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Listen: Trauma-Informed Design

(Recorded December 2023)

Have you ever wondered how design intersects with trauma-informed care? Learn how simple adjustments in design can create profound changes, enabling transformation and positively affecting the lives of those who have experienced trauma.

We discuss practical strategies, principles, and real-life examples to foster environments that promote healing and safety. Inclusivity lies at the heart of our discussion. We explore how design can be a tool for empowerment, giving voice to marginalized communities–and how co-creation builds spaces that genuinely reflect and uplift the people they represent. 

GUEST: Our guest, Julie Stevens, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Iowa State University, where she has developed an innovative student design-build service-learning program. 

Beginning in 2011, Stevens has established a multi-year partnership with the Iowa Department of Corrections to create therapeutic environments for prisons, including gardens for prison staff and incarcerated individuals. 

The team of Iowa State students, prison staff, and incarcerated individuals at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) received the Award of Excellence in Community Service from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) in 2015 for the ICIW outdoor classrooms and a decompression deck and the 2018 ASLA Award of Excellence in Community Service for the Children’s Garden, a visiting garden for incarcerated women and their visitors. 

Stevens founded ASLA’s Environmental Justice Professional Practice Network, which focuses on creating healthy environments for all people by integrating environmental justice issues into landscape architectural education, research, and professional practice. Stevens is a contributor to Design as Democracy: Techniques for Collective Creativity, Island Press.

#TransformTrauma is a podcast by the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice (CTIPP). Through coalition-building, advocacy, and policymaking, we’re building a national movement that integrates community-led, trauma-informed, resilience-focused, and healing-centered prevention and intervention across all sectors and generations. Learn more at


**Our guest meant to say 98% in reference to reaching the majority of people who haven’t had access to trauma-informed design and/or healthy environments/communities. (00:02:45)

00:00:00Welcome everyone to another episode of Transform Trauma with the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice. Today, we are talking all about trauma-informed design with Julie Stevens, the associate professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University. Julie, thanks so much for being here with us.

00:00:19Yeah, thanks for inviting me.

00:00:20What's been your journey with this work?

00:00:22I didn't necessarily go out seeking trauma-informed design, but more so kind of came by it as I was working with the Iowa Department of Corrections, primarily with our women's prison here. So for about eight years, we developed a landscape design build program with the women's prison, and alongside of that, a gardening committee that was run by the individuals who were in the living in the facility. And, you know, it's interesting because people would ask me all the time, how are you affecting the recidivism rate? And, you know, when I was first learning about corrections, I just thought, geez, I guess that's the number everybody is concerned about. And do I can I even affect the recidivism rate with the landscape? I don't know. Um, is that the is that really the indicator? And then I came to sort of understand, um, more the human development approach and looking at risk and protective factors. And how can we beef up a person's protective factors through, you know, exposure to nature, but time spent in nature, working with nature, even just looking at it, you know, and using it for a healing environment. So this trauma-informed design framework really started there. Um, but unfortunately not in the, the beginning stages because it just wasn't there, you know, to draw from.

00:01:39I think one of the things that I'm really struck by is how it's so clear that you had this natural sort of feeling and alignment with the principles before. Maybe you had the language to really describe what that means. And I think that's really common for people in this movement. Right. And in your work, one of the things I was struck by is, you know, one of the core trauma-informed values in principles is this idea of collaboration and mutuality. And one striking aspect of how you align your work with this principle is that emphasis on co-creation. And I'm curious to know if you wouldn't mind speaking to how you engage voices of lived experience, especially in communities that have been historically marginalized, marginalized, where trust and safety to support engagement can be really tough to build, and also in these settings that are really, um, marred with, with administrative burden and a lot of regulations that you have to follow to really co-design those spaces to support trauma recovery and healing.

00:02:45**Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you just covered so many things there. Yeah, I think yeah. It's yes. Administrative burden, lots of red tape. Just lots of perceptions coming from all different angles. Um, you know, I heard a lot in corrections that there was I had no business building gardens and prisons, you know, of course, nobody in a prison should deserve that. And that's exactly why I went after it. Because, you know, typically our design work benefits the top, you know, 2 to 10% of the world's population, right? Those who can afford to live in the luxury of a designed, well-designed space. And what I really care about is that other 2%, and most of the folks you find in prisons or in youth facilities are that other 2% who have not lived in healthy environments and healthy communities. And, um, my favorite part of all of this is the Co-designing. It's the collaboration with the folks who are living in and sitting in that seat. I don't know what they want. It took me a while to figure out, you know, I'm not ashamed to admit it, because I think it's actually more helpful for people to understand it. I didn't know how to do this 12 years ago. Um, and surely nobody showed me, um, you know, I had meant great mentors who suggested different ways of looking at these projects. But when we started working with the women's prison in 2010, we did a focus group and it was like an hour long. We just asked people what they wanted, and we heard color and we heard water and we heard, um, you know, places to sit and shelters and all of that is still what I hear. But now I know how to go deeper. That's always still the first level. But then, you know, by the third or fourth or fifth time that we're sitting together, people in our communities start to feel more comfortable to do the designing. So the last project that we built to the women's prison was a visitor's garden, really geared towards the mother-child relationship. And the women on our crew were the designers, which made my students crazy because, you know, they live for this design where they, like, get to make everything look really cool, like the cover of, you know, a magazine. And that's not what people want when they're in an institution. They want something that feels like home. And that is exactly what these women designed. So we facilitated and, you know, we brought them back to CAD standards and things like that. But, um, I won't claim to have designed that space. It was really the women and the research, the follow-up studies that we did proved that the process, um, worked because they, they referred to it as home like never could have imagined that anybody would refer to a space in a prison as home-like, but they did. And, you know, and they said they they felt better about having their families visit. They felt like they could shed their identity as prisoner and be mom or grandma or aunt and, you know, that was really powerful. Um, and I won't ever go back again. You know, I can't I can't design something without, you know, full, full involvement.

00:05:59So I want to I want to dive into the home aspect of it, because that was going to be one of my questions for you of just like for folks who are new to this topic, how do you describe the differences in traditional design versus trauma-informed design? And, and, you know, you touched on home a couple of times, but expand on that. So, you know, like, um, features characteristics like what is that end up looking like typically?

00:06:24That's a great question. So I was at a conference recently and I listened to a session that was talking about trauma-informed design. And everybody's just like sort of, I don't know, grasping at straws at this point, trying to like create a framework or figure out what this is and can we all call it the same thing? And quite frankly, I don't think we should be calling it trauma-informed design. You know, I really wish for a sort of a more hopeful way to refer to this, but for right now, this is what people understand and you maybe can relate. And trauma-informed care, right, is, you know, you want to just call it care and love and right what it is. But it's, you know, it's like the distinction between it's the distinction between mental and physical health. It's all health. It's all well-being. So we we end up, in a word, soup a lot of times with like healing-centered, community-led, resilience-focused. Right. Because there's not currently one term that sort of encompasses what it is we're trying to do. 

00:07:21So I, I really struggle with that. And, you know, for all practical purposes, we can continue this conversation about trauma-informed design, knowing, you know, that someday we'll have a more hopeful way to, you know, kind of talk about it. But I was listening to this session and, and this architect was talking about how through the design process, he realized that it was like, this is just good design for anybody. And you could see a bunch of heads nodding. And I was sitting there thinking, yes, except you're missing a really crucial piece of this, which is that's it's not how we design for everybody, right? There's so many inequities and in the way that we design and play in and so great. That could have been right. It was another youth facility actually, that they were working on. And it could have been designed for everybody, except that it wasn't right, because the kids that were in that detention center did not have equal access to healthy environments and healthy foods and healthy schools and and so that that piece of it is missing. Um, and so but I think, you know, when you think about differences between, you know, the trauma-informed design and any other design, I think we draw a lot from health care design. Um, and, and yet there again, there are other distinct differences. And, and some of that is, you know, the way a person's body responds in the environment is really different after they've experienced trauma. Right? You all know this, but designers don't. Right, that there's, you know, hyper reactions to things or hyper reactions to things. Um, there's triggers and stimuli and, and so, you know, could good design for everybody be a good design for folks who've experienced trauma? Maybe. Um, but I think it's this is, again, where co-design matters, because I don't know what it's like to be a 16-year-old who's experienced abuse and neglect in my home. But unfortunately, we work with a lot of kids who have experienced that. And they will tell you through a process, a very long and loving process, they will finally tell you what it is that they really need in their environment.

00:09:35I really, really appreciate the nuance with which you're noticing what this really means to embody these trauma-informed values, right? And the ways that you are anchoring and lived experience. And you made me think about the ways that sometimes there's this tension, that the things that evoke safety to one person may ultimately create unsafe for or even retraumatized another person. And it sounds like you are dealing with so many different stakeholders at once. And, you know, one of the examples that comes to mind for me is that during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations that I worked with often put up those clear shields in reception areas with the intent to preserve physical safety in a time of uncertainty. And yet, feedback collected demonstrated that placing a physical barrier between two humans from the very start of a person's experience walking in those doors really made the people seeking services and support feel othered and looked down upon and unsafe, given the power dynamics that are already at play. And so it's just so complex. And I'm just wondering what you've found to be useful to inform decision-making around cultivating a trauma-informed environment when that sort of tension exists and you have so many, I'm sure, different entities to to answer to.

00:11:08Yeah, yeah, that's very true. You know, I think about so we've worked with our local youth and shelter services organization now for a few years and um, and helped them through a process of building a new nature-based campus. So right now we've got this group of kids who are three groups of kids who are in shelter, care and crisis stabilization or in substance use treatment. And they're here in our in our town of 60,000 people in these old houses. So on one hand, it's really cool because it's homelike, but on the other hand, they're old and you talk to staff and they talk about how they can't see all the kids at one time because there's so many nooks and crannies and hallways and or it's loud and it creaks and they're not sure how anybody can sleep, because if you walk across any floor, it's creaking. And, you know, so they're thinking about the safety and well-being of these, these youth. They're thinking about their own safety and well-being. Um, you know, just with the old broken down materials and spaces and steps and, and those types of things. And it is interesting. You have to, you know, value everybody's perspective. I have kind of come from the belief that if we center the most vulnerable. First and we build, you know, that ring out around them where you're they need the most support. And if they have the most support and their resources and a positive environment, it's good for everybody as we build that circle out. Um, and, you know, that's not always a popular view, certainly not in corrections, where correctional officers don't want to see incarcerated individuals at the center or the heart of our project. Right. Um, unfortunately, that's the sort of the normal view in corrections. But I think in, you know, in more youth treatment, I think a lot of counselors and, and direct care staff understand that, um, but it is important to, you know, value all of those and honor all those perspectives. I want everybody to be safe, too. And we do sometimes introduce, you know, things into the environment that could be dangerous, right? Pergolas and stone walls and those types of things, you know, even tree branches could be dangerous. Um, but that's where we come in with research to show that the benefits outweigh those risks. And those risks can be managed.

00:13:32And can you talk any a little bit about any research that's been done that sort of shows the benefits of integrating nature. Interviewer and how that came out?

00:13:43Yeah, there's lots of great, um, research on, you know, the impact of nature on people's health. And I'm happy to share some studies with you. I think, you know, one of the most cited studies was done by Roger Ulrich many years ago. View through a window. And it's been replicated and cited. And, um, and essentially what he found was that when looking at patients in a particular wing in a hospital, those who had a view of nature out of their window healed faster. They had fewer sick, you know, calls to the nurses, um, they needed less prescription medication. They were released faster than those who had no window or looked out at another brick wall. And that, you know, what else do you want to know? It's just pretty insightful, right? Right. But there have been a lot of studies and, you know, some biomarker studies that show that, you know, even five minutes spent outside can reduce your heart rate and reduce that, um, you know, amygdala disturbance. And so there's a lot of good studies that show good stress response. 

00:14:52And how does that translate into environments where maybe there is no existing nature. Right. So are we talking plant walls inside, you know, water features outside. Right. Like how tactically does that get demonstrated?

00:15:04Yeah, I think about this a lot. You know, I'm in a fairly like, you know, rural community. So most of the projects that we work on the women's prison sits on 90 acres. So they have plenty of outdoor access now. Then you have to consider policy issues where maybe the the access is limited because of policy, not because of lack of space. And then you think about, you know, jails and institutions in downtown New York City where access to nature is obviously a commodity. Um, yeah. I think, you know, we certainly have looked into things like green walls and, um, especially in carceral settings, in more of those isolated spaces. Um, but then the question is, why do we have isolated spaces? Why do we have spaces at all where you can't get to nature? Um, and, you know, these are just like, we've got to get out of that way of thinking, right? I realize it's, you know, some facilities just are where they are and they're, they're going to where their clients are or the people in need are. But I just I see it as an essential piece of our lives. Right. Um, and again, you know, the research would show if you if you look at environmental psychology theories, the reason we're so connected with nature is because we wouldn't survive without it. Right? We all need to eat. We all need to drink water. We all need fresh air. Those are things that aren't coming from buildings. Those are things that are coming from the natural world. And it's interesting because one thing that I've observed over the years, working particularly with youth and children, um, in various um, facilities and adults as well, they are folks who have experienced trauma, who are in a tough spot, always design the life forces into their work. So we did a project a couple of years ago with, um, a youth facility they built. We had them build edible models of their interior courtyard, so we had gummy bears and marshmallows and broccoli, and they ate a lot of frosting with broccoli, with frosting. And kids do funny things, right. But they all these kids, we had them all building these models. They all had a water element. They all had fire. There was a campfire in every single one of them. They all had shelters. They all had some sort of mechanism for proprioceptive input. So some of them had swings, some of them had tight little chairs that they had created, you know, for compression, um, and, and food. They all had fruit trees and fruit, you know, bearing bushes. And it was unbelievable. And, you know, over the years I've come to expect it. But I'm still amazed that, you know, when you are in that survival mode, you are seeking those survival elements in the landscape provides them.

00:17:52That's right. Right. And they're so ancient and they're so universal. That's really interesting. Youth and children assessment. Right. And switching up the way that we doing those and instead of doing them in rooms with no windows and harsh fluorescent lighting and a metal chair and no art or toys to play with. Right. Um, how would you design that space if you had a magic wand? All right.

00:18:17So glad you brought that up. We had a really cool experience when we were working with Youth and Shelter Services. Um, my students in our studio had spent, you know, we had ES Wednesdays. So my students were spending every Wednesday afternoon with the kids from ES. And so we would take them to parks, and we were doing all these participatory activities and. And we took them to this great park one day, and they were clamoring over logs and climbing trees and jumping over the creek and doing all these things. And it inspired my students to put on this new 54 acre site, this really cool creek crossing that had like five different ways you could get across the creek. So there was the ADA-accessible bridge. There were stone steppers. There was a log, you know, like a fallen log that you could just walk through the water. There was different ways to do it. And the coolest thing was we all thought it was just really great. But the counselors at YSS looked at it and said, oh, I would use that for assessment because, you know, they get these kids in. Put them in a room, they sit down and do paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. And these kids, you know, they're not going to put their best foot forward when they feel like they're being interrogated. It's a horrible room. It's somebody with a clipboard. But take a walk with a counselor. They don't even know they're being assessed, right? They're just being kids. And then you can see really who they are. And, you know, I thought back about a couple of the kids that we had taken to the park that day, one of them who had broken his leg weeks previously and was in a boot and still was climbing trees, and I thought she could get a lot of information about how this young person was going to maybe, you know, engage with the environment. So one of my favorite moments with the ES project was, again, one of our participatory activities. We was called Photo Voice. Maybe you've heard a photo voice. So you essentially you give your, you know, your community participants a phone or in this case we're using iPads. So we had all the kids go out into this park and take photographs of their favorite things. Um, so they're taking pictures of, you know, bridges and, um, the pond and some animals and caterpillars and a lot of selfies, which was great. Um, and so then we had them share at the end of it what they liked, and they were all just silent. And I thought, oh, I did something wrong here. And, you know, I should have known better. They don't want to be put on the spot, right? They've experienced a lot of interrogation. They didn't want to talk. And I had one young man who stood up and said, I will share with you. And, um, he's talking about these in. So this is a very highly designed park. You know, it's a natural setting, but it was designed, you know, a lot of it was designed, but what they liked the most were these like log and stick structures that other park users had created and just from things that had fallen on the ground. And I said, well, that's great, what would you use them for? And they said, take five. And I said, I don't know what take five is. And they said, oh, it's this thing. So, you know, when you're mad, you can just tell the counselors that you need to take five and you can step out away from the group. And one of the counselors was there with us and he said, okay, but you have to you have to give them more information than that. How do you really use it? And he said, well, you can't use it to build your argument. You have to use it to actually be prepared to come back to the group. And um, and so we started to talk about what this might look like on their new campus. And so the next participatory activity the following week was something completely different. But we thought, no, we have to go with this. So we actually gathered up a bunch of materials and took the kids out to the new campus, which was just a wild 54 acres of, you know, prairie and some woodlands. And we took them out there and we had them find spots that they would want to create a take five space in. And they started building their own spaces. And so our students were there sort of crew, and we used yarn and fabric and logs and just all kinds of things. And they made their own space and, and talked about what, you know, what that meant to them. And I think it's just so important for them to feel that sense of agency and to feel like they're there. They matter. Um, and that's been one of the greatest things about the way we work. Our process is, you know, even if we don't design the greatest, next, greatest thing, we've had great experiences.

00:22:59I think that I'm really struck by that empowerment-centered way of thinking. And something you mentioned earlier, too, is really making me wonder about this aspect of creativity. You know, because I think what you mentioned really shines a spotlight on how trauma responses that people experience are really often normal and understandable responses to abnormal circumstances. Right? Trauma itself violates our human rights and often involve situations that contravene our natural, full humanity. Like that connectedness to the natural world that you were mentioning before. We're hardwired to want to connect in that way. Right? And so there's just so much out-of-the-box thinking that I'm noticing, and I'm wondering if you can walk us through just a specific project or initiative where that creativity on how we reconnect ourselves to the human experience through our environments made a significant difference in the well-being of individuals or communities, and maybe the lessons learned from those creative experiences and endeavors.

00:24:10Yeah, I appreciate that you've picked up on that. Um, you know, one of the most important parts of all this work that we haven't talked about yet is collaboration with other disciplines. I'm a designer. You know, I don't I didn't study the body, and I didn't study neuroscience. And, you know, I don't have a social work background, but I have colleagues who do. And we've, you know, we've come together over the years. So, um, when I was working in with corrections, um, I started working with Doctor Amy Winfield, who's at the University of Washington in Seattle. She has a human development background and a psychology background, and she's an occupational therapist. And her focus is really about the physical environment and, um, nature based healing environments. So she's brought all of these disciplinary approaches to what we do, um, in landscape architecture that just blow me away. You know, the way that she sees, the way people interact or when we do participatory sessions together and she picks out behaviors. So I might see somebody doing something that I think is really neat and she'll say, oh, well, that's this protective factor. You know, they're helping each other. Helping is a protective factor, right? If they can build up those skills to ask for help, allow help and help one another, these are good things. Right. And so those things have been great. And the other person I've worked with a lot is doctor Barb Chaves, who is a restorative justice expert at the University of Washington Tacoma. And so I've learned a lot about, you know, corrections and restorative justice. And, um, you know, just how those relationships between people really matter, especially, you know, when when you've experienced trauma or loss and, and so those those I feel like I, you know, sometimes I feel like I've had a secondary degree working with them. Um, and, you know, they, they give me all kinds of good things to read and think about and dig into. And, you know, this transdisciplinary approach is the only way to do it. And I think that's one of the things I would encourage designers to think about is we don't know this stuff. Um, so one of the things that I've learned from Amy, in particular is about the sensory systems. And, uh, you know, I like a lot of people. I used to think there were five sensory systems, and there's eight, and the other three are so important to the design world, and yet almost nobody knows it. Um, and so, you know, one of the, the so back to your question about us, you know, maybe an example. Um, another one of my favorite moments was with this, this group, um, you know, these kids are jumping off of things, especially the boys, you know, the the boys and the treatment program. They were always jumping, climbing things and jumping off of things. And it's interesting because in my world, that's fine, right? Because I teach a bunch of landscape architecture students were always out in nature climbing things and jumping off of things. But, you know, if you're in an elementary school or a middle school, that's not appropriate, right? That's deemed inappropriate behavior. But from the, uh, traumatized body standpoint, those are absolutely normal reactions, right? You're shaking your heads because you know this, but so many people don't. So those that need to jump off as something I have come to understand as proprioceptive input. Right. And so you have somebody who's not sure why they are where they are, they can't find their body in time and space. And one of the ways to do that is to to jump off of things or climb or spin or twist or whatever, so that your body is really here and now. And so we welcome that in our designs. Right? So we say, okay, you don't want to walk a straight path between your counseling session and your dorm room where you're staying when you're in this facility. So. Don't walk a straight path, then. I mean, if you want to take the straight path, you can take the straight path. If somebody else wants to jump off of rocks and logs, they should be invited to do that and to no consequence to them. Right. And the staff and counselors love this idea, right? They don't want to say no all the time. So it's some of that is about creating, yes, spaces and spaces that take into account that the body is going to respond differently.

00:28:25Well, you know, I think one thing I'm curious about is maybe for people who aren't positioned in leadership or authoritative roles or for folks who don't have that specialized training and design and architecture and can sort of see and envision what needs to happen to bring these environments into alignment with a trauma-informed approach. I wonder what sort of advice you might give about small steps, but just about anyone can take to improve the environment of the areas they live, work, play, and connect in.

00:28:56That is a great question. Yes. So there's a couple things I guess I would encourage folks to think about if they're considering a design or redesign of any space, or maybe considering that, you know, maybe, perhaps spaces, interior or exterior could be used better to serve the needs of folks that they're they're working with? I think a couple things come up. One is, um, so in design, we we often work projects through a request for proposal. Right. So there'll be a call for a project. And the way that that is written really matters. And I think when you're working in such delicate environments where the, the impact that the environment can have on people is so powerful. Um, I think the one requirement has to be that it's a transdisciplinary team, right? That you find those rare unicorn people who are out there that really can understand, design and understand them, you know, the human body in all ways, you know, mind, body, spirit, soul, all of it. Um, so transdisciplinary, I think is a must. I think the other thing that I've realized is, you know, and maybe this goes a little bit back to the question about how is this different than regular design, the regular way we design things? I think some of it is about priorities. And I think if we go in, um, to these projects, open to perhaps what needs to happen is different than what we expected, or we need to prioritize one space over another. Um, I think perhaps we can have greater impacts. And I can give you one very quick example. So in this project, one of the things that was revealed through lots of participation with the kids and the staff is that those family relationships, caregiver relationships are some of the most important aspects of, um, a youth's ability to overcome substance use and because they're in a, you know, a 9120 day program and they don't see their families, but their families are going on right about their lives, and then that youth is going to come back into their home, um, with different experiences. They all need to kind of be on the same page. Right? And you all know this stuff. But again, designers aren't thinking about that. One of the things that we designed into the campus was family cabins, where families could come for a night or two nights or a couple of days within an arm's reach of counseling staff and resources and, you know, food. So you don't have to worry about making lunch. You just you're there and you can work on, you know, building up the family relationships that are so important for all everybody involved. But, you know, it got cut from the budget. Of course it did. It wasn't understood to be the most important thing. And this is the hard part when you're working with these social service agencies that are already functioning under such low budgets. But I bet once those cabins are built, we will see a huge increase in the success of these kids and their families. Right. Um, so I think priorities. I think that's just a huge part of the process that probably gets sort of rushed through.

00:32:13Thank you so much for your time and for talking with us today. We really appreciate it.

00:32:17Yeah, it's been great and I so appreciate the work that you all do. Um, and all the folks who are listening, I say all the time, I, I just amazed at the people in our community who are caring for so many other members of our community day in and day out. And so thank you for all that you do.



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