bookmark_borderA Taste of the Big Apple

Rachel 

Ever since I was a child, I dreamed of one day visiting New York City. I’m sure it’s a dream shared by many small-town kids – looking up at ginormous skyscrapers, seeing all the yellow cabs, and hearing the bustle of people heading to work or enjoying the city. This dream of mine became a reality when I attended the International Conference on Urban Affairs from April 24-27, right in Times Square. I had the pleasure of enjoying this experience with my wonderful friend and colleague, Janine Dodge! 

Janine and I will be publishing a conference report (coming soon!) that will outline the official conference events we attended. However, we wanted to take the time to highlight some of our favourite moments in New York City as tourists. Please enjoy as we reflect on our memories in the city that never sleeps! 

When I arrived in Manhattan, I was on a mission to find a terrace with a great view of the Empire State Building. Many of my friends had recommended I go to an observation deck. However, after doing some research, I realized it would make more sense to sit on a rooftop terrace at a restaurant, where I could eat and drink for the same price as an observation deck ticket. I headed over to the Monarch Rooftop, a bar on the 18th floor directly across from the Empire State Building. The view from the terrace was incredible. As I enjoyed my prosecco and teriyaki boneless chicken bites, I began chatting with a nearby group of diners, who offered to take pictures of me with the stunning scenery. They were incredibly pleasant, and half of them were French – a foreshadowing of my experience speaking with lovely people, and hearing many others speaking la langue de Molière, throughout my stay in NYC. 

The next day, I ate the best potatoes I’ve ever eaten in my life. Junior’s, a diner known for their cheesecakes, had an item on the menu called the “Loaded Potato Pancake”. It resembled a very thick hashbrown, topped with bacon, green onions, cheese, and sour cream. I originally stumbled upon Junior’s when the restaurant I wanted to try had a very long wait time (the joys of tourist areas!). After that first fantastic experience, I went back a second time with Janine, where we indulged in some incredibly tasty potato pancakes and a slice of cheesecake bigger than the size of my hand. 

Speaking of diners, while I didn’t attend a musical during my trip, I still got to have a Broadway experience at Ellen’s Stardust Diner. At Stardust, all the servers are singers. In fact, many former servers have performed on Broadway. After waiting over half an hour in line after dark, I was seated and serenaded by covers of Céline Dion, Édith Piaf, ABBA, and many others while drinking a delicious milkshake. 

I had an amazing time discovering Manhattan on my own. I visited Central Park, Grand Central Station, and even enjoyed some ice cream and truffles at the Milk Bar Flagship location. However, some of my favourite memories were made visiting the city with Janine. One evening, after enjoying a burger and a pastrami sandwich (I clearly enjoyed the food in NYC!), we made our way to Hudson Yards, and walked the High Line. The High Line is a walking path built on a historic, elevated rail line, and is full of art installations. After a half-hour walk, we made it to the end of the High Line and enjoyed the waterfront overlooking New Jersey. While I enjoyed the busyness of Times Square, it felt so refreshing to wander away from the bright lights for a while with a dear friend. 

Janine 

I don’t think a trip to NYC can be anything but exciting! I love going with a light plan of lunches or dinners with people whom I want to hug in person, and then allowing the city, people and experiences to arise. Inevitably, a stay in New York is filled with discoveries, surprises, emotional moments and lots and lots of new memories. It’s always a treat for all the senses, and this visit was no different…  

I was thrilled to make this trip with my husband, who coincidently ended up having work to do in the city the week after the conference. The timing was so perfect that it also coincided with the end of my eldest son’s university exams, so he came to join us as well.  

We arrived on a beautiful day and to a first great surprise: an awesome view from our apartment over midtown and towards the Hudson River. 

On the first evening in Manhattan, my husband and I shared a delicious dinner with an old friend at a French cafe, La Bonne Soupe. A NYC locals’ spot tucked down a few steps on 55th, it was the perfect spot for a leisurely dinner and great conversation.    

My conference day breaks and an evening were filled having the best time with my amazing friend and inspiration, Rachel Barber. Imagine multiplying ten-fold the joy and excitement in the pictures she shared above and you can get a smidgen of a feel for what we experienced. So much FUN!!! 

My husband and I marked the end of the conference by embarking on the UAA programmed dinner cruise around Manhattan. Experiencing the city lights from the water was beautiful, and I felt filled with gratitude for the freedoms I enjoy as we passed iconic, shining Lady Liberty. 

At the beginning of the year, in anticipation of our trip, my husband and I decided we’d make the famous Brooklyn Half Marathon our first run of that distance. Unfortunately, he got injured and couldn’t run, but on Sunday morning, my son and I took the “train” (NYC subway) to Brooklyn bright and early. It was an absolutely perfect morning for a run! The crowd of more than 20,000 participants, filled with novice and experienced runners alike, buzzed with excitement and happiness. The route was lined with people cheering, many holding hilarious handmade posters designed to bring a smile to your face and urge you on. What an incredible feeling to cross the finish line at Prospect Park and meet up with my son to celebrate our achievement! Thank you, Brooklyn!!! 

To cap off a quintessentially marvelous Big Apple day, my husband, son and I spent the evening at the Eugene O’Neill Theater watching the musical The Book of Mormon. We laughed until our sides hurt!! What a treat!! 

On Monday and Tuesday, I met up with three different girlfriends – now each a New Yorker – that I hadn’t seen in ages! I enjoyed dinner with one on the Upper West side at Parla Pizza Bar, and with another in the West Village at Port Said. On Tuesday afternoon, I walked through Central Park to meet another at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. I love semiotics and wanted to see an exhibit called “Give me a sign: the language of symbols”. Filled with the joy of time spent with wonderful women, I was moved to take a picture of this fabric panel called “Girls”.  

Designed by Alexander Girard in 1972, this “Environmental Enrichment Panel” was intended to help “personalize and humanize” offices, and, importantly, “create a more playful and cheerful workspace”. More than fifty years later, I feel incredibly privileged and honoured to be studying play and playfulness, aiming to make the world a more playful and cheerful place for our older people. 

Thank you NYC, and thank you Maxx, Rachel and all my colleagues at the Pop Place Lab for enabling this unforgettable experience! 

bookmark_borderSoaking up São Paulo: Fieldwork in Brazil 

April 8, 2024 – Day One 

Greetings from Brazil! What a crazy sentence that I had no idea I would ever say in my life. It is truly so cool to be here getting the opportunity to see the country through the lens of research. We arrived yesterday, giving us a bit of time to explore and acclimatize, and today was the first day of our fieldwork. Although we had to wake up at 6:30am, the jet lag put us to sleep early, allowing for a well-rested morning with energy for our excitement. 

Our work, collaborating with IPA Brazil, is taking place at an intergenerational community centre in the district of Jardim Angela in São Paulo. This gated recreation compound is filled with many indoor and outdoor play spaces, with both formal and informal programming. What was once a juvenile detention centre, had been completely uplifted to now include lots of smiling, laughing, and playing. The primary aspect of our fieldwork here is naturalistic observations using the Study of Older Adult and Play Spaces (SOAPS) tool 2.0. Today, we used the tool to asses older adult interactions, relationships, and general behaviours in a sewing class and a music class. As the sessions went on, we became very comfortable with the tool and the environment. It took a little bit of time to gain our barring’s observing so many people, however, once we got our rhythm down, we were loving it! 

April 9, 2024 – Day Two 

Second day of fieldwork was even better than the first! We already felt so comfortable in the environment and with our research. As well, we got to observe the very fun classes of arts and crafts and dance! And boy, they can dance. Both classes were loosely structured with lots of free play, allowing for a lot of curious and kind people to approach us. These connections were further reinforced through interactions at the end of the sessions when we offered the opportunity to complete a satisfaction survey of the class. I am truly blown away by how friendly the people are.  

Today we also had the opportunity to collaborate as a research team, while in our temporary outdoor workstation surrounded by children playing and birds chirping, to fine tune the SOAPS tool. This led us to make valuable updates that better reflect and capture all that we were seeing.  

April 10, 2024 – Day Three 

Being our third day in this community, we were so happy to become recognizable faces to the centre’s locals. So many people, both older adults and not, would wave, say hello, and talk to us. Although we didn’t speak the same language, it felt like we were on the same page. Our main event of the day was the IPA Brazil weekly course “Guardians of Play”. Specifically for older adults to reflect on and engage in playful pursuits, this class was awesome. The participants were aware of our attendance and seemed very excited to be a part of a study that was interested in older adults. Therefore, comedically, the session began for us with applause as we walked into the room. Following this charming delay, the instructor lead in great activities to bond the members with one another, positively reflect on their lives, and to play. Lots of play. It so was uplifting to be there, listening to these older adults share about their goals and dreams.  

April 11, 2024 – Day Four 

Today was a great day – I am loving our rhythm and our work. It is also very interesting to think back and compare this experience to my first time using the original SOAPS tool in an age-restricted community in Florida. During this time, I was alone in the field and in outdoor environments which allowed me to go unnoticed. Complete anonymity. However, this experience with the tool has been very different. Not only are we travelling in a group of three, speaking a language they don’t understand with faces they have never seen before this week, but we are also mainly indoors. Rather than avoid us, the members often embrace and engage with us. It would be impossible to be flies on the wall, so instead we embrace our surroundings while making sure to complete the SOAPS form as accurately and comprehensively as possible. With that, the language barrier is proving very valuable as to avoid accidental bias based on what people are saying. While the personal connection component of this fieldwork has been an unexpected, it is my favourite part. 

April 12, 2024 – Day Five 

Today was lovely and very productive. We began the day with back-to-back observations of cooking and art classes. Both groups were so welcoming and didn’t have many older adults which allowed us to complete multiple cycles and observe more specifically how the same people engage throughout the sessions. A personal highlight was receiving a sample during the cooking class of the Brazilian dessert pastel de doce, made of chocolate and condensed milk. It was a perfect 10:00am snack. Following these sessions and a sunny survey of the area during lunch, we went to the urban dance afternoon class to observe older adults; however, none were there. We waited a bit but then just decided to join the session. The instructor and other participants, all being astronomically better dancers, were so welcoming and inclusive. It was so fun and a great way to finish our week of observations and lead into the community centre party tomorrow.  

April 13, 2024 – Day Six 

Today, or shall I say tonight, was a special event at the centre that we were so lucky to attend. In attempt to include more people from the community and have some fun, this event full of fun, dancing, activities, and food was a blast. We did two rounds of observations, happily watching the many older adults have a fun night out. Following our cycles, with often interruptions from people saying hello, we decided to finish our time at the centre by joining in on the fun! 

Reflecting on this experience, I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to work in this community. I have learned so much as both a researcher and a person. There is nothing like fieldwork to gain hands-on experience and completing this in another continent compares to nothing I have done before. To get so close to this centre – the people, the culture, the day-to-day activities and food, and casual conversations – it was a beautiful experience that I will always appreciate. 

Thank you so much to my fellow researchers from the Population and Place Research Lab, specifically the Aging Playfully team, and thank you to all of those who work and play at the Social Bom Jesus CCInter Clube da Turma! 

bookmark_borderRoad Trip to Rochester

Day 1 – March 20, 2024 

(Marley) 

Today we head to the BIG CITY… Rochester, NY for The Association of the Study of Play (TASP) annual conference. As researchers of the Pop lab’s Aging Playfully team, we were very excited to dive headfirst into the world of play and see where our research can grow. Our team consists of Master and PhD students in the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen’s University including myself, Marley Gryfe, as well as Nishant Dave, Janine Dodge, and Jennifer Rodriguez. As we are going to be on this journey for four days, each of the team members will write our blog for a day.  

To start it all off, around 6pm, we embarked on our road trip to Upstate New York. In our blue rental car with high spirits, we were excited to get the trip started. For me personally, it had that wonderfully nostalgic school field trip feeling. With background music and lots of interesting conversations about our research and our lives, everything was going smoothly. Even at the border, there was no line and our agent appeared both confused and curious about a conference on play. Although we were pretty sure she was just doing her job by asking us these questions, we responded in detail telling her all about our research and even invited her to our presentation.  

Once in the States, we drove a while longer and eventually stopped for dinner at the Cracker Barrel in Syracuse. For most of us, it was our first time at this chain restaurant and being as hungry as we were, it was awesome! Lots of food, lots of fun, and lots of laughs. Following this, heading back out in the weird weather of snow, blue sky, repeat, and we made our way to our Airbnb right next to the conference location of the Strong National Museum of Play. Excited by the playful exterior of the museum, we knew it was time for bed so we could maximize our conference experience for the coming days.  

Day 2 – March 21, 2024 

(Jennifer) 

As we made our way over the Museum of Play, we were captivated by the playful and colourful infrastructure – I was specifically amazed by the mini grocery store for kids with a check-out machine and the Sesame Street set-up. To my surprise, one of my favourite presentations occurred on the first day of the conference. The presenter was very engaging and used a mix of humour and personal stories to explain the relationship between his Illest Lab and academia. He discussed how play and design can be a gateway for marginalized youth to be introduced to STEM subjects. In the lab, a group of youth are designing running shoes to enhance their creativity, leadership skills and cognitive development. One of the participants now works for Nike! 

After a leisurely lunch, half of us decided to explore the second floor of the museum. The whole experience was very nostalgic as we learned about the history of video games and got to see various toys from the 19th century. I had so much fun playing Super Mario and Pacman. As we made our way to the end of the museum, we came across the best game ever invented (in my opinion). This was a dodgeball game with a virtual wall. The goal of the game is to burst digital squares with a dodgeball to prevent them from reaching the floor. Marley and I first played with complete strangers until Nishant joined us. The reason I found this game so entertaining is because it forces you to play collectively as a team and break a sweat while doing so. I couldn’t stop smiling the whole time.  

Later in the evening, we went back to our Airbnb to recharge before attending the Gala dinner at the museum. After eating delicious food, I reflected on how I got to know my colleagues better and witnessed the positive impact that Play has on our lives. We wrapped up the night getting ready for our presentation the next day! 

Day 3 – March 22, 2024 

(Nishant) 

Today was D-Day. Three months of rigorous literature review and data collection in the lab, questioning whether we got carpal tunnel, all came down to this 15-minute presentation. However, we were courageous and took on this challenge (a fun challenge) head on. Waking up all fresh, we made our way toward the Museum of Play to attend the morning’s keynote.  

Being a last-minute clutch king, I made my way to the cafeteria to write up my script for the presentation. Soon after, Janine and Maxx joined me for final discussion about it.  

As we walked over to the conference room for our presentation, you could feel the nerves slowly creeping in. But when the first words were spoken by Maxx, all those nerves were released, and it was game time. The ball was in our court. As we went through the presentation everyone did a wonderful job. Janine gave a buzzer-beater performance in the end, extending our hands to the present scholars and researchers to collaborate with us and continue conversing about older adults and play.  

After our presentation, we were introduced to two other researchers Jonathan and Susan and had an opportunity to have lunch with them at a local Italian restaurant. It was a family-run business with slow service (a good attribute) that helped in extending our table conversations to leverage as much as play wisdom as possible as students. Most importantly, the food was impeccable; it was one of the finest, and most authentic margherita pizzas I’ve had. A must go place if I ever come back to Rochester. After lunch, everyone departed their own ways, with most of us going back to Airbnb to finish any outstanding school assignments.  

As six o’clock approached, the entire Pop place crew went to a nearby restaurant for dinner that served food with a side of video games console of your choice. It was a unique experience, with really, really cheap beers, in comparison to Canada. We enjoyed our food and drinks and played a round or two of Mario Karts on the Nintendo Switch. After this, we dispersed back into our temporary homes, where some individuals worked diligently on school assignments, while others did a mixture of schoolwork and a game of pool. This led to the conclusion of our day, as we prepared to pack our clothes to be efficiently out of the Airbnb before noon.  

Day 4 – March 23, 2024 

(Janine) 

On our last morning, we arose early to pack up the car and make it to the Museum for the last Keynote speaker. It was a group from Rochester sharing their experience about engaging local vulnerable communities to support play opportunities for children. The photovoice research they conducted about the initiative was particularly inspiring. After the presentation, we went to view their exhibit of photographs. It was artfully displayed along the wall beside the Sesame Street section of the Museum, a fitting location!  The wonderful thing about a relatively smaller conference like TASP is the opportunity to meet and talk at length with the presenters. We spent close to an hour exchanging ideas with this team of researchers, gaining invaluable insights for our own work. 

As the conference drew to a close, we immersed ourselves in the museum for a last time. We headed for the second floor, to the interactive games that all ages could enjoy. We battled each other at some and played together at others, losing ourselves in the emotions, the challenges and the discovery that is spontaneous play in a stimulating environment. Lots of groans of frustration, exclamations of joy and seemingly endless smiles and laughter. In other words, lots of play!   

Filled with inspiration, stories and full of play, we started the road trip home. The snow cleared and the conversation flowed. We stopped for lunch at a quintessential American diner fittingly called Good Golly, which had been closing when we popped in on the way to Rochester. It didn’t disappoint! Stomachs filled, we crossed over the border back into Canada just as the sun began to shine. As we pulled into Kingston, nostalgia already set in. Our warm hugs goodbye belied the bittersweet moment of a great adventure coming to an end. Play had brought us together on so many levels. I was filled with a deep gratitude for all who contributed to this great adventure. Thank you!  

bookmark_borderVictoria Takes Moncton! 

Tuesday 

Today, I embarked on my first research trip. I was headed to Moncton, New Brunswick to conduct interviews with planning practitioners and immigrant settlement organizations as part of my Master’s research. This was my first time visiting New Brunswick as well as my first time flying by myself (both very exciting!).  

Ever since I was little, I have loved airports. Something about the systematic process, the fun of the moving sidewalk, the (seemingly) endless number of places to eat, and the hundreds of people all headed in different directions is so enjoyable to me. I’ve always been particularly fond of watching the arrival gate and witnessing families reunited with loved ones. From big hugs to people crying with joy to little children with big signs that say, ‘welcome home,’ it’s all very heartwarming.  

As I sat in a restaurant, sipping a Brickworks Cider and waiting for my flight, I watched so many people on their own eating dinner. Some were working, some were on the phone with a friend, others were making light conversation with those around them. The airport is a place of connection in more ways than one. For some, they are connecting to a new home. Today, the airport had a different feeling for me, as I embarked on a trip that so many others have made. I was thinking about families who have taken this flight to Moncton, unbeknownst of what their newfound home would be like. A combination of excitement and uncertainty, the minute they step off the tarmac. 

While boarding my flight, I was overcome with excitement for the adventure that awaited me. I landed in Moncton at around 1:00 A.M. (AST) and headed to bed, ready to see what my first day in New Brunswick would have in store. 

Wednesday 

Today, on the agenda, was my most nerve-wracking interview. I was heading over to City Hall to interview a municipal planner on evolving growth policies in Moncton. This interview took me some time to secure and I was so excited that I had the opportunity to do it. I spent the morning getting my materials organized and practicing my interview questions. After some preparation, I decided to do a bit of exploring in the downtown core.  

I quickly learned that the layout of Moncton is quite unique. I had a hard time figuring out where the heart of downtown was actually located. Unlike many similar-sized cities in Ontario, Moncton’s downtown was small, with few stores located in close proximity to one another. I made my way to a local bookstore called ‘Reads Books and Coffee’ where I got my hands on some second-hand Agatha Christie books and a warm cup of tea. I was able to chat with someone in the store about the work I was doing and was directed to pick up a book called ‘The Monctonians’ to help provide some context into how the city had evolved. Very helpful!   

Luckily, my interview that afternoon went well, and I was able to get some more information on the challenges and opportunities that Moncton faces as a city. Given that Moncton was identified as Canada’s fastest growing CMA in 2022, we discussed the various ways that Moncton is working to manage this unexpected growth through improvements to their housing, transit, and social infrastructure. I was able to develop a better understanding of why this population growth may have occurred and how the city is positioned to manage it. Afterwards, I returned to my hotel, poised to take on my next set of interviews and prepare for the busy day I would have on Thursday. 

Thursday 

Today was settlement organization day and I would be conducting interviews with two of Moncton’s four organizations! I woke up early and prepared myself to meet with my first interviewee at a local coffee shop called Epoch Chemistry.  I was particularly excited for these discussions to begin as I would really be getting to hear about how current infrastructure is impacting people on the ground floor.  

The first interview was incredible! We chatted for two hours and I quickly learned that the settlement community was very close-knit. In fact, my second interviewee was actually a close friend of my first interviewee! Our conversation lasted over two hours, and I received a variety of new contacts that might be worth reaching out to for more information. I learned a lot about the challenges that new immigrants face when settling in Moncton and where there is a need for infrastructure improvement. After our conversation, my interviewee mentioned that they were heading for lunch with some people from the local refugee legal clinic and asked if I would like to join. Of course, I said yes! We were able to enjoy some delicious sandwiches at Notre Dame de Parkton and I was able to develop a better understanding of some of the legal challenges that accompany supporting new immigrants in a small city. I was also starting to feel like I understood the city a bit better. 

In the afternoon I met up with the founder of another settlement organization and continued to grow my knowledge of how current policy has been impacting new immigrants. The passion and drive I felt from both of these interviewees was astounding. While I was unable to conduct interviews with immigrant families directly, given time constraints, I was fortunate enough to hear many stories of opportunities and challenges experienced by newcomers to the community. I returned to my hotel, feeling grateful for the opportunity to highlight these experiences through my research.  

Friday + Saturday  

Today was my final day in Moncton before I started my journey home. My main goal for the day: Try Atlantic Cod! I made my way to the Tide and Boar Gastropub where I ordered a Parmesan-Crusted Haddock for lunch. When I say this was probably the best fish I’ve ever tasted, I’m not kidding! I shouldn’t have waited until Friday to get my hands on it!  

The final leg of my journey involved taking the train back to Montreal where I would spend the weekend, before proceeding home. The Ocean Train, run by VIA Rail is an overnight train that runs from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Montreal, Quebec. My journey from Moncton to Montreal took 17 hours, giving me lots of time to reflect on my trip.  

I thoroughly enjoyed getting to experience Moncton first-hand. While I could have conducted these interviews virtually, without having to travel across the country, I knew that doing it in person would be that much more meaningful. I was able to connect with people in a way that would not have been possible online. We shared meals and chatted about what life was like living in this community. When I heard about a certain area of the city in conversation, I was able to go visit it. When interviewees discussed challenges with transit and walkability, I was able to experience this myself. I think that it has helped add a richness and depth to my research that might not have otherwise been present.  

As I continue to write my report and analyze my findings, I hope to keep these experiences in mind. I’ll see you on my next adventure! 

bookmark_borderThe Windy City’s Neighbour

As I depart YYZ for ORD for the ACSP 2023 conference (ACA [academics love acronyms!]), I can’t help but be excited. I am going to Chicago to present a poster, learn about planning, and explore an interesting city! Conferences are a very cool way to expand your horizons and what better place to do it than while looking at the Lake Michigan horizon. However, this trip is not only exciting as I get to better understand planning through presentations and in-depth conversations, I will also get to experience successful planning with my own eyes. Following the conference, I will be heading to Bloomington-Normal, Illinois (or as locals call it Blo-No), to visit family and check out what the area has to offer. Blo-No is located in Central Illinois, approximately 125 miles southwest of Chicago. Notably, in 2023, the Bloomington-Normal Metro Area was ranked as the second-best metropolitan area in the nation to “live, work, and have fun”. Specifically, I was intrigued by the mention of fun, thus inspiring me to experience this for myself and blog along the way!

As of 2022, Blo-No had a population of 167,699 and a median age of 30.3. Older adults, those above the age 65, comprised only 9% of the population, 8 percentage points less than the national average. Being a mid-sized metropolitan area with a relatively small older adult population, I was especially interested to explore what older adult-oriented opportunities for fun exist within Blo-No…and I only had two days to do it.

To start off, I was able to observe environments specifically catered for older adult independence and recreation. This includes the Blair House, an all-inclusive independent retirement community, and the Activity and Recreational Center (ARC), an older adult recreational center. Although I was only able to drive by the Blair House, I was impressed by the website’s mention of amenities such as barber shop, theater, garden, and activity room – extending beyond the basic amenities of an ordinary apartment building. Next, only 1.5km away, I was able to get a guided tour of the ARC due to a very kind and chipper volunteer. Rebuilt in 2016 and currently one of the largest senior services centers in the state of Illinois, the ARC serves roughly 4,000 residents above the age of 55 for a steal-of-a-deal $30 annual membership fee. The low cost is thanks to the region’s Silver Sneakers initiative to provide free fitness and wellness opportunities to older adults on eligible Medicare plans. Within the ARC, I saw a large range of activities, amenities, course offerings, and happy older adults. Some personal highlights include food court social chatter, keen older adults saving seats an hour before bingo is set to start, and the computer lab with opportunities for technological assistance.

Looking beyond the institutions specifically serving older adults, I was curious how general built environments supported this population. To explore this, I was able to visit and observe the comings-and-goings at Uptown Normal, the Normal Public Library, and the YMCA. To start, Uptown Normal spans a handful of blocks with many local businesses and attractions, revolving around Uptown Circle. Uptown Circle, as pictured below, is an urban mini park encircled by a stormwater-cleansing water feature and native plants. This area is a well-loved relaxing and playful spot for locals to hang out and children to play in the water. Uptown Circle is also used for events such as concerts and farmers markets. In my time spent in the area, I was able to observe a solo older adult reading a book in Uptown Circle, intergenerational family fun at the local ice cream shop, and an older adult couple going into the retro and cool Normal Movie Theatre (built in 1937!).As this area is considered an “18-hour downtown” due to its frequency of use throughout the day, it is clear this does not exclude older adults as the variety of opportunity and flexibility of space seemed to equally apply this demographic.

Next, I visited Normal Public Library (NPL), one of the two public libraries in the metro area. While here, I was able to observe people of all ages as well as read the very cute and creative Fall 2023 Activity Guide. This package presented lots of opportunities for all ages such as the Knitting Club, Geneology Meetup, and Taxes in Retirement. In addition, the NPL book highlighted pop-ups that will be going to both the ARC and Blair House for three days within the season. Lastly, when in the YMCA to swim with my cousins, I stumbled upon an energetically guided water-aerobics class containing many older adults. The class was a real joy to observe as the older adults appeared to be seamlessly mixed in with the younger adults. The commonality of older adult recreation intertwined with public recreation seemed to be a good indicator of fun reaching all ages as well as community cohesion.

Lastly, looking beyond the formal and informal infrastructure serving older adults, I was hoping to have the opportunity to speak with someone in this community to understand their experience living in Blo-No. As my family was checking out at the grocery co-op, we were greeted by their old babysitter and friend, 60-something-year-old, Veronika. Veronika was dressed in a creatively colourful outfit matching a piece of art, self-titled an “art-fit”, and exuded an extremely vibrant and downright whimsical energy. While chatting with Veronika and asking what she does for fun, she responded with abundant joy and a very long list. Many of these recommendations included parks and trails as well as creative classes in the local area. Veronika shared how she personally has fun through writing, designing, and sharing poems within the community. One of her three distribution points was in the grocery co-op where my aunt shared that she picks up the poems weekly and often engages with Veronika. To her, Veronika was a staple of the community. After hearing about this activity and reading some passages, I was in awe as although Veronika is retired, she dedicates a lot of time every week to spread art and support community connections.

From an outsider perspective as neither a Blo-No local or an older adult, I am happy to report that my observations showed older adults included in the “fun” of Blo-No. While I’m sure there are aspects I have missed, from my quick two-day visit, the power of community was clear with the success of programs such as the ARC and encouragement of local artists such as Veronika. The Blo-No sense of community appeared strong and supported great attitudes, creating a positive cycle of well-being and cohesion. In all, the exciting and flexible opportunities for recreation highlighted the charming-nature of the mid-sized community to support residents of all ages to “live, work, and have fun”.

bookmark_borderGrant Applications – Tips & Tricks 

In November 2022, I embarked on the journey of applying for my first research major research scholarship. While I had previously applied for scholarships during my undergraduate degree, this was my first time applying for something that was research-based. After attending the School of Urban and Regional Planning’s research grant information session in October, I felt ready to start working my way through writing applications for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s (SSHRC) Canada Graduate Scholarship and the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS). This was an intimidating process that involved asking a lot of questions, talking through ideas with my lab and classmates, and spending many nights crafting my proposal. Yet, the end result was very much worth it! I was successful in earning both the SSHRC and OGS grant, opting to accept the former this past June.  

Thinking back on this process, I wanted to share some of the things I found useful as I navigated my way through writing my application. I have asked some fellow Pop Place members who have also been successful with research grant applications to provide some input as well. No matter what grant you are considering applying for, I hope that this post provides some helpful tips to guide you on your way. 

Finding Your References: 

  • Ask professors who know you best. When you are beginning to think about who the best person might be to ask for a reference letter, ensure that you are choosing people who know you. Did you get a good mark in a particular class? Did you take multiple classes with a certain professor? Perhaps, you worked as a research assistant? Someone who has a good sense of how you work will have a much easier time providing a good reference letter. 
  • Provide ample time for writing. Standard practice is to provide at least two weeks’ notice when you are making a reference request. It is important and respectful to ensure that your reference has enough time to gather the necessary information and write your letter at their leisure. This will also ensure that as the deadline approaches, you are not stressing about getting everything submitted on time.  
  • Share helpful resources. When submitting a reference request, it might be a good idea to forward the recipient some helpful documents that can better inform their writing. This could include your CV, research proposal, relevant projects/papers that you have worked on and other necessary materials. It is good to ensure that you are providing your reference with sufficient background information so that they have an accurate understanding of your capabilities.  

Perfecting Your CV: 

  • Highlight relevant experience. CV templates can sometimes be quite constraining, especially if the grant you are applying for is requesting a specific format. While writing your CV, it is important to ensure that the experiences you choose to highlight, reflect your capabilities as a researcher. It’s a good idea to look through the grant website to see if they have specified what qualities and skills they are looking for in an applicant. From there, you can gauge what experiences you might want to discuss more in depth in your application. 
  • (Rachel Barber) Get involved! Many research-based scholarships consider your previous research contributions, such as publications or conference presentations. If you know you’ll be applying for a scholarship well in advance and already have some research completed, consider submitting an abstract to a conference, or collaborating on a manuscript. Research contributions are great, since they remain on your academic CV forever – this is especially useful if you’re expecting to apply to other scholarships in the future, or if you’re planning on pursuing an academic career. 

Crafting Your Research Proposal: 

  • Think big, be practical. Writing your first research proposal can seem like a daunting task. There are so many possible routes that you could take. A great way to approach this is to think big. Get all of your ideas out, no matter how far-fetched they may seem. Then, sit down, and figure out what would actually be practical given your time and resource constraints. Is your idea feasible to complete within the scholarship timeframe? Do you have access to the people, tools, and skills you would need to undertake this research? 
  • (Rachel Barber) Have your draft reviewed by as many people as possible. In the earlier stages of your draft, consider having it reviewed by your supervisor, previous winners of the scholarship you’re applying to, or other professors, as they can provide useful insight into the structure of your proposal. As you are finalizing your proposal, ask a few people outside of your field of study to review it, such as colleagues, friends or family members. Since selection committee members come from various backgrounds, it is important to ensure the proposal uses terminology that is understandable to those who don’t work or study in your field. 
  • (Ellory Vincent) Talk your ideas over. Writing your proposal is, by far, the hardest part of the process. Even though at this point you know what you want to research you now have to explain it to someone else, worse, you have to explain it to people who are reading dozens of other proposals for the same grant. You want to stand out but you also want to be able to communicate your research in a clear and concise manner.  It’s not easy. It is best to talk over your idea with someone you trust and whose opinion you respect. Make sure this is someone who will be able to give you honest and direct feedback. As you begin to revise your writing, make sure that your proposal stays true to what you want to study and conveys your genuine interest in the subject – a proposal that demonstrates charisma through writing is the strongest. 

General Advice: 

  • Leave yourself enough time. While it may seem like a small task, you do not want to leave this task for the last minute. You may run into challenges with articulating your ideas and scaling them down. It is also important to ensure that you have enough time to go through multiple rounds of editing with multiple people. In order to put your best foot forward and ensure your ideas are presented in the best way, leave yourself plenty of time to work with your writing.  
  • (Marley Gryfe) Seek out examples of successful or unsuccessful applications for the same grant. Consider reaching out to upper year students in your program or a professor/supervisor to get their input on what works well and what you might want to avoid. This is a great way to orient yourself before embarking on the writing process.  
  • (Marley Gryfe) Review all grants for which you might be eligible. The same application can often be used for multiple awards with a few minor tweaks, thus increasing your chances of obtaining funding! Even if you are unsuccessful with your first application, you now have a complete research proposal that you are ready to submit somewhere else.  
  • (Ellory Vincent) Stay cool and pursue your research, with or without the grant.  

As Ellory highlighted, the most important part of this process is your research. It is important to go into the scholarship-writing process with clear objectives and an open mind. If this scholarship doesn’t work out, you now have a polished proposal that, with some minor adjustments, could be submitted to a variety of other scholarship programs. While the process of applying for research scholarships and fellowships can be stressful, it is a great opportunity to start organizing your ideas and establishing your research goals. And, as Dr. Maxwell Hartt, Director of the Population and Place Research Lab likes to stress, make sure that you are having fun!  

bookmark_borderThe Journey Within: Embracing Experiences and Growth in Canada

Time flies, and with a sense of gratitude, I reflect upon the fact that I have already spent six months in Canada, immersed in an enriching journey. This period has provided me a brand-new experience, both academically and personally, as I travel through this foreign land, embracing its culture, and engaging with its people.

My name is Jianing Sun. I am a PhD candidate at Chongqing University in China but I am spending one year as a visiting PhD student in the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen’s University. I consider myself exceptionally fortunate to join Dr. Hartt’s research team as a member of the Population and Place Research Lab. Over the past six months, I have actively participated in various activities, such as seminars, fostering meaningful discussions with my fellow classmates and labmates, and sharing my research. I have also noticed some differences between Eastern and Western educational paradigms, which has fostered an appreciation for the unique advantages and inherent value of both approaches. Furthermore, I am deeply honored to collaborate with Dr. Hartt on our research topic: Age-Friendly Shrinking Cities in the Global North. This collaboration has further enriched my international perspective, providing me with a comprehensive understanding of the complex demographic shifts on a global scale.

I have developed a fondness for the city of Kingston, where life moves at a more relaxed pace. I take pleasure in leisurely moments spent by the sunlit shores of Lake Ontario. Exploring the delicacy of this city, I have found new gastronomic delights in various restaurants. Weekends are an opportunity to immerse myself in the world of cinema, although it presents a slight challenge as Chinese subtitles are not available. The people in Kingston are friendly and enthusiastic. I am constantly moved by the genuine gestures of kindness, such as bus drivers warmly greeting to me, others proactively offering assistance, and individuals attentively listening to my imperfectly spoken English. Additionally, my travels to Toronto and Ottawa have allowed me to visit numerous renowned landmarks. One of the most memorable experiences was being participating in the celebrations for the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III at Queen’s park. Through my travels, I have had the privilege to intimately explore Canadian culture, deepening my respect for its diversity. Furthermore, I’ve started experimenting with making desserts and Chinese cuisine, which is a novel and delightful experience. Making delicious food has proven to be a remarkably enjoyable activity, allowing me to engage in the pleasures of culinary creativity and the gratification of savoring the results of my labor.

As life continues its course, and I remain committed to embracing new experiences and fostering personal growth in Canada with hope and curiosity.

bookmark_borderFrom Music City to the Métropole francophone des Amériques

The first half of 2023 has kept me very occupied. From finishing my Master of Planning thesis, to submitting articles, to preparing for my upcoming PhD studies, there hasn’t been a dull moment so far. The most memorable and exciting part of the last few months was presenting the findings of my thesis at multiple conferences. In March, I was a virtual speaker at the American Association of Geographers (AAG) conference. At the end of April, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Urban Affairs Association (UAA) conference in Nashville, TN. Just two weeks later, I found myself in Montréal, QC, presenting at the Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG) conference. In this blog post, I will share and compare my experience at my first two in-person academic conferences.

Urban Affairs Association Conference – April 25-29, 2023

I was so excited to hear my presentation abstract was accepted for UAA last November. I had only travelled to the United States once before (a lovely vacation in Louisiana) and was looking forward to not only discovering another part of the US, but to have the chance to experience Nashville for the first time. Being a singer-songwriter myself, I know the impact Nashville can have on bolstering music careers – I actually have many friends and acquaintances that have lived in Nashville to either record music or gain exposure. Speaking at UAA meant I could also quench my curiosity surrounding Music City.

However, leading up to the conference, it became clear that I wouldn’t know anyone once I got there. I was the only person attending from Queen’s University and had yet to be acquainted with anyone else attending the conference. I reached out to a PhD Candidate from the University of Toronto, who I noticed would be speaking at both UAA and CAG. We later connected at the conference, and he introduced me to other students from U of T, helping me to feel a little less alone in a sea of 600 conference attendees.

The conference itself was a fantastic experience. My presentation went well, and attending other sessions on similar research topics to my own felt similarly rewarding. One of my favourite sessions was “Small Cities Across the U.S.: An Economic and Community Development Perspective”, which discussed economic development and typologies of American neighbourhoods in small cities, as well as the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Dayton, Ohio. While I would’ve appreciated more socializing opportunities for all conference attendees (as breakfast and reception tickets had to be purchased separately), I still had the opportunity to connect with many people, including attendees from Czechia and Belgium. I even had the chance to meet a professor who’s work I had cited previously.

I really enjoyed sharing my research findings and engaging in further discussion with the other speakers in my session!

As for Nashville, I had the opportunity to explore the downtown core with some (new) friends. The main attraction, Broadway, lives up to its hype, especially at night: bright neon signs, music coming from every direction, bachelorette parties, and sidewalks densely packed with honky-tonk enthusiasts. While I’m happy to have had the chance to experience it once, one experience was probably enough for a lifetime. If I were to return to Nashville, I would want to venture past the downtown core and explore residential neighbourhoods and resident-favourite cafes and restaurants. Though, the party atmosphere in downtown Nashville was the perfect place to find out I’m the recipient of a major doctoral-level scholarship (to be announced later this year)!

A few photos from my visit:

Canadian Association of Geographers Conference – May 8-12, 2023

Only 9 days after returning home from Nashville, 8 days after moving to a new apartment, and 3 days after successfully defending my thesis, I hopped on a train to Montréal to attend the Canadian Association of Geographers conference. Despite it not being as big as the UAA conference, I was really looking forward to this conference for one major reason: I would be presenting in French. Translating findings to a different language and later presenting them is no easy feat – even as someone who holds a French-language undergraduate degree – as urban planning terminology is quite different in both languages. However, I was excited to tackle this challenge, and to share my research as a proud franco-ontarienne at a Québécois venue.

I got to Montréal a day before my presentation and decided to take advantage of the beautiful evening to visit Vieux-Montréal. I picked up some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and enjoyed it on the riverfront, which has become a tradition whenever I visit Montréal. With several hours left in the day, I decided to go to a café to work on my laptop. I ended up finding an incredible study spot called Milton B, which is open 24 hours a day, has plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, and a very large selection of drinks, warm meals, and pastries.

The next day, I presented my research to a small group at CAG. The one thing I hadn’t anticipated while preparing my presentation was the fact that not everyone at the conference would understand French. With 2/3 of my audience being English speakers, I found myself translating parts of my presentation to English on the fly. If I were to present at CAG again (or at any conference with English and French as presentation languages), I would make sure to have notes prepared in both languages in case a question is asked in the language I didn’t present in.

My favourite session of the conference was “Mapping Accessible Mobilities”. The last two presentations showcased new accessibility maps at McGill University and Vancouver Island University. These were followed by a workshop on how to create accessibility maps for our own universities. This exercise made me realize that Queen’s University’s campus maps can be substantially improved, which is something I would like to explore further.

A crucial part of my experience at CAG was running into my friend who attended UAA, who then proceeded to introduce me to even more students from U of T. For the rest of my time in Montréal, the small group of us encouraged each other, learned from one another, went on many adventures and ate too much ice cream. I experienced many “firsts” with them, including eating Venezuelan food and going to a cat café. While we hope to see each other again soon, I really look forward to attending more conferences with them – some of us will be at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning conference in Miami in October, and others expect to attend next year’s AAG conference in Hawaii and UAA conference in New York – to continue sharing our passion for various geographic topics with one another.

Exploring Vieux-Montréal with my friends from U of T!

Here are a handful of the hundreds of photos I took in Montréal:

Two Unique Experiences

Looking back at both conferences, I feel as though my priorities were different for each of them. For UAA, once I had the opportunity to explore downtown Nashville, I was looking forward to what I would learn at the conference itself, and to the connections I would make throughout the week. For CAG, I quickly discovered that Montréal was a place I wanted to thoroughly explore, and while I still attended the conference, the thought of strolling through the city took precedence. In my opinion, that’s one of the great things about conferences – the ability to choose your own adventure and decide what sessions to attend, what to see in the city, what to eat, and who to share those memories with.

bookmark_borderA Turn of the Century…Village

Day 1

When I was two years old, I went on my first airplane: Toronto to Fort Lauderdale. I was visiting my grandparents in their brand-new condo in Century Village East (CVE), an age-restricted community in Deerfield Beach, Florida. With a suitcase filled with pencil crayons, plush toys, and Polly Pockets (the original three P’s), I swiftly arrived in the Sunshine State. Although I remember absolutely nothing about this trip, I feel very lucky to have been back to visit more than a dozen times. For 20 years of my life, I have been a semi-regular visitor to the senior living community, becoming well acquainted with the unique culture and many subtle charms. Today as I board my flight to once again return to Florida, I can feel that something about this trip is different. Rather than just spending quality time with my grandparents and soaking in the sun, I am going as a researcher. In this super-saturated, older adult specific environment, I will be observing traditional play interactions with the built environment specifically looking at the pool, path, and pickleball courts (the new three P’s)!

Day 2

A wonderful perk of this research is having the unwavering and ultra-enthusiastic support of my grandparents. Since I told them about this project, they have been collecting information all about CVE. Upon arrival, I was greeted with hugs and pamphlets. I feel very lucky to already be well acquainted with the area and have the best built-in tour guides. On my second night in town, my grandparents even got us tickets to attend a show. This was quite exciting as I have never been inside the clubhouse due to the 18+ rule. We saw 71-year-old David “Dudu” Fisher who is an Israeli cantor and performer, best known for his Broadway performance as Jean Valjean in the musical Les Misérables. With a theatre filled with 1500 older adults and an area dedicated to parking mobility aids, this was quite a unique experience that further contributed to the general observations that I couldn’t help but already have started to mentally note.   

Day 3

The first day of my study of older adult play spaces was a blisteringly hot one. But I had no complaints considering the heavy snowstorm happening back home in Ontario. Although I was adjusting to the UV index of seven, the older adults were not fazed. Throughout the heat of the day, this active community showed its tenacity with full tennis and pickleball courts, along with constant movement from bikers, runners, speed walkers, and swimmers. Just another day in CVE, and a day I’ve been a part of many times before. However, when starting my research at the tennis and pickleball courts in the morning, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit awkward being alone as an observer and being new to field research. I positioned myself in the most-of-the-least incognito benches in the area and got right to the task of looking around, assessing the vibes, taking notes, and documenting play types of older adults in action. Once I got the hang of it, the observations were quick, although, I did feel awkward taking pictures or getting too close in fear of inadvertently impacting ongoing activities. Despite debating whether I was getting side-eyed or looked at to avoid direct sunlight, I finished the morning shift and headed home with a handful of pages filled.

For my next set of field research in the afternoon, I was lucky to be by the pool. Not only to have the wonderful opportunity to go swimming before I began but also to be observing a little bit more casually. This observation shift took a while due to the high volume of people in the pool area, but it was much easier once I found my groove. And again, once it was done, I went for a swim. The night concluded with observations on the main recreational path. For this, I situated on a nearby bench, set my timer, and subtly but closely watched people as they passed. This felt a little strange as it was the night but luckily, I was already in the swing of things. This shift went by quickly as I observed the ebb and flow of busyness and quietness along the path. In all, I was pleased with my first day of field research!

Day 4 and 5

Straightforward, sunny, and successful! All shifts went off without a hitch. Fear of being noticed subdued once I realized everyone was truly in their own habitat. I was also able to substitute the need for some photos that would be both awkward and likely useless with detailed notes. Personal highlights of the days included watching morning water aerobics to 1980s hits like “It’s Raining Men” by the Weather Girls and witnessing a mini-golf tournament with the level of focus of a Masters Tournament.

Day 6

As I pack up to go home, I reflect on my trip and my first solo fieldwork experience. The way I feel about CVE has not changed but has been enhanced. I see it has something for everybody – or at least everybody who chooses to be here. But I am also more aware of the business and management side. Having done research beforehand, I recognize the behind the scenes activity that I have never considered prior to the visit. This reminded me that although this is a caring community, it follows the triple bottom-line model of people, profit, and planet (the actual three P’s). As both a visitor and observer, I was comfortably in the middle of knowing this intention while enjoying the benefits. Even when not officially observing, I was taking mental notes and a plethora of pictures. I thought more about everything I saw. About everything I was a part of. I was constantly doing double takes and having clinical thoughts about the couples on nighttime walks with flashlights, the walkers lined up outside the pool, and the man rollerblading in the heat of the afternoon. This in-between and fly-on-the-wall-like position was slightly overwhelming at times but ultimately led to some comprehensive and interesting results. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this unique opportunity to study CVE’s environment created to enjoy life and age playfully! Stay tuned for the next steps in this project!

bookmark_borderCan OpenAI’s chat bot solve gentrification?

On November 30, 2022, the San Francisco-based artificial intelligence (AI) research laboratory OpenAI launched the ChatGPT chatbot. ChatGPT is a software application developed to mimic human conversation based on user inputs. ChatGPT is trained using machine learning and can simulate ongoing dialog, respond to follow-up questions, admit mistakes, challenge inaccurate or incorrect statements, and reject improper or inappropriate requests. Former OpenAI board member Elon Musk called the chatbot “scary good”. There have been and continue to be plenty of hesitation and ethical concerns over AI-driven innovations, but it’s innovation and potentially lucrative promise appeal to many. Population and Place Research Lab affiliate Justin B. Hollander “sat down” with the ChatGPT to gauge it’s thoughts on gentrification. Justin found the chatbot to be helpful, creative, clever and very friendly. However, it is clear that, like many people, it struggles with the idea of gentrification. Here is their conversation:

JH: How can city governments prevent gentrification?

AI: City governments can prevent gentrification in several ways. The most common strategies include investing in neighborhood infrastructure, making more affordable housing available, providing incentives to small businesses, increasing public safety and access to resources, and encouraging investment from local residents. Additionally, cities can create zoning laws that limit rent increases and reduce the number of luxury buildings being built.

JH: But won’t local businesses resist these efforts?

AI: Local businesses may be resistant to some of these efforts if their profits are affected. In order to gain support, city governments should make sure to involve local businesses and other stakeholders in the process and create a plan that is beneficial for everyone. Additionally, they should provide incentives to businesses that support the gentrification prevention plans, such as tax credits and increased access to capital.

JH: Where will the money come from to pay for all of this?

AI: City governments can fundraise to pay for the initiatives to prevent gentrification by implementing taxes on luxury dwellings, asking the state or federal government for funding, or encouraging local businesses and residents to contribute financially. Additionally, cities can use grants or other resources provided by foundations and nonprofits.

JH: If you tax high earners too much, won’t they just leave the city?

AI: Yes, if cities tax high earners too much, some may choose to leave the area. To minimize this risk, cities should look into creating tiered taxes that are based on income or property value. Additionally, cities can offer incentives for high earners to stay in the city, such as tax credits or deductions. This can help ensure that wealthier individuals remain in the city and contribute to economic growth.

JH: You want to give high earners tax credits? You just said the answer to paying for anti-gentrification policies is to increase taxes, which is it?

AI: Cities should consider implementing both tax increases and incentives for high earners. Higher taxes on luxury dwellings can help raise revenue to fund anti-gentrification initiatives, while tax credits or deductions can help to keep wealthier individuals in the city and stimulate economic growth. It is important to strike a balance between these policies in order to maximize the benefits for the city and its residents.

JH: So you tax them and lower their taxes at the same time?

AI: City governments can implement both taxes on luxury dwellings and tax credits or deductions for higher earners at the same time. This can help generate more revenue to fund anti-gentrification initiatives while also retaining wealthier individuals in the city who can contribute to economic growth.