–some buildings are brand new while others were built in the 1960s. A lot of work has already been done on the different and changing eras of housing policy and how this impacts the types of dwellings built in a given era.

So, out of curiosity, I made a list of Brightsides’ buildings and when they were each built and included this in our discussion. The Taiwan research article was more of a launching point to consider the relationship between government policy and the kinds of housing or building structures that are prioritized as a result.

It led us to have an interesting conversation about the different forces that influence our spaces which can shape how someone feels or experiences that place.

Why is it important to understand architectural history?

Architectural history is one part of it, but I think it is important to consider the political context in which structures are built. Many people are aware that federal funding for social housing in Canada dropped dramatically after its peak in the 1970s as a result of the political priorities of both Progressive Conservative and Liberal governments in the 1980s and 1990s. 

I really don’t think we can understand our current policy landscape without looking at what came before. To give you an example (I just learned about this), Canada’s National Occupancy Standards (NOS) –  which are criterion developed in the early 1990s used to determine housing suitability for applicants to subsidized housing – says that children of the opposite sex between 5-18 years old cannot share a bedroom.(2) (3) (4) This could lead to a situation where, despite families being perfectly happy to have their children share a room, being told there’s nothing “suitable” for them or staying on waitlists far longer than necessary. Recently, people have been studying the implications of the NOS criteria and some of these unintended consequences for social housing residents or applicants.

Robyn Lee walks down a tree-lined street at sunset with her back to the camera, looking over her right shoulder.


  1. Zhang, H., Matsuoka, R., & Huang, Y.-J. (2018). How Do Community Planning Features Affect the Place Relationship of Residents? An Investigation of Place Attachment, Social Interaction, and Community Participation. Sustainability, 10(8), 2726.
  2. Brend, Y. (2017, September 19). Rules on mixed-gender kids’ bedrooms shut some families out of affordable housing. CBC News.
  3. McCandless, E. (2020). Cracks in the Foundation? Examining the justifications for and unintended consequences of residential occupancy standards in Canada. [Masters of Law thesis, University of Manitoba].
  4. Rachelson, H., Wong, J., & Han, E. (2019). An Exploration of Approaches to Advance Culturally-Appropriate Housing in Canada. CMHC Report.