What are you working on with Hey Neighbour Collective?
I’m mainly focused on aging in place for people who live in affordable housing, especially older adults. I’m involved with behaviour mapping, looking at if and how people use common spaces. We’re also doing some audits of specific building design and accessibility elements for people with disabilities or mobility issues. This work is separate from my Master’s thesis, but it interconnects.
What is your Master’s focused on?
I’m in the SFU Urban Studies program and my research is looking at common spaces within multi-unit apartment buildings in Vancouver – specifically, the buildings belonging to Brightside Homes. I’m interested in understanding if common spaces – like lobbies and amenity areas – can facilitate social interactions between residents. And I’m looking at the interrelations between building design and resident use.
Part of that work involves studying building-design documents from the City of Vancouver. Brightside has 22 older buildings and four redevelopment projects. I’m investigating the building layouts and where the common spaces are. Laundry rooms and courtyards are also common spaces – to me, laundry rooms are fascinating! I’ve heard many people casually say, and I’ve also found in the research literature, that they’re often the number one informal place for residents to meet.
Why did you become interested in your research topic?
It really started from my living situation in Toronto. I lived there for eight years and during six of those, I lived in a four-story, 30-unit apartment building. The social contact with my neighbours was so minimal. I would say I came into contact with my neighbours a couple of times per month, and with people on my own floor, it was even more rare. The corridors were long, it was dark, and the lighting was inadequate. And nothing was going on in the building in terms of social activities. I didn’t like it at all. So, for my thesis, I thought, “How about looking at whether or not the design of a building could improve social interactions?”
I think social disconnection is a growing, worldwide phenomenon. I’m from Mashhad, Iran, and I remember as a child that people used to live in mid-rise apartment buildings and they would hang out in front of these buildings in the evenings. It was very social. Now (in Mashhad), there are more high-rises, rates of crime and theft are on the rise, and people don’t spend time together outside of their buildings in the same way.
You have a background in engineering: how has that helped you with your work in social resilience?
When I was studying engineering, I didn’t think about building design or community or social connections. But I did have questions about these topics. When I was living in my disconnected building in Toronto, my engineering brain would wonder, ‘What’s happening here?’ So, when it came time to develop my Master’s thesis, I thought about putting the two together. The physical design of the buildings and the decisions about how and why they were built that way connect to my engineering background. And I’m also now able to better understand how those decisions can help or hinder social connection among residents.
Can you explain more about how common spaces in multi-unit buildings differ between Vancouver and Iran?
Here in Canada, some of the buildings I’m researching were built in the 1950s or 60s, and they all have some type of common space. In Iran, buildings from the same era don’t have anything like that. But on the other hand, there are some unique designs that are structured around a central courtyard; it’s a very traditional architectural design.
My grandmother and her generation in Iran grew up with these traditional homes that had courtyards. As a kid, I loved visiting her because we’d play soccer in that space. When I started my research here in Canada, I learned that the courtyard is not unique to the Middle East. It’s also popular in northern Africa, Latin America, and China. Generally, courtyards seem to be common in multi-generational buildings in all of these countries. In many cases, the courtyard is positioned in the middle of the building and surrounded by many one-story apartment units where relatives live. For example, it’s common to see a few generations like grandparents, sons and daughters, and grandchildren all living next to each other. [The two images below depict courtyards in Iran and Mexico, respectively]
What helps activate a common space?
One thing I’m learning through this research is that it’s not all about the number of social spaces that exist to promote interaction among residents. It’s also about who is animating those spaces. Hey Neighbour Collective is interested in “resident animators” — people who can bring residents together and get them interacting. Alongside building-design features, we need people who can get other residents together and facilitate social activities and programs.
Many of the older buildings in Vancouver have very limited common spaces; in some cases, the laundry room or lobby are the only shared spaces! But the interesting part is that, even with only a laundry room as a shared space, residents often do their best to create multiple uses out of it. So, there will be things like a lending library or bike-rack storage in the laundry room. And these spaces do bring people together.
Have you gotten to know your current neighbours in Vancouver?
I live in a townhouse complex that has an L-shaped layout, so it’s very easy to see my neighbours most of the time, and I have come to know most of them. All of the front doors open onto the parking lot. In the summer, a part of the parking lot turns into a gathering space by my neighbours, where we can hang out and socialize. My roommate also knows several of our neighbours well, so he has introduced me, and last year, some of them invited us over for Thanksgiving. My roommate is definitely a catalyst for social interaction with our neighbours.
From your research, what does it mean when a building’s common areas are integrated with the surrounding neighbourhood?
It has to do with our perceptions of access – especially access to common areas. Buildings which are integrated into their surrounding public spaces are designed in a way that creates a sense of belonging and community between residents and non-residents. They invite the public to engage with the building in some way. Shared courtyards, playgrounds, and outdoor amenity spaces that the public or non-residents also have access to would be examples of such buildings. But it’s more often the case, especially in new developments, that a building’s common areas are only accessible to residents.
When we talk about the perception of common spaces in buildings, we often think about courtyards, playgrounds, outdoor amenity spaces and things like that. Sometimes a new development will install benches around the exterior of the building, which are something that passersby could use. Typically, though, the public is not welcome to use the interior common spaces – they are for the building residents only. That’s what we mean by a physical separation rather than an integration with the built environment: the buildings and common spaces don’t connect to the outside neighbourhood.
Then there’s also the issue of perception – how we perceive a built environment can affect whether we feel comfortable using it. When I walk around my neighbourhood, for example, I notice that some of the new buildings have public outdoor spaces, like water fountains and landscaping, in front of their entrances. And they have benches and beautiful architecture. There are no physical barriers that would prevent me from using these features. Yet I don’t feel comfortable using the benches! Why is that? This seems to have to do with my perception of the design itself. The designs look different from the surrounding buildings and neighbourhood; there are more modern features and landscaping. So, these amenities, although situated in the public realm, appear to be private property, and therefore aren’t inviting.
How do you hope to use this work in your future endeavours?
Before this experience, I put most of my focus on the technical aspects of solving problems, because of my civil engineering background. But now I see there are other aspects to these problems, like the politics and social issues at work, which are also important to solve.
Now I’m more interested in affordability. If I decide to continue with engineering at some point in the future, I’ll be more conscious about how we can feasibly construct buildings and cities that are affordable and accessible, especially for older adults. Through my observations in buildings, I’ve come face to face with communities of people who have mobility issues. It makes me think of my own relatives, who are getting older, and I see that this is a universal reality: we all age. So we have to do something about it. Before this project, I wouldn’t have considered that lobbies and corridors and laundry rooms were worth studying!