Sogol Haji Hoseini on environmental gerontology and what it’s like to sleep in a desert at night

Our conversation with Sogol took us from her work with the Collective to her interests in researching older adult populations, and why camping in the desert is something everyone should try.

How did you find out about Hey Neighbour?

My academic background is in urban planning and my previous dissertation work focused on understanding how urban planning could help promote active mobility such as walking and biking, across the entire population of an area. It was rewarding work, but it was hard to see how it positively impacted individual populations. Now, I’m interested in how I can help promote active mobilization, specifically in older adults. This is called “environmental gerontology,” and there aren’t many universities that focus on this particular aspect of gerontology.

Ever since I had a conversation with Dr. Atiya Mahmood about her work, I’ve become interested in this idea. Dr. Mahmood also has a background in architecture, so we have shared interests. It’s a totally new opportunity for me, but I find social interactions so interesting! Environmental gerontology works much more closely with a specific population of people. What I’d really like is to have a positive impact on people’s lives and to be able to actually see that impact. So I think this is it! I’ve found my impact by helping people. 

Where does your interest in studying older adult populations come from?

While I was in university for my first master’s in planning at the University of Tehran, I had a lecturer, Professor Tabibian, who is a professor in his 80s. He taught sustainable development and urban planning, and we became good friends. He is like a godfather to me and we still have a good connection – he was even invited to my wedding! We would meet up every Monday with his friends at Iraj Etesam’s house in Tehran. Iraj is considered the father of urban planning in Iran. He has, unfortunately since passed away. Tabibian and his friends were all much older than I was, so I would listen to their experiences from the past, and I loved it so much. It was amazing to hear them remembering things and telling such detailed stories. They were like legends in their field to me. I had only ever seen their names in my textbooks and, all of a sudden, I was hearing their stories in person. 

I was asked to help work on an oral history book alongside Professor Tabibian, as well as Navid Pourmohammadreza and Hamed Valadkhani, about the discipline and profession of Urban Planning in Iran, from its establishment to 1980. They were such amazing icons to work with!  The book is called “Encountering City” and I was involved in all of the interviews and responsible for documenting all the sessions, including photography and video. It was published at the end of 2021, but by the time it was showcased at The University of Tehran (with the portraits I captured from our sessions), I was no longer in Iran and unfortunately, I missed the day I had envisioned for so long. But, I still think of that time as one of the greatest of my life. Having the opportunity to work with that group, it completely changed me on so many levels.

The six-person research team for the book, 'Encountering City."

Why is it important that we understand the lived experiences of older adults?

They are the ones living in their buildings, so they have pretty good ideas about what they need and what should be done to improve their surroundings. As much as we, as researchers, try to understand the shortcomings of their environments or anything else that could make their lives better, they are the ones that know best.

Through our conversations, we’ve heard a lot of good ideas from them about how to create a greater social life with gatherings and events and so on. They want to contribute and participate, and they know people who could help. So, we are trying to gather those ideas and create the conditions for that to happen. This is not just another research project that writes a report and puts it on a shelf and that’s it – this will actually help older adults live the lives they deserve. 

You’ve spent some time camping in Iran, what was that like?

I love camping and getting away from the hustle and bustle. It puts a stop to the busy mind and all the rush of life! The beautiful land of Iran gives you a lot of opportunities for adventure, you can be at a ski resort and get yourself to a desert in less than an hour or two, and the variety of natural spots there is just unrecognized and unbelievable. The desert, however, gives you an entirely different perspective. I truly love the silence there, especially at night. Being in the desert at night is surreal – you can’t believe your eyes! You just stare at the sky and wonder, “Have the stars always been there?” You feel so, so small in the whole universe: all you see around you is sand and all you hear is silence. It’s such a huge experience. We used to go to the desert on my friend’s birthday every year. Lying on the sand and staring at the stars – everyone should try it. Just make sure there are no snakes!

The night sky above the desert in Iran with a shooting star.

What makes a city beautiful?

It depends on the way you look at each city, I believe every city has a different character. In Vancouver, I see great buildings and interesting architecture. I admire the modern buildings downtown and the diversity from traditional to modern. And even though it is a city, it also makes me feel calm: things are going at a slower pace. I find myself walking to the seawall all the time.

Back in Iran and especially in Tehran, my attachments make me feel like I belong to the city, I have so many memories that make it beautiful. There is so much incredible architecture back home, which I adore. The historic centre of the city is still present and lively and you can physically touch the history there. (Sometimes we take this for granted though, and it’s not until we move away that we realize that we could have appreciated it more.) 

You like photography, what are your favourite things to take photos of?

I love to take photos of architecture and cities! We joke around that urban development engineers and urban planners are always taking photos of streets and architecture and cities. It’s a habit we all have, a DSLR camera is something that becomes part of our bodies very soon. I think it’s because we look at cities and nature in more precise ways. We’re curious about what’s happening, so we’re always looking up and around at every angle. I have an Instagram page where I post the photos I take from time to time, called Shahrgard, which in English means ‘Urban Roamer’ or in French, ‘Flâneur.’

Sogol Haji Hoseini wears a black headscarf and yellow shirt while standing in profile in front of an ancient structure in the desert.