Rojan Nasiri on how urban design can facilitate walking among older adults, and why Kerman is her favourite city

During our chat with Rojan, one of HNC’s research assistants, we learned about what makes for walkable urban spaces and sociable common areas among older adults, plus some of her favourite things about Kerman, Iran.

What is your master’s work focused on?

I’m studying gerontology! Actually, it’s my second master’s; my first is in urban planning. The courses are obviously totally different, but I’m really happy that I changed my major. Not because I didn’t like urban planning: I’m obsessed with it! But gerontology gives me a different perspective and something specific to focus on within urban areas. It’s really interesting trying to figure out how to apply theories or policies from urban planning to the needs of older adults. And I’m learning it’s a must – every urban planner should have this knowledge! Especially in cities where the majority of citizens are older adults.

My current research is about mobility and how we can design more walkable streets and cities. Urban design can facilitate walking among older adults; certain design decisions can encourage them to walk more and encourage them to walk for more extended periods of time. I’ve looked at this question before for the general population, and it’s interesting to learn about the differences for older adults specifically.

Can you share any examples of urban walkability challenges?

Whenever I go out and observe older adults, I pay attention to which side of the sidewalks they’re using and how they handle curbs. Do the lights at the crosswalk give them enough time to cross? Even for me, the crosswalk lights are sometimes not slow enough and I have to run! In parks, I’m wondering about whether or not the trails are accessible: is the gravel hard enough for mobility-assisted devices, or is it too bumpy?

Another thing I’m studying is how having a destination to walk to makes it more likely that someone will walk. When it’s too distant – more than 10 minutes walking – it’s not accessible to older adults. Then, older people don’t have a destination or a reason to go out and walk. This is the main problem in the suburbs, everything is too far from you. 

I’ve also noticed that downtown Vancouver is well-connected with public transit, but in the suburbs, it’s not so great. If you have to wait a while, it can be frustrating for older adults, especially when there often aren’t benches at the stops for them to sit down.

What are you working on with Hey Neighbour?

In the project that I am involved in, we’re hoping to identify shared spaces in multi-unit housing that residents use for social interactions. We also focus on “aging in place” and take notice of older adult residents. Having frequent interactions with neighbours, and the resultant sense of community is a contributor to positive aging in a place. We focus on the physical features of the shared spaces: do these shared spaces have good lighting? Good quality furniture? After auditing the physical aspects, we do some behaviour mapping of the actual use of space to see how these spaces are actually used by residents.

Rojan stands in front of a poster, presenting a Hey Neighbour project at the John K. Friesen Conference Centre.

What have you learned so far about social interactions and older people in multi-unit buildings?

Social interaction is more than just a “hello.” During our behaviour mapping, we observed the common spaces of some buildings for up to eight hours. Sometimes, we wouldn’t see anyone or even hear any sounds. I’m not yet sure why this is, but maybe one thing is that the residents’ cultures and languages might be different. Maybe people aren’t able or willing to talk to their neighbours?

So, we’re also conducting interviews with the staff and managers of these buildings and we’re establishing focus groups with residents to ask them for their ideas and perspectives. We want to find out if the residents actually want to get to know their neighbours in the first place. If yes, what are the environmental barriers and how can we help facilitate those barriers being altered or removed? We find that talking with residents about their lived experiences provides a better insight into our findings. 

Do you live in a multi-unit building yourself? How does that compare with what you observe through your research?

Yes! I live on the 15th floor of a multi-unit building in Coquitlam. Whenever I’m working on my projects with Hey Neighbour, I think, “We need this in our apartment, too!” I don’t know any of my neighbours. Sometimes I come across them in the elevator, but they don’t look at me and I don’t know why. We have a few common spaces; a room where there are ping pong and billiard tables and a gym. But I never have a chance to talk to my neighbours; they always have headphones on. In Iran, where I’m from, we’re outgoing people and we love to talk – to strangers even! But here, I don’t often have that chance.

Could multi-generational buildings help build better communities? What was your experience of that in Iran?

We studied three of these kinds of buildings in Vancouver with Hey Neighbour. They were more vibrant and the older adults seemed happier. We would see more interactions among residents. There was more ‘noise’ in the buildings.

My extended family all live in one building but in different apartments. My parents and siblings are neighbours with my aunts and grandmother. It’s totally different from what it’s like here.

I grew up in Kerman, a small city in southern Iran. It’s a historic city and the people are really warm; actually, they are famous for their hospitality. And the food is delicious. I really miss the traditional food from there! One dish I really love is Bozghorme – it’s made out of meat, kashk, herbs and chickpeas, and it takes five or six hours to cook, but it’s really delicious. (But, I can’t find the ingredients here!)

The aqua blue-green waters fill Lut Desert near Kerman, in southern Iran.
Lut Desert, Rojan’s favourite place in Kerman, and one of the hottest places in the world.