End of Fellowship Interview with Leila Ghaffari, CIRM’s 2021–2022 BMO Fellow

Leila Ghaffari
Published: 18 December 2022

Leila Ghaffari is concluding her BMO postdoctoral fellowship with the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montréal (CIRM). She is now beginning a new research project related to inequality issues on housing policies as part of a postdoctoral fellowship at McGill with Professor Nik Luka. To take stock of her takeaways from this past year and look back at her research project on the redefinition of third places (any space for socialization outside work and home) in a post-pandemic context, CIRM's communications team had a virtual chat with her.

Can you tell us about the development and evolution of your postdoctoral research project topic throughout 2021-2022? What challenges did you face during this project? 

"When I wrote my research proposal last year, it felt like the pandemic was behind us. As a result, I wrote it thinking I would work on the post-pandemic situation. However, as we now know, that was not the case. Since we are still not in a post-pandemic context, I tried to understand how the relationship between the population and third places evolved and how this same population envisioned a post-pandemic future.

The main challenge of my research was the unstable nature of the circumstances in which I was conducting it. Since everything was constantly evolving and we did not know if the pandemic was over, I had to complete my research in an uncertain and slower context. It was a complex situation, but generally, the project progressed well. I had two main tools: questionnaires and interviews. I received 118 questionnaire responses and conducted 14 interviews with residents and shopkeepers of the Promenade Ontario that I was studying. I was therefore able to obtain very interesting results."

How did you benefit from CIRM’s support and collaborations with CIRM members and partners during your fellowship 

"I must admit that the pandemic also complicated these things. I was very happy to receive a fellowship in an interdisciplinary research centre like CIRM. I thought I would have the chance to exchange with people from fields other than mine, but, due to the predominance of remote work, I only had a few casual encounters with membersHowever, the few members I met have helped widen my network, resulting in a new postdoctoral research project at McGill with Nik Luka, the Associate Director of CIRM. My fellowship made it possible to get to know him and to work with him subsequently. I also had the opportunity to meet other members virtually and to benefit from their knowledge, especially during a workshop we organized at CIRM on the methodology of my research, during which exchanges between specialists from different fields contributed to reorienting my approach. The support of Audray Fontaine and CIRM’s network, allowed me to also connect with actors related to my research topics and put my questionnaire on the Centre’s online platforms. Despite the pandemic, I was well supported by CIRM, whose multidisciplinary nature was very attractive to me from the start."

Your research deals primarily with socio-demographic disparities, gentrification and “third places”. Why did you choose these topics, and why is it important to study them?

"We live in a very unequal world on various scales, including that of cities and neighbourhoods. Territorial inequality has always been an important issue for me. I have been studying gentrification for many years, such as for my doctoral thesis, to better understand how populations experience the transformations of their neighbourhoods. I also must highlight that these changes influence the sense of belonging and social life at the neighbourhood level. Since these are essential elements to a population’s well-being, it is important to study them, which also explains my interest in third places. The pandemic imposed changes in cities, neighbourhoods, and urban spaces. For me, it was important to understand how these changes were able to influence social life, so the well-being, of residents. This relationship between urban spaces, social life, and population well-being is crucial for me, especially when we talk about territorial inequity and gentrification."

You worked in collaboration with the residents, third-place business owners, and community leaders of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. How did this influence your research methodology and the results you obtained?

"Since my research was mainly based on qualitative data from people I consulted, the results are closely related to their perceptions, expectations, needs, etc. The discoveries I made through my interactions with these people led to the most interesting findings of my projects.

The first finding is that people tend to frequent third places where they can find similar people. This means that different populations do not mix and choose distinct third places at the Promenade Ontario. The existence of different types of third places and their coexistence is, however, a sign of diversity for the residents. Nevertheless, we need to be careful with the limits of this diversity. It is not about having everyone in the same place, but a question of whether it is more advantageous for groups of the population to mix or coexist next to each other. Some characteristics make third places more tolerant and auspicious of diversity: those that are free, like sidewalks, and those that are informal. For example, the vacant lot partially owned by Ray-Mont Logistiques in the East of the neighbourhood might not be an official third place but has become one by its informality. Its informal nature lets different populations mix without any problem.

The second finding from my encounters with residents is that being free is important for vulnerable populations’ third places. During the pandemic, the middle class also discovered an interest in free third places. Before, this population would meet in cafés, bars, and restaurants, but during the pandemic, it realized the importance of having free third places through its use of public spaces and parks. After the pandemic, this interest in free access to spaces continues to influence the choices of the middle class, who now frequents free public spaces more often.

My third finding is shopkeepers' crucial role in creating third places. The relationship that a shopkeeper creates with the residents of a neighbourhood is an important factor in inciting the population to return to a particular place. In Hochelaga, on the Promenade Ontario, there were spaces that I did not initially identify as third places, but that locals considered as such. This was the case for Évasia, a shop that became a third place because of its owner, who knows everyone in the neighbourhood. People frequent this shop to chat with each other and with the owner, which was pretty interesting to notice.

A final observation is that the pandemic, paradoxically, made it possible to put into place new projects to create quality third places. For example, the pedestrianization of the Promenade Ontario, which was an emergency measure to ensure physical distancing, has improved the neighbourhood's social life to the point of becoming a permanent project. In fact, the SDC Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and the Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve borough chose to turn the Promenade Ontario into a summertime meeting place. Thus, the pandemic has demonstrated the potential of using public spaces as third places for socializing."

Now that your project is almost complete, do you think you will continue to study Montréal? What are your next projects? Will we be able to see you again in Montréal, perhaps even at CIRM? 

"Yes! My job is to study cities, and Montréal, being the city I live in, remains at the centre of my interests and preoccupations. Currently, I am starting a new research project related to inequality issues on housing policies and their capacity to solve the housing crisis. I plan to study the règlement de Montréal pour une métropole mixte to better understand the elements that lead to the success or failure of inclusionary zoning. I will, therefore, be working on housing, densification and affordability. This project will form a part of a postdoctoral fellowship at McGill with Professor Nik Luka, whom I mentioned earlier. I also know that CIRM will be working on the issue of densification this year, and I hope to form collaborations. Hence, I will continue to get involved with CIRM and with the pandemic (almost) behind us, I think I will be able to meet a more significant number of its members."

What is a memorable moment from your time at CIRM?

"The most memorable moment for me was when I met Audray Fontaine in person after working online with her for a year. The casual encounters I was able to have at CIRM with Stéphan Gervais, Elissa Kayal, Mary Anne Poutanen, and Nik Luka are equally very memorable."

Your postdoctoral research was on Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. What are your favourite places in this neighbourhood? 

"Maisonneuve Market, Canard Café, Atomic Café, Hoche Glacé, the Place Valois, the Promenade Ontario in general, Anticafé, the Arhoma bakery, the library, the Renard Perché, the parks, and the alleyways."

Which publications have influenced your project the most? 

"The publication from which the concept of third places originates is The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenberg. Talja Blokland’s works, like Urban Bonds, and those of Hickman and Camona, have also influenced my research."

Additional Publications: 

  • Blokland, T. et Savage, M. (2008). Networked urbanism: social capital in the city. Aldershot: Ashgate. 
  • Blokland, T., & van Eijk, G. (2010). Does living in a poor neighbourhood result in network poverty? A study on local networks, locality-based relationships and neighbourhood settings. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 35(10), 313–332. 
  • Hickman, P. (2013). “Third places” and social interaction in deprived neighbourhoods in Great Britain. Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, 28, 221-236 


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