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Iowa State University researcher leads the emerging field of trauma-informed environment design News Service Iowa State University

Iowa State University researcher leads the emerging field of trauma-informed environment design News Service Iowa State University

Students lead a workshop
Students lead a workshop

ISU design students Tara Tilstra and Jordyn Kloss, with Rowan Anderson talking to YSS youth about their plot of land where their new building will be located. Christopher Gannon Photos Larger image.

AMES, Iowa — An Iowa State University researcher is embarking on a new research path, paving the way in an emerging field of study within landscape architecture: trauma-informed environmental design.

Julie Stevens, associate professor of landscape architecture, has partnered with YSS to build its new Recovery Campus near Cambridge. They plan to break ground on it later in the spring. YSS provides mental- and behavioral health services to youth and their families in central Iowa.

During a recent meeting of the option studio, three groups of YSS youth headed to the College of Design to work with Stevens’ students. Each child wrote down the typical day at YSS, one hour at a time. They then cut each activity out by the hour and pinned it to a map of Cambridge showing where they would like each activity to take place. For daily therapy, many girls desired to be surrounded with nature.

“I chose this option studio because I love helping others and architecture should be of tangible benefit to people,” said Tara Tilstra, master’s student in architecture from Sioux Center.

Stevens and her students will be assisting YSS in master planning and site plan for the new facility. This will be done through participatory design with YSS staff and children, as well as the RDG Planning & Design design team.

Stevens believes that participation design is an underutilized, overlooked, or even cut short in the design field.

“I learned through my work with incarcerated individuals that it takes a really long time to understand clients and their needs, especially when working with vulnerable people,” Stevens said. “A worthy participatory process necessitates putting the power of design into the hands of those who have the most to gain or lose from the resulting built environments — in this case, vulnerable and underserved youth.”

Preventive over reactive

Stevens and her students work with a lot of children in addiction recovery. Stevens was a natural partner for YSS because they believe that nature is the best driver of healing.

“YSS is so grateful for the commitment of Julie and her students who have dedicated countless hours to engage those we serve through authentic youth development – giving their perspective life,” said Andrew Allen, YSS president and chief executive officer. “They are helping to bring to life our vision of a best-in class nature-based behavioral hospital campus. This project is needed now more than ever as we’re experiencing a youth mental health and addiction crisis. Julie’s efforts will impact the lives of thousands of youth and young adults who will receive treatment at YSS.”

Stevens and her research partners are innovators within a new field, trauma-informed environmental designing. In this field, designers work to understand their clients and how their life experiences impact their experience of different environments today to better serve them in their design process. “Trauma-informed” should not be a buzzword in the design fields, Stevens says: “The physical environment says a lot about the value we place on those living, working and learning within them.”

“Human services have to be trauma-informed because we work with so many people who have experienced such extreme trauma and toxic stress,” she said. “We need to look at how the environment can hinder well-being as well as how it can improve well-being.”

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According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), more than 2,000,000 youth aged 12-17 have reported that they used drugs in their last month. Over 500,000 youth experience homelessness every year, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

These statistics are “heart-breaking,” Stevens says.

“I feel like as a society we could all work a little harder to take care of these kids early on, meet their needs, help them learn coping skills, relational skills and address the painful experiences that led them to substance use. I truly believe that if we could eradicate trauma, there would be no violence, homelessness, and no addiction. This may sound impossible to some, but do any of us really want to see more trauma in the world?”

Stevens will conduct research as part of her work with YSS. She will also conduct post-occupancy evaluations in order to understand how youth feel about the new environment, their caregivers, and how YSS programs have changed between facilities.

Stevens believes that designers can be more proactive in creating healing environments. Rather than fitting what is already done into a “trauma lens,” she urges designers to begin the design process by understanding trauma and using evidence-based research to inform design solutions, and taking the time to include clients throughout the process.

“I hope someday that trauma-informed environmental design will look similar to LEED certification, and ultimately be included in licensure requirements because mental health is part of human health, safety and welfare,” she said. “Anyone who’s working in schools, health care facilities, treatment facilities, youth settings, homeless facilities, veterans’ facilities, etc., need to understand how someone who has experienced trauma might experience the designed environment.”

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