Long before anyone defined the field of environmental psychology, prisons were testing grounds for theories about how the design of the built environment could exert a physical and moral influence on people. In 19th-century England, the “Panopticon” prison design proposed a radial organization of brightly-lit and highly-visible cells around a dark central watch tower, to instill in prisoners the moral pressure and paranoia of constant social surveillance. In 21st-century Norway, prison buildings are separated by rolling hills and forests to promote frequent interaction with nature, and guards’ break rooms are cramped and uncomfortable to encourage them to spend their social time with inmates.
The distance between those approaches speaks to the struggle of societies to define the role of prisons as places for punishment or reform, for repentance or rehabilitation. It’s in this arena — fraught with moral undertones and with concerns about safety, accountability, justice, and injustice — that landscape architect Julie Stevens, ASLA, practices.
Stevens, an assistant professor at Iowa State University, has overseen three design-build projects at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, a medium-security prison in the small city of Mitchellville. Her approach to prison design is the same as for any community design: build relationships and recognize the humanity of the whole community, while honoring the voices of the most vulnerable — in this case the inmates, or “the women,” as Stevens referred to them most often during a lecture last week at North Carolina State University’s College of Design.
Stevens became involved at the women’s prison in 2011, when administrators were overseeing a $68 million expansion project that included no funding for design of the landscape. “The department of corrections wanted us to help them figure out where to put a few trees and shrubs,” Stevens said. “The prison was a lot of concrete, a lot of lawn, and essentially what happened is that a crew of about 12 women go out and start on one end of the prison with a cheap lawn mower and start mowing. And they push line after line after line, and when they get done, they start all over again.”
“We looked at this, and we thought, ‘We can do a lot better. We can make spaces more productive, more therapeutic.’”
The first design-build project was a limestone amphitheater flanked by two outdoor classrooms, a lawn mound, an aspen grove, and a constructed native prairie (see image above). Iowa State landscape architecture students designed the one-acre space with help from the women, and a team of students and inmates built the whole thing in one summer, using tons of donated gravel and limestone.
During that first summer of construction, Stevens and her students noticed that prison staff tended to congregate at their cars after work, decompressing in the hot parking lot before driving home to their families. The next design-build project became a decompression deck for prison staff. When that was done, Stevens and her team created a healing garden to serve prisoners in the mental health unit. Now she’s building support for a design to serve the women and their children.
The projects are driven by the relationships Stevens has cultivated with prison administration, staff, and inmates. The designs accommodate administrators’ requests by promoting calm, creating functional spaces, and addressing security concerns — through open sight lines, for example, and the use of epoxy to keep limestone pieces fixed in place and unusable as weapons. The designs serve the women as daily spaces to gather and, during design and construction, as opportunities to build employable skills. But the effects are also more subtle.
“Some of these women have come from some pretty unthinkable situations, years of abuse. But when we’re in the garden and we’re working together, we have a single vision, we’re working toward a common goal, and we all get to be equal,” Stevens said. “Gardens are inclusive.”
The designs at the prison are informed by research on environmental preference and attention restoration theories, and Stevens has assembled a team of researchers to help capture the impact of the projects. They’re tracking protective factors, which are thought to reduce recidivism and which include demonstrations of teamwork and problem-solving. They’re also using surveys to keep track of the gardens’ effects on prisoners. Results so far suggest that being in the landscape makes the women feel calmer, more optimistic, and in greater control of their lives.
But the root of her work at the prison, and in environmental justice generally, is deeper. It’s a belief — common to the history of thought on prison design — that the measure of a society lies in the treatment of its most vulnerable populations, that good design is important and should not be reserved for those with a voice. Stevens identified the solution at the end of her lecture: design and action driven by love.
“We have a lot of work to do. It’s really good work, and it’s really important work,” Stevens said. “We have to love and care for other people.”
This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) seeks a full-time summer communications intern. The intern will research and update ASLA’s sustainable design resource guides and write weekly posts on landscape architecture and related topics for The Dirt blog.
The internship is full-time Monday through Friday for 10 weeks, from June through August.
The intern will research and update resource guides on climate change, sustainable transportation, residential design, and other topics.
The intern will also create original content for The Dirt, including a weekly series of reviews on new apps and technology useful to landscape architects.
The intern will attend ASLA’s annual diversity summit weekend and write a report on the proceedings.
The intern will also have the opportunity to attend educational and networking events at the National Building Museum, Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks, and other museums and think tanks in Washington, D.C. Other communications projects may come up as well.
Current enrollment in a Master’s program in landscape architecture.
Excellent writing skills. The intern must be able to write clearly for a general audience.
Excellent photographic composition and editing skills.
Proven research skills and ability to quickly evaluate the quality and relevance of many different types of Web resources.
Excellent interpersonal skills and ability to interact graciously with busy staff members and outside experts.
Working knowledge of Photoshop, Google Maps, and Microsoft Office suite.
How to Apply:
Please send cover letter, CV, two writing samples (no more than 2 pages each) to
by end of day, Friday, March 31.
Phone interviews will be conducted with finalists the week of April 3 and selection will be made the following week.
The 10-week internship offers a $4,000 stipend. ASLA can also work with the interns to attain academic credit for the internship.
The internship is in-house located at ASLA’s national headquarters, which is conveniently located in downtown Washington, D.C., one block north of the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro Station on the Red, Yellow, and Green Lines. Learn more about ASLA’s Center for Landscape Architecture.
Bostanlı Footbridge and Bostanlı Sunset Lounge have been designed by Studio Evren Başbuğ Architects as part of the ‘Karşıkıyı’ concept created for ‘İzmirSea’ coastal regeneration project. These two architectural interventions that are positioned in close proximity and in reference to each other, have generated a new, integrated coastal attraction together, where Bostanlı Creek flows into […]
recognizing public lands, parks, and recreation as critical infrastructure
designing for resiliency.
"The United States needs a new approach to infrastructure development," said Nancy C. Somerville, Hon. ASLA, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA. "Now is the time to integrate a sound, strategic planning and design process. Integrating comprehensive infrastructure planning with natural systems analysis and land use planning is essential for creating livable communities in sustainable environments."
"The attention now being paid to fixing U.S. infrastructure represents an extraordinary opportunity for Americans to work together and address today's critical needs, as well as create tomorrow's resilient systems," said Somerville. "American landscape architects will be at the forefront of this process because they contribute essential expertise in creating the green infrastructure that cities and towns across the country are demanding."
About the American Society of Landscape Architects
Founded in 1899, ASLA is the national professional association for landscape architects, representing more than 15,000 members in 49 professional chapters and 72 student chapters. Members of the Society use "ASLA" after their names to denote membership and their commitment to the highest ethical standards of the profession. Landscape architects lead the stewardship, planning and design of our built and natural environments; the Society's mission is to advance landscape architecture through advocacy, communication, education and fellowship.
Senior living communities can either be car-dependent and isolated, or an urban or suburban “destination for experiences,” with proximity to transportation, services, arts and culture, restaurants, shopping, and personal development opportunities. Which community would you want to live in? The answer was clear in a session at Environments for Aging in Las Vegas.
According to Michael Hass, managing partner, Drive Development Partners, who is also a member of the Urban Land Institute’s senior housing council, from 1990-2009, senior living communities, mostly geared towards the World War I-era “silent” generation, were all about providing “a sense of security, peace of mind, ‘safety in numbers,’ and belonging.”
But in 2009, occupancy across the senior living industry dropped. This was a key year, the first year baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) became consumers of these places themselves, not just shoppers of these facilities for their parents. Their views on the traditional places could be summed up with: “I’ll never live in a place like that.”
Starting in 2009, senior living developers saw new demand among some of the oldest baby boomers for communities with “flexibility, choice, a unique variety of experiences, and spending opportunities.” They don’t want the self-contained campus, “35 acres in a cornfield.” Hass said: “They want an individualized experience, not the same formal dining room every day.”
Sean Thomson, senior living director, CR Architects, said a new model is needed to reach the 75-million-strong boomers, and walkable urban communities could be it. Walkable urbanism is in demand among all age groups, but is particularly appropriate for seniors.
A report from the George Washington University school of business found that “walkable urbanism is gaining market share.” Furthermore, there is a 90 percent premium for walkable office space, 71 percent premium for retail, and 66 percent premium for multi-family housing.
A 2013 report from Fannie Mae found senior communities with a WalkScore above 80, which means they are walkable, had a “relative risk of default that is 60 percent lower.” Those communities with a WalkScore below 8, which deemed them totally car-dependent, had a “risk 121 percent higher.” As Thomson explained, “walkable communities have a real human impact, but they also have real financial results.” Places with WalkScores in the 60 and 70s have some services in walking distance, but those with scores of 90-plus are ideal.
The ideal walkable senior community is basically found in dense European and Asian cities, or New York City. Imagine an apartment complex in a highly walkable environment, open to the surrounding neighborhood, with ground floor shops, cafes, and restaurants, and close to multi-modal transit opportunities, parks, plazas, self-storage facilities, and co-working spaces. Instead of all these services provided within an isolated campus, they are distributed through the surrounding neighborhood.
Thomson said an urban environment can provide better quality and a higher range of restaurants than any isolated senior community can. Embedding a senior community in a neighborhood also enables that inter-generational contact, social integration, and intellectual engagement so critical to “successful aging.”
Thomson summed up the benefits of walkable urbanism for seniors: “you don’t have to build the amenities; they are already there.”
To make these kinds of communities happen will take some creative housing development strategies. Senior housing developers can partner with medical groups, physicians networks, hospital districts, religious institutions, fitness or wellness companies, or become parts of existing mixed-use developments. “Senior living developers are almost never the top bidders so they need to be part of mixed-use projects, attach themselves to bigger projects.”
In revitalizing second-tier cities, senior housing developers have a real chance, particularly if they piggy-back on mixed-use developments where it’s advantageous to have a set of new fixed-income resident buyers all in one place. “Senior living communities can become an asset to a community.”
Senior housing developers can remake under-performing hotels or extended-stay hotels, or B and C class multi-family housing. “They can partner instead of acquire.”
Also, Thomson can even see universities and colleges building nearby housing for retired alumni who want to return to the area.
They created a vision of a 2.5-acre urban senior development with medical facilities, spa, club, street-facing “fast, fresh” restaurants, shops, a playground, grocery store, and housing for 100-200 residents. “It wouldn’t be adult daycare, but a place where people enjoy themselves.” Perhaps this model could be deemed senior or grey urbanism?
When asked where this comprehensive vision is actually happening in the U.S., both Thomson and Haas said “some elements are happening incrementally, but not all together.”