Dorin Vaez Mahdavi on finding friends and what makes a city vibrant

We had the opportunity to sit down with one of Hey Neighbour’s newest research assistants to talk about her academic interests and what she loves most about travelling to other countries.

How did you connect with Hey Neighbour?

I came to Canada for my master’s of urban studies and was working with another professor on similar work to HNC. In my first semester, I worked as a research assistant for Community Housing Canada (which also has collaborations with HNC). After that, I started as a research assistant with HNC which has been really exciting for me. I’m enjoying being more involved in their projects and learning about the Canadian context of housing and policy. 

Coming to Vancouver (from Tehran) everything is very different, so that’s taken some adjustment. My coursework and Hey Neighbour have helped me build my foundational knowledge.

Why did you come to Canada?

After I finished my bachelor’s degree in Tehran, I knew I wanted to study and live abroad and I always thought a master’s degree would be the best time to do that. I wanted to go somewhere immigrant-friendly where I’d feel more included because it would be my first experience being detached from home and I knew Canada would fit that. I also had a family member here which I thought would be helpful for my first transition.

What is your master’s focused on?

I haven’t fixed the topic yet, but I’m very interested to learn more about  ‘social mixing’ models in housing development and re-development, the variety of ways they are applied in Canada, and what kinds of impacts different approaches are having on residents in terms of well-being. The practice is applied quite differently around the world and the overall history behind it is fascinating.

Why does the concept of social mixing appeal to you?

The reason it’s interesting to me is that at the same time I was learning about the complex history and applications of social mixing, I was also taking a class on urban inequality and we spent a lot of time discussing housing affordability in Canada and especially Vancouver. I was really involved in the conversation as it was very relatable to me, because of my experience in Tehran. There, housing is also in a crisis and I was shocked at how big of a crisis it is here in Vancouver as well.

I was attracted to the housing discussion but particularly to social mixing itself and I learned more about it through my research about Canadian community housing with Yushu Zhu and Meg Holden. In that work, we were focusing on the experience of public housing tenants at the time of COVID in relation to their state of well-being. I was involved in understanding how housing vulnerability is defined and how living in community housing buildings can be very different than living in market housing. I was very proud to be listed as a co-author along with Dr. Yushu and Dr. Meg Holden in an article about our findings.

Tell us about your study trip to Finland in August

We travelled there as part of a course on comparative sustainable development and we covered a lot of different aspects of sustainability. But since I’m really focused on housing, on the days when we got to learn about housing in Finland I was particularly excited.

Travelling to a new country with a group of classmates and professors as part of your course is completely different from a normal trip I’d go on. I visited places that I’d never have had a chance to go to and met with experts I’d never have access to on my own. Being able to see in person how things are done and hearing from the experts themselves was so different from reading a paper at home.

I’ve had a passion for travelling since I was 15 when I got to go to a field school in India for a week. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life. The next summer I went to Sweden with my school for an environmental conference. In my other travels, I’ve been with family to France, Russia, Spain, Turkey, and now Canada. But this trip to Finland was the most intensive study-related trip I’ve had the privilege to participate in yet.

A group of SFU students sit in a brightly lit atrium full of plants in Finland.

What did you find most interesting about the trip?

Finland’s emphasis on environmental sustainability and the use of technology in almost every part of their city planning. Carbon emission reduction is present in almost everything from construction to transport. I was fascinated to see this up close and even now, being back in Vancouver, I still have that in the back of my head, so I’m still comparing everything like recycling, and water and waste management. 

Also, I had heard a lot about how Finnish people are introverted and don’t really like to talk to strangers, there are so many memes about this! But I had really nice conversations with random strangers in Finland; it’s nice to experience a place for yourself because you develop your own ideas.

A comic that says, "Finnish Nightmares" showing four figures: on the left, two are looking at each other with the caption, "When a stranger looks you in the eyes" and on the right, the same two figures respond with "And smiles."

What differences really stick out for you between European and North American cities?

I’d say the most striking difference is that in Europe cities were built mostly for people and only later for cars. Here in North America (generally) cities were built first for cars and later for people. There’s this documentary called ‘The Human Scale’ directed by Andreas Dalsgaard, presenting the research of Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and professor. Gehl’s research is about human behaviour in cities. The film brings experts across the world together to present ideas about putting people in the center of our city planning. It’s also about how human interaction in cities and the liveliness of streets and urban spaces is dependent on people actually using them: going outside and having the chance to walk, sit, talk, etc. That is something that is not completely but mostly missing in Canada. You don’t see that many places where people can just sit and do nothing or read a book in a public space.

In Tehran and in other places, plazas, where you might do this, are more abundant. In Isfahan, we have big, fascinating plazas that were built before the Islamic revolution (or, pre-Islamic Republic). People never go home (in Tehran): weirdly, they are always in the street

There’s also something interesting that happens in Tehran that I’m not sure exists in North America (or maybe it does, but I haven’t experienced it yet!). We call it “dast forooshi”  or “hand sales.” I think here it would be called “hawking.” Essentially, it means that people sell products directly, from the street and without a shop or even a truck. On sidewalks – the ones that are bigger – there are people sitting and selling things like artwork or random items like cell phone chargers, flowers, batteries, almost everything! Even though it’s very common, it’s been a controversial issue and the municipality has tried removing them from the city. The major question is: is it their right to use the pavement? And ultimately, is it a good thing for the city, does it bring liveliness? It’s contentious but it’s an example of people using urban spaces for different purposes.

What’s it been like finding friends here?

It was a really big transition for me when I moved here. But I was lucky because I moved with my best friend from high school so it eased me through the pain of adjusting to a new environment. We’re now roommates! 

In the first months, it was hard for me to find friends. But because I was with my roommate, we would find people together, so I first hung out with her friends and some people I already knew here. But I always wanted to start hanging out with new people from different cultures and backgrounds and that’s one of the best things about Vancouver. There are people from all around the world who are all sort of similar but also different. It’s an exploration of people and first encounters.

How important is it to have a group of good friends?

Friends are usually your support group. I have a skin issue and one time it got triggered and I get wounds and couldn’t really move. In Tehran, we don’t have referrals and the systems are different, so I didn’t know what to do or where to go. It was then that I realized my friends are my biggest support. When something happens to you, you should really reach out to your friends. It was really important to have a group of people to depend on. My friends here aren’t as close as my friends from Tehran, but it’s good I started.