Understanding the walking experiences of older immigrant populations with Farinaz Rikhtehgaran

In our conversation with research assistant Farinaz, we talked about her work with HNC and discussed the challenges and potential solutions for making walking more accessible for immigrant older adults in cities.

What are you working on with Hey Neighbour Collective?

I recently joined the HNC to work on a sub-project which is focused on ageing in place and social interaction in multi-unit buildings. I’m currently analyzing data from the team’s observations. Atiya is our advisor, and I’m collaborating with Niloofar, Rojan, and Sogol. It’s great to have fellow Iranians on the team, it provides a sense of familiarity! We also have team meetings with the urban studies department at SFU. 

Additionally, we’re arranging focus groups for residents, particularly older adult groups, and some interviews with staff. And we’re doing a scoping review on this topic. Following the data collection, we’ll provide recommendations for the two organizations we’re collaborating with on this project: Brightside Community Homes and Concert Properties. 

Why did you decide to focus on gerontology for your second Master’s? 

I came to BC to study gerontology under the supervision of Dr. Atiya Mahmood. When I first talked with her about the field, I learned that she also has a background in architecture and environmental design. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in urban planning from Isfahan and then I received a Master of Arts in Urban Design from the University of Tehran. So, we had similar stories.

My research in Iran was focused on developing walkable neighbourhoods and co-designing public spaces with neighbourhood residents. During that work, I realized that, somehow, the voices of older adults and seniors get missed in the practice of urban design. Whenever I would talk with them, I got the sense that they felt like there was nothing for them – no activities, no places to go. This is what made me want to focus on gerontology. But unfortunately in Iran, there was no academic program for me to pursue in that field. So, I decided to come to Canada to learn.

What have you found through your literature review? 

It’s complicated! In the literature, the lived experience of walking among older adults born in Canada is predominantly about the built and social environments around them. But what I’ve found in studies on the experiences of immigrant older adults is that it is not just the built and social environment that matters, There are other considerations, like their financial environment or housing arrangements, like if they live with or nearby their children, or have access to a financial support system. Finances and social support can impact an older adult’s independence in mobility and sense of autonomy. For example, let’s say an older adult wants to go out for a walk or to get groceries, but is dependent on others for getting around and on a fixed income. If they can’t afford to take public transit, it doesn’t make sense for them to go for a walk, because they can’t access something like a bus to help them get to the store.

There are also things like language barriers, cultural norms, and life experiences from their home country with walking and the use of public transportation. All of these things, if addressed properly, can encourage older immigrant adults to walk. 

Why focus on walking?

During my undergrad in Iran, my work was focused on the walkability of urban neighbourhoods. Then, when I came to Vancouver, I started looking around and wondered, “If my parents came here, would they be able to go out on their own and explore their surrounding neighbourhoods?”  And what I realized is that they wouldn’t be able to. Even for me, when I first came here, it was a bit stressful to go shopping and use public transit, just because it’s different from what I was used to in my country. Through my own experiences, I became more concerned about the needs of immigrants, particularly older adult immigrants, because their resources are much more restricted.

How long have you been in Vancouver?

I’ve been here since September 2021 and I really like it because it’s so multicultural. I also like Vancouver’s unique nature. I remember when I first came here, I was in a taxi from the airport to my hotel. I exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, I’m in the middle of a jungle!” because there were so many trees everywhere. It didn’t feel like a city.

I was on my own for the first nine months I was here. Living alone was tough sometimes, but I think I grew up as a result! I was lucky too, I had good friends. And, I worked for Renewable Cities in Vancouver (part of the Centre for Dialogue at SFU) which really helped me get to know the context of Canadian cities and my research. I think of Vancouver as a ‘creative city.’ 

Where does the term ‘creative cities’ come from? 

It’s a specific term that I first learned in my courses on urban planning, during my bachelor’s degree program. Essentially, it means a city that is trying to attract a specific mix of people who contribute to the community. The most exaggerated example I can think of would be Silicon Valley, but it could be applied to large cities like Vancouver. In Silicon Valley, everything seems to be centred around technology. In Vancouver, there is more focus on life, nature, culture, and people. As a result, there is a diversity of people living here. And, there are so many options to get involved in different activities and many working opportunities. It really is a creative city in that sense.

Is Vancouver quite different from where you’re from?

Yes, it’s very different. I’m from Isfahan, one of the most historic cities in Iran. It’s beautiful, in its own way, and much more compact than Vancouver. We don’t have urban sprawl in the same way that I see here. One thing I’ve noticed here is the time it takes me to get places. In Isfahan, the distance between my home and university was about 20 minutes of walking and one bus. But here in Vancouver, it’s a ten-minute walk to a bus stop, 30 minutes on a bus, and five more minutes of walking to my destination. It’s a long commute!

Tell us more about Isfahan, what makes it beautiful?

One thing I love about Isfahan is the ‘Madi,’ what you would call ‘greenways’ or ‘canals’ in North America. They’re very unique to Isfahan and also historical. My family home growing up was nearby one of these, and I loved walking there. And some historical bridges over the river connect the western and eastern parts of the city. I really like those bridges! Our house was close to one of them, we call it Khaju. I would always walk across it on my way home.

Are there ways we can make walking more appealing in cities?

One thing I think about is creating destinations for older adult immigrant groups to travel to, which would encourage more walking. When I first went to the Vancouver Public Library, I noticed a specific section for Farsi-speaking people, and I really enjoyed that. But it could be other things like grocery stores focused on different ethnicities, located near to where immigrant communities might live. 

What are your favourite places in Vancouver? 

For me, I really like the seawall, it’s something unique to Vancouver. I love walking and biking there. And maybe the second place would be Rocky Point Park, which is very close to my home. It’s a very small, cozy park near the ocean and it has a dock – maybe that’s why I like it! I think something that makes Vancouver special is its nature. Whenever I think about a European city, I would say the historical architecture is something I’d go there to look at, but in Vancouver, it’s definitely nature!

Farinaz Rikhtehgaran sits along the seawall in Vancouver, British Columbia.