A rendering of a new garden space slated to be constructed at the Beloit Residential Treatment facility in Ames as part of the 2020 Bridging the Divide seed grant program. Together, associate professor of landscape architecture Julie Stevens and associate professor of human development and family studies Tricia Neppl will use $50,000 in institutional funding to study the impact of nature on physical and psychological health. Photo courtesy of Julie Stevens

2020 Bridging the Divide Grant to Fund Incarceration Research

Iowa State Researchers Seek to Understand Relationship Between Institutionalized Populations and Nature

By Caitlin Ware, Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research

A team of Iowa State University researchers has been selected to receive funding from the third round of the Bridging the Divide seed grant program to investigate the impact nature can have on human well-being in institutionalized settings.

The Bridging the Divide seed grant aims to holistically address problems by fostering collaboration among researchers in design, arts, humanities, and social sciences and researchers in STEM disciplines. The program is administered by the Iowa State University Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), and offered in partnership with the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities (CEAH). Associate professor of landscape architecture Julie Stevens and associate professor of human development and family studies Tricia Neppl recently received the annual award. They will receive $25,000 a year for two years to study the impact that interaction with nature has on physical and psychological health at both an Iowa prison and a youth residential treatment facility.

“We know that nature has a positive impact on the general population — it’s a release from stress and a way to enhance well-being. But we know less about how outdoor settings can benefit those who are in institutions,” Neppl said. “At a time when the number of incarcerated individuals and children living with mental, behavioral, or developmental disorders is on the rise, finding ways to improve interactions in these settings is critically important. Receiving this grant is a really nice way to start examining this issue.”

Stevens’ and Neppl’s research will focus on combining their respective expertise in design, stress, and trauma to examine the effect of natural settings at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) in Mitchellville, and the Beloit Residential Treatment facility for children, located in Ames. Over the past 10 years, Stevens— along with over 100 ISU students participating in design studios and design-build projects — have worked at the ICIW facility to design and transform 30 formerly barren acres into a green space, complete with a multi-purpose outdoor classroom, a staff decompression space, a mother-child visiting garden, and a healing garden. With Bridging the Divide funding in hand, the pair will not only evaluate the success of the ICIW gardens, but analyze the impact of a similar space at Beloit, designed this spring and slated to be built once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.

A combination of quantitative surveys and behavioral response cards will be used to assess behavioral changes — such as social, communication, and attentional skills — and relationship quality related to spending time in garden areas at each facility. At the ICIW, data collection will focus on imprisoned women’s relationship quality with their children when spending time together in the garden during prison visits. The focus at Beloit will be children’s interactions with parents and service providers. Both populations will be asked to fill out behavioral response cards before and after entering each of the gardens, to investigate if reported moods and feelings of well-being will change as a result of being in an outdoor space.

“What I have not yet been able to sink my teeth into until now is how a healthy outdoor environment can promote healthy relationships, particularly for people who have experienced trauma,” Stevens said. “I think outdoor settings may be an incredibly untapped and powerful space for people, and this research has the potential to help improve relationships and buffer the impacts of trauma. Our dream is that someday everybody will consider these therapeutic outdoor spaces to be just as important in institutional facilities as tables and chairs.”

The first year of Bridging the Divide funding will be used to establish project groundwork, including formulating questionnaires, developing research protocols, and hiring staff. Data collection and analysis is expected to begin in year two, and Stevens and Neppl hope to have initial results available at the conclusion. To date, little research on outdoor spaces and nature-based interventions within secure institutional settings has been conducted.

“Different disciplines and perspectives, coming together to address a complex challenge, can have a profoundly positive impact, and that’s what the Bridging the Divide seed grant program is all about,” said Vice President for Research Sarah Nusser. “The OVPR and CEAH are delighted to support Julie and Tricia in a project that has the potential to fundamentally change our society’s approach to the institutional rehabilitation experience.”

The Bridging the Divide seed grant program, established is 2018, is open to all Iowa State University full-time tenured or tenure‐eligible faculty. More information about the application, review, and award process can be found here.