November 12, 2018
by Elsa Lam
What they say is true: having a kid changes everything. I didn’t expect that to include my view of architecture. But over the past year of maternity leave, my interaction with the built environment has been shifting as I learn to navigate the world with a tiny human.
Designed by Stantec, the Crossroads playground in Calgary’s East Village is an exemplar of infant- and child-friendly design, with padded terrain and a variety of settings that invite exploration. Courtesy of CMLC.
The shift started when my baby was still in utero. Midway through gestation, something in my hip joint jostled loose. Sitting up became painful, let alone easing myself out of bed. “This is what it must feel like to be old,” I thought. The injury only lasted for a week, but in that time, I noted the importance of well-placed stair handrails for leaning on, cushioned-yet-firm chairs that were easy to sit into and stand up from, and functioning elevators.
I was lucky to deliver at the Toronto Birth Centre, a midwife-operated space in Regent Park. Birthing is intense, and I was glad to be away from the beeping machines and bustle of a hospital, in a calm setting with the necessary medical equipment. While a bed is central to most hospital birthing rooms, at the birth centre, a deep tub and ceiling-hung sling take centre stage, allowing for active birthing. (Full disclosure: my husband worked at LGA Architectural Partners and was one of the project’s architects.) The Toronto Birth Centre is one of two prototypes in Ontario. Why aren’t these more widespread, like they are in Quebec?
Navigating with a baby over the next months brought more new perspectives. The mental map of my neighbourhood altered, centering on cafés and libraries with change table-equipped washrooms. The best was when these were located in gender-neutral washrooms, allowing me to pass off to my husband. An elegant alternative to fold-out plastic tables is an extended section of counter—bonus points for an adjacent mirror to entertain baby.
As my little one’s mobility increased, so did my parental eye for appropriate environments for him to explore the world. The City of Toronto has a no-spray policy in its parks—perfect for a crawler intent on taste-testing grass, sticks and dirt. I scouted the city for playgrounds with rubber padding where he could practice taking his first steps without too many scrapes. He was particularly charmed by pavement-level water jets, and we made family excursions to City Hall and Corktown Common.
Infant strollers also come with spatial challenges. Ramp access to buildings is key — a stroller containing a child isn’t easy to lug up a flight of stairs. The StopGap Foundation’s simple coloured wedges, while originally intended for wheelchair users, have helped me access dozens of local establishments. Increasingly stringent universal access requirements are helpful for parents, too. A well-placed door opener button makes getting inside seamless, while one located too close to the door swing entails a complicated cha-cha with the stroller. In places with infant-centred activities, a designated indoor stroller parking area is enormously useful. Parents hesitate to leave a thousand-dollar-stroller unattended outside.
All of these minutiae demonstrate why diversity is so important in design. When a hand dryer roars to life next to the change table and your baby screeches in response, you’ll remember it for every future washroom layout. It’s helpful to have mother-architects and father-architects to get that detail right.
In the same way, we need architects who know first-hand about mobility challenges, social segregation, and a host of other issues. This doesn’t absolve architects of the responsibility to learn as much as they can about the spatial aspects of these topics. But having designers of diverse backgrounds in a team can allow for first-hand knowledge to permeate projects in a comprehensive way, with noticeable results in a plethora of thoughtful decisions. Experience is the ultimate teacher in life, as well as in design.