Dr. Luna Khirfan is Associate Professor of the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo.
Possessing a unique interdisciplinary background in architecture, archaeology, heritage management and urban planning, Dr. Khirfan’s research spans multiple and intersecting areas of interest. She has published numerous papers and 2 books on the topics of climate change adaptation, historic preservation and cultural resource management.
One of Dr. Khirfan’s current research projects, which was awarded nearly $250,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), focuses on the potential of daylighting/deculverting (restoring) of urban streams in climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Catherine Lee, co-submission editor of WJES, had the opportunity to interview Dr. Khirfan about her background, current research projects and advice for students interested in research. See below for her answers: (edited for length and clarity)
What advice do you have for students interested in research?
I would encourage students to get more involved in research. When you are young and have the freedom to move around, you have the ability to engage and be inquisitive.
All of the research I have done has always been driven by curiosity – I see something, wonder about it and then, I research it. It is a very satisfying and enjoyable feeling because these topics that I research matter to me.
As such, I encourage all the young people out there who are curious and passionate about causes to engage with them. If you are passionate about the environment, preserving water or health issues, be active in engaging politically and academically. Be part of the society and give back as you will make the change in the world!
You’ve completed several research projects on urban planning in the Middle East. What are some of the particular environmental challenges faced by the region and how does it compare to urban planning and environmental concerns in North America?
It is a completely different set of challenges over there. In the Middle East, water scarcity is a big issue.
I am originally from Jordan and by the United Nation standards, it is considered one of the poorest regions in the world but still hosts many refugees from nearby countries in turmoil.
In addition, extreme weather events, such as severe rain and storms, have been occurring in the Middle East for the last four or five years.
Since the water is not managed properly, issues with urban flooding arise, which can be seen in North America as well. One other important difference is that in Canada policies, climate change debate is at the forefront.
You hear about it everyday and the government discusses issues such as carbon taxes, adapting to climate, mitigating the emissions and more. In the Middle East however, political problems in Syria, Iraq and Israel for example, leads to environmental issues taking a backstage and is not a topic that is debated about on a daily basis.
Currently, I am about to publish a paper with one of my Master’s students where we asked people in Jordan about their opinion of the environment. We found that people in Jordan are educated individuals who have knowledge about climate change.
But interestingly, they are not able to make a connection of climate change to their local conditions, such as the fact that the drought or flooding they are experiencing is because of climate change.
Could you tell us a little bit about your current research projects?
When I first came here to Waterloo, I was still interested in Heritage Management as it was related to how people live in cities. Using my background in Architecture, I facilitated these engaging activities called “Charrettes”, which are similar to focus groups but with interactive drawing and sketching components.
At a networking event with the Region of Waterloo Public Health, I received the opportunity to use this form of activity on a collaborative project for redesigning community gardens for persons with disabilities, elderly people and more. For this project, I organized a one-day event in which my students, colleagues and I facilitated these Charrettes for the participants.
The idea was a huge success and I was asked to be involved and bring my engagement perspective into the research for climate change adaptation. Since then, I have never looked back and this topic has turned into a whole new area of my research.
As part of my research, I have gone to Tobago, Trinidad, Jamaica, Prince Edward Island and Jordan. Right now, one of my doctoral students and I are looking at issues of climate justice and how to achieve that in a period where climate change has already occurred.
You’ve completed degrees/certificates in archaeology, heritage management, and museum studies. Could you tell us about how your educational background led to a career working on urban planning and climate change?
All of these fields may seem disconnected but actually, one led to another. When I studied Architecture, I became very interested in ancient architecture and loved to learn about the architecture from ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.
As a graduating gift from my family, I also went on a trip to Egypt and became more fascinated with how ancient cities were built. This led to my interest in Archaeology and I went back to the University of Jordan to complete a Master’s degree in Archaeology part-time while working full-time as an architect. Since I enjoyed completing my Master’s and was encouraged to do more by my professors, I received a scholarship by the British Consult to study Heritage Management in the United Kingdom. I became fascinated with Heritage Management as instead of digging up sites, I was looking at how to maintain heritage for not only preservation purposes but how to use it now to manage visitors and more.
Although I am an Architect and love open spaces, I discovered my enjoyment in working with cities that are old and how a city such as Nepal or Jerusalem that is 4,000 or 5,000 years old can still maintain its vibrance and longevity.
This was the focus of my doctoral studies and instead of examining the famous monuments of historical cities, I looked at the ordinary features of these cities such as the alleyways and houses. In this way, I was able to explore how ancient cities that functioned 4,000 years ago are able to function now with modern advancements such as electricity and cars. That’s how one thing led to another.
What kinds of links are there between these fields?
You see all these links in all these sciences. For example, when people study urban planning and public health – you may ask, how are these two fields related? But in the design of our cities, we add cycling lanes and pedestrian pathways.
This makes people cycle and walk more, which has an impact on their health. So I see the sciences as not disconnected but that there are always connections between the different fields. But it is up to you to identify those connections.
How do your research interests intersect with your teaching interests?
I actually involve my students with my research a lot. In the past four or five years, I have taught several courses and for some of them, I go above and beyond by taking students on trips with me to assist with data collection and identify solutions.
Currently, I have taken students with me to Tobago, Jamaica, Prince Edward Island and Jordan. I also involve them in my publications and part of the work they do with me during the course becomes integrated in peer-reviewed papers and book chapters.
Students have the opportunity to get involved in various degrees of the research process, whether that is collecting data, creating figures, maps and diagrams for publications and/or being co-authors of papers.
In one case, a student who helped with analyzing data from our research in Tobago and I competed in an architectural design competition.
It was a nice experience for both of us as we won first place and got to publish our work in ARCH+, which is one of the best architecture journals of the world. It was an amazing experience for my student especially since she was just starting her career in research.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your educational background?
My background is in Architecture and I completed an undergraduate degree in this field at the University of Jordan.
At the University of Jordan, I also completed a Master’s degree in Archaeology and went on to complete another Master’s degree in Heritage Management at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom.
After receiving a Fulbright Fellowship, I moved to the United States to pursue a Postdoctoral Degree in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan while also completing a graduate certification in Museum Studies there as well.