A friend of mine works in a healthcare building; her office, windowless. Stark white walls frame the shiny tiled floors in the also windowless laboratory that surrounds her office. Rectangular fluorescent lighting looms eerily overhead. Working in this space for the majority of her waking hours amounts to constant longing for sunshine and an overall agitated demeanor. I imagine the architect of this space wasn’t much of an empath.
Generally, humans are quite robot-like, performing our daily duties without a great deal of attention paid to the building structures, layouts or designs that we move through.
“When we don’t notice the built environment, it’s silently affirming our right to be there, our value to society. When we do, too often it is because it’s telling us we don’t belong. Those messages can be so subtle that we don’t recognize them for what they are,” Kim Tingley writes, later quoting architect Joel Sanders: “‘We sleepwalk our way through the world…Unless a building interior is strikingly different or lavish or unusual, we are unaware of it.’”
The first time I saw a lactation pod at an airport– unusual at the time– I had mixed emotions. Part of me became excited that this was an option for traveling, lactating, pumping, and breastfeeding people, but most of me scoffed, annoyed, thinking something along the lines of: “Of course breastfeeding moms would be given this messaging to go hide themselves away from the public eye.”
What Tingley wrote, that our built environment affirms our right to be in a space, affirms our value to society, is certainly a powerful concept.
The COVID pandemic has forced us to think more about the built spaces we move through, adding layers to this idea of how and what and who we value.
In a recent episode of Uniquely Milwaukee Salam Fatayer of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee poses the question: “What could our city, neighborhoods and community spaces look like if they were created based on people’s emotional, psychological and social needs?”
Local architects and scholars answer with ideas about how they’re supporting the users of the spaces they create, with the goal of making sure people feel safe, at peace and nurtured by those built environments.
On Our Milky Way, we’ve had the honor of highlighting the work of those thinking about how built spaces affect birth, lactation and beyond.
For example, in conjunction with the Institute of Patient-Centered Design, Inc., The MomFriendly Network created The Lactation Design program which consists of research and outreach projects to enable the Institute to contribute design resources that improve accommodations to support breastfeeding. Read more about this project here: https://www.ourmilkyway.org/physical-environment-influences-breastfeeding-outcomes/
Renée Flacking and her colleagues’ work, Closeness and separation in neonatal intensive care, explores how architecture influences outcomes in neonatal units. Single-family room designs are increasingly replacing traditional open-bay units for reasons documented in their paper.
“This architectural structure provides the family with an opportunity to be with their child in the neonatal intensive care unit day and night providing facilities for parents’ basic needs including the need for privacy. This design has been suggested to be associated with a lower rate of hospital-acquired infections, similar to single patient rooms in adult intensive care (48), earlier full enteral nutrition, higher breastfeeding rates and a more soothing environment with, for example, lower ambient sound levels (49). As this design has been shown to reduce the length of stay in hospital significantly, for example, by 10 days in preterm infant below 30 weeks of gestation in a Swedish study (50), it shortens the time of separation for the infant from the home and family. Parents have reported that they felt that a single family room design in a NICU facilitated their presence with their infant (51), but the increase in parent–infant closeness gained by a single family room model during hospital care is not well documented in scientific literature.”
Read Our Milky Way’s coverage on this concept here.
In stark contrast, attorney Leah Margulies recently shared in Protecting Breastfeeding in the United States: Time for Action on The Code that formula companies provide architectural designs to maternity care facilities in a deliberate attempt to separate dyads, making bonding and breastfeeding difficult and consequently, families more likely to become reliant on their artificial products. It’s a sickening example of how the industry saturates our systems, down to the skeletons of our buildings.
Venturing beyond the very early postpartum period, it’s exciting to explore how community spaces are supporting young families. The Henrico County Public Library – Fairfield Area Library is accommodating families with their Computer Work + Play Stations which were conceptualized by library staff and materialized by architects at Quinn Evans and TMC Furniture staff. Read more about that inspiration and process here.
Supporting lactation and breastfeeding in the workplace is a vital part of ensuring that lactating individuals feel valued. Setting up lactation spaces sometimes calls for innovation and creativity. You can explore our collection of stories about workplace accommodations in the stories below:
Pulling back the lens further, the architecture of communities themselves influences well-being too. One of the effects of redlining is poor health outcomes. Part of this equation involves the placement of industrial buildings and factories. Vann R. Newkirk II points out in Trump’s EPA Concludes Environmental Racism Is Real that The National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study indicating that BIPOC are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. “Specifically, the study finds that people in poverty are exposed to more fine particulate matter than people living above poverty,” he writes.
NICHQ hosts a webinar The Residual Impact of Historical Structural Inequities: Connecting Residential Segregation and Mortgage Discrimination to Current Infant Mortality and Breastfeeding Rates where maternal child health experts including speakers Jaye Clement, MPH, MPP, Brittney Francis, MPH, Kiddada Green, MAT, Arthur James, MD and Jessica Roach, LPN, BA, MPH share examples for supporting efforts to reduce infant mortality and improve maternal and infant health.
Circling back to Tingley’s piece, the article raises the concern that although we’re equipped with knowledge about how under-resourced populations are being affected by current structures and practices, “funding earmarked for expanding inclusivity [may] be diverted toward making existing facilities safer for those they already privilege.”
Drawing on Sanders’ work, Tingley writes, “Throughout history… the built environment has reflected and reinforced inequality by physically separating one group from another, often in the presumed interests of health or safety. Women-only bathrooms, so designated by men, supposedly preserved their innocence and chastity; white-only bathrooms separated their users from supposedly less ‘clean’ black people. It’s no coincidence that Covid-19 has disproportionately sickened and killed members of demographic groups — people who are black, Indigenous and Latino; who are homeless; who are immigrants — that have been targets of systemic segregation that increased their vulnerability. It’s also not hard to imagine the pandemic, and a person’s relative risk of infection, being used to justify new versions of these discriminatory practices.”
In this vein, Glenn Gamboa details where some funding gets funneled in a piece published this spring.
“Twelve national environmental grant makers awarded $1.34 billion to organizations in the Gulf and Midwest regions in 2016 and 2017, according to a 2020 study by The New School’s Tishman Environment and Design Center. But only about 1% of it — roughly $18 million — was awarded to groups that are dedicated to environmental justice.”
The climate crisis is an accelerating threat that is both affected by and affects architecture.
“Architecture has to mediate between the perceived needs of the moment versus the unknowable needs of the future; between the immediate needs of our bodies and the desire to create something that will outlast generations,” Tingley goes on to write.
Across the globe, architects push to be “mindful of their projects’ environmental impacts and resilience, including an emphasis on upcycling, the use of solar power, better building practices, and, of course, structural longevity,” Alyssa Giacobbe writes. [More on ecological design here.]
Alongside resilience and sustainability, there must be a focus on design that specifically serves mothers and their children. Mothers are too often left out, unseen, underserved despite there being about two billion of us worldwide, with an increasing likelihood of women becoming mothers.
Lisa Wong Macabasco puts it this way: “Although the experience of human reproduction touches all of us at least once in our lives, its effects remain taboo, under-researched and excluded from exhibitions and publications covering architecture and design history and practice. In these spheres, maternity is treated furtively or as unimportant, even as it defines the everyday experiences of many – some 6 million Americans are pregnant at any given time.”
It isn’t surprising that “design for children, design for healthy spaces, design for those with disabilities, care of and for their colleagues – these discussions and follow through are happening largely through female-led firms and initiatives,” Julia Gamolina comments in The Unspoken Burden on Women in Architecture.
In an exciting development, Wong Macabasco describes design historians Amber Winick and Michelle Millar Fisher’s Designing Motherhood, “a first-of-its-kind exploration of the arc of human reproduction through the lens of design. Their endeavor encompasses a book, a series of exhibitions and public programs in Philadelphia, and a design curriculum taught at the University of Pennsylvania.”
This is exciting, and it’s progress. But as Wong Macabasco quotes Juliana Rowen Barton– architecture and design historian and curator who also helped organize Designing Motherhood– “Progress is not the fact that this show happened – progress is these conversations continuing to happen.”
Designing Motherhood is on view at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia through this month of May 2022.