Biophilia and Corrections: Bringing Nature into Correctional Environments
Biophilia and Corrections: Bringing Nature into Correctional Environments Erin Costino Persky, Assoc. AIA, CCHP Originally published in the Academy of Architecture for Justice Quarterly Journal
During the latter half of the twentieth century there was a substantial increase in attention to the effect of the built environment on human health, which, in the 21st century, has accelerated with the popularity of biophilic design. Application of this research to architecture and interior design is becoming more prevalent and is extending to institutions such as schools and hospitals. Prominent theories of the human-environment relationship emphasize the relationship that humans share with nature from an evolutionary standpoint, and research in numerous disciplines affirms time and again that exposure to and interaction with nature provides wide-ranging personal benefits. Biophilic design seeks to address the basic human need for nature by integrating natural elements with the built environment.
The term “nature” in environmental research is necessarily broad. Particularly when speaking of biophilic design, nature refers to anything that exists outside of human action. Sunlight, water in its various forms, trees and other vegetation, animals, mountains, and landscapes, even man-made landscapes, are all included in the idea of nature as described by human-environment researchers (Kellert, 2011; Ulrich, 1979; Wilson, 1984).
Increases in feelings of serenity, optimism, energy, and general happiness, as well as decreases in psychological and physiological stress, aggressive behavior, and feelings of depression, idleness, and boredom, have all been linked with access to nature (see Kahn, 2008; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kellert, Heerwagen, Mador, 2011; Ulrich, 1984). The literature shows that these effects occur both when the observer is physically present in nature or when he is viewing from afar, showing that nature exposure at any level has the ability to both provide distractions from one’s immediate environment and to capture one’s attention for extended periods of time (Ryan et al.; 2010; Ulrich, 1984). Before introducing biophilic design in more detail, two recent investigations will illustrate its effects:
A set of studies was conducted to assess whether or not being outdoors increased subjects’ feelings of energy, enthusiasm, and positivity (Ryan et al. 2010). These qualities, broadly referred to as vitality, were chosen because of their empirical association with other positive dispositions, such as contentment and satisfaction, as well as a range of positive health and behavioral outcomes such as increased energy, “aliveness,” and engagement with the world (160). These studies yielded overall consistent results: participants repeatedly demonstrated a preference for outdoor settings and nature views over indoor scenes. It was nature in particular, however, that emerged in each of the five studies as the primary element in the physical environment associated with increased vitality and its associated attributes. When faced with outdoor scenes specifically deprived of nature versus an indoor setting with nature views, participants reported higher vitality when located indoors versus outdoors.
Farbstein, Farling, and Wener (2009) conducted a study examining the effects of a nature scene on the stress of correctional staff via the installation of a photomural into the booking area of a county jail. The correctional staff wore heart monitors that measured heart rate variability, and were tested on perceived stress levels as well as attentiveness and mental fatigue. Although self-report of perceived stress did not change significantly, psychological and physiological assessments showed that there were significant improvements in heart rate variability, attentiveness, and perceived tolerance, factors that each relate to stress levels. Why are these studies important? The studies outlined above are just a piece of a growing body of research demonstrating the impact of the physical environment on human behavior, but they are important because of their direct applicability to the needs of correctional environments. The first investigation discussed above provides evidence that the personal benefits derived from experiencing nature can arise even when indoors—a finding that is particularly important for correctional environments, since inhabitants’ movements within these facilities is necessarily restricted. The second study suggests that interventions need not require complete overhauls of existing facilities. This study involved a very simple intervention, yet the results presented clear changes in several stress indicators. While it is unwise to make sweeping conclusions based on one, or even a couple of studies, the findings in the investigations above and those that follow introduce possibilities for justice architects to make progress toward qualitatively changing the nature of correctional facilities.
Richard Wener’s recent book, The Environmental Psychology of Prisons and Jails (2012), presents extensive applied research on the relationship between correctional environments and inmate behavior. It identifies key problem areas that surface as a function of inmates’ personal choice, including inmates’ lack of control over their daily needs and activities, the simultaneous experience of crowding and isolation, and what this article will address: the presence—or absence—of natural elements. Each create an impediment to inmate health and rehabilitation, but the rising demand to provide “humane” settings for inmates (and staff) makes the following discussion a necessary topic for justice architects.
In correctional environments, it is hardly possible to attain the level of man-nature interaction encouraged by many advocates of human-centered design. Building code dictates strict material allowances, wall-to-window ratios, and other safety and security measures. Furthermore, and particularly in higher-security facilities, an inmate’s access to any location beyond the immediate vicinity of one’s own cell is severely limited. This protocol is reasonable because of the varying levels of offenders in facilities of this type. Nevertheless, these requirements raise the inevitable question of how to create correctional environments that meet requirements for security and safety and address the human needs that research has consistently shown to be necessary for physical and mental health.
Below is a review of Biophilic design as it relates to potentially positive health outcomes that can be implemented within correctional environments. The focus of the review is on inmate health, but there is no reason to assume that staff would not benefit as well.
Biophilic Design E.O. Wilson’s (1993) Biophilia Hypothesis contends that humans are inextricably linked to nature. Coined by Erich Fromm and popularized by Wilson, the term means, “love of life.” The theory postulates that since it is only recently in the span of evolution that humans lived apart from nature and in sophisticated shelters that kept nature out, we have not lost our connection to the natural world. Put simply, humans have not had time to evolve out of the need for nature as quickly as culture and technology have transformed the design of our built environment.
Biophilic design attends to integrating nature with the built environment by incorporating natural elements into the design (“bringing the outdoors in”), specifically for the maximum intrinsic enjoyment of the occupants. The theory asserts that humans have a deeply rooted biological need to be in contact with nature, yet since the industrial revolution, living, working, and communal environments have all been designed in such a way as to remove us from the very nature we crave.
Biophilic design has gained traction in recent years as a result of increased attention to “green” design. Biophilia tends to be linked to discussions of sustainability, as its emphasis on the relationship between man and nature seems to couch it neatly in this category. Sustainability efforts have assisted in bringing biophilic design elements into correctional facilities; nevertheless, it is in error that biophilic design is looked at in this way. Biophilic design is based on the idea that humans have an innate connection to other living organisms and a biologically based need to be proximate to nature and natural elements. The problem with looking at biophilic design as a part of the green or sustainability movements is that it limits its potential. Biophilic design is not a "style" or even a set of guidelines that one must adhere to in order to gain "biophilic status." It is simply including design features that foster a harmonious relationship between an occupant and his physical surroundings.
Two major components of biophilic design are discussed below.
Sunlight A major element of biophilic design is the incorporation of sunlight into interior spaces. There is evidence that individuals benefit positively from contact with sunlight. For example, Beauchemin and Hays (1996) found that depressed patients who were assigned to sunny rooms required treatment for less time than those in darker rooms. Walch et al. (2005) studied postoperative spinal patients and found that those exposed to higher levels of sunlight reported feeling less pain and anxiety. As a result they also took less medication.
This correlation works in the opposite direction, as well; too little exposure to sunlight can have detrimental effects. For example, depressed patients exposed to a low level of sunlight may be susceptible to significant cognitive impairment with regard to recall and temporal orientation (Kent et al., 2009). Vitamin D sufficiency is also a factor in mental and physical health; most people absorb the majority of their vitamin D from sunlight, and vitamin D deficiency has been linked to increases in cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and bone disorders (Holick, 2003). Rickets is an extreme example of the consequences of too little direct sunlight, but the prevalent diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in the general population is a good example of the detrimental effects of a lack of sunlight exposure.
Furthermore, sunlight guides hormone regulation and the circadian system. Those with low exposure to natural light tend to experience disruptions in their sleep-wake cycle, leading to other mental and physical problems (Grassian, 2006). The practice of Epigenetic Design (Burnett, coming 2014) is based on evidence that consistent exposure to daylight, as well as exposure at specific times of day due to light spectrum changes is essential to circadian functioning and one’s overall health. While recent research indicates a positive psychological benefit from artificial lights that mimic the wavelength and intensity of sunlight, these should not be seen as a total substitute for natural light (Burnett, lecture 9/13/2013).
Despite substantial evidence of its importance, inmates typically have insufficient exposure to light. In fact, it is not uncommon for those in solitary confinement to go years or even decades without direct contact with sunlight. In 2012, a federal judge ruled that Colorado State Penitentiary must grant its solitary confinement inmates access to natural light. The judge’s order requires that inmates have
...access for at least one hour, at least three times per week, to outdoor exercise in an area that is fully outside and that includes overhead access to the element, e.g., to sunlight, rain, snow and wind, unless inclement weather or disciplinary needs make that impossible (39).
If architects can make slight adjustments to standard designs in order to allow for more frequent exposure to sunlight, it may be helpful in alleviating some of the mental and physical distress that inmates experience.
Views of Nature Research has also demonstrated the psychological benefits attributed to exposure to views of nature. By providing the appearance of “another world,” natural environments can reduce physiological and psychological stress (Kaplan, 1995). Theories have been generated to detail why and how people derive positive benefits from nature, and each theory can be applied in varying degrees to correctional environments.
The bases of these theories lies in the notion that humans require some form of escape from their environment, be it physical or mental; a requirement that is fundamentally opposed to the long-standing societal purposes of incarceration. However, because research has repeatedly demonstrated both the positive effects of viewing nature as well as the negative effects of not viewing nature, it is worthwhile for justice architects to turn their attention to this research to inform their designs. Two major theories are discussed below.
Attention-Restoration Attention-restoration theory (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989) states the mental fatigue and stress can be cured by interaction with nature, since the dynamism and characteristic diversity found in nature is rich enough to stimulate and occupy the mind. It does this when it possesses three qualities: it must sufficiently distract the viewer from his or her immediate surrounding, it must be compatible with the individual’s personal goals for restoration, and it must be rich and complex enough to provide the viewer with the sense that he or she is not seeing all that the space has to offer. The restoration of attentional capacity can inhibit frustration, irritability, violence, and crime.
A view provides an escape from one’s immediate environment and allows an individual to “turn off” his brain and refresh his mind, and if the view is a rich environment, it allows the observer to initiate and maintain interest, and imagine what is potentially beyond. There is extensive research on the psychology of crowding and isolation that incarcerated individuals experience and Wener (2012) provides a good summary of the literature. In sum, providing views that can potentially distract inmates from their surroundings when feelings of crowding, isolation, or personal feelings based on non-environmental stimuli arise can positively impact the psychological and physical health of the inmate.
Compatibility is more difficult to achieve in a correctional environment. Kaplan explains that in the adequately restorative environment the individual must feel as though he can behave as he pleases, which is not amenable to the goals of incarceration, with the possible exception of certain minimum-security and county facilities. Still, inmates may achieve attention-restoration with adequate richness and opportunity for distraction.
Prospect and Refuge Prospect-Refuge theory (Appleton, 1975) asserts that individuals are attracted to spaces that provide prospect, or opportunity, and refuge, or safety. Prospect consists of vast, open spaces, around which the individual sees opportunity to escape from predators. These spaces also provide distinct areas to visit as well as plants and other greenery that can provide safety. Refuge consists of natural canopies where the individual can hide and the ability to situate himself in places where he cannot be approached from behind. Inherent in refuge is the desire to control one’s environment.
Hildebrand (1991) added to the theory by applying it to the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and later broadened this to a theory of architectural pleasure (Hildebrand, 1999). In it he discusses spatial arrangements that may or may not appeal to humans subconsciously based on their prospect and refuge characteristics. Rooms from which one can see long distances, such as those with large windows, are considered more desirable than confining spaces, such as those with no windows. On the other hand, spaces that are somewhat closed off, providing protection (such as low overhangs), are more desirable than spaces that are vulnerable to invasion.
Designing with nature views in mind does not have to be difficult, but the hesitation to provide views to inmates, particularly higher-level offenders, is justified. That communication with people outside the facility may occur is an understandable concern and not unlikely should the opportunity arise. Nevertheless, as Ulrich (1984) concludes from his research on views of nature, views should be considered in design and siting decisions. As the population discussed here is highly sensitive, a manufactured landscape that provides the illusion of “another world” (Kaplan, 1995) yet blocks the potential for external communication is still beneficial. It may be even more beneficial than researchers could anticipate, precisely because the corrections population is so vulnerable.
Economics For an economic argument in favor of biophilic design, The Economics of Biophilia by Terrapin Bright Green, LLC, is highly recommended The Economics of BiophiliaThe argument is based on looking at long-term productivity costs following small investments into landscaping, view enhancement, access to sunlight, and other common biophilic design techniques discussed here.
The authors looked at workplaces, hospitals, retail spaces, schools, and community parks, and found that investing a little more money up front to incorporate biophilic elements into thedesign of each of these types of establishments have significant long-term economic benefits as a result of decreased absenteeism, shorter hospital stays, increased sales, and crime rate reductions. That such strong outcomes have been reported in this variety of establishments is evidence that there may be economic incentive to incorporate biophilic design elements into correctional facilities.
Evidence is also found in the existing literature. For example, in Ulrich’s (1984) landmark study, hospital patients with a view of nature had shorter hospital stays and took less medication than patients who had a view of a brick wall. Related, in Walch et al. (2005), patients took less medication, reducing those costs by 21%. Similar results are found in many other studies. These findings indicate economic benefit to the patient, of course, but if these outcomes were to be found in correctional environments it could lead to large medical care savings in these facilities as well as lower operational costs over time as a result of a decreased per-patient need for medical care.
*** Theories of the human-environment relationship tend to focus on the evolutionary aspects of man’s affinity for nature, and biophilic design has emerged as the application of these theories to architecture and interior design. Sunlight and views of nature are two major features of biophilic design that deserve attention; the health benefits associated with each, and perhaps most importantly the problems associated with lack of exposure to each, are profound and should not be ignored. There are other elements of biophilic design not discussed here: water, as in rivers, lakes, or fountains; sensory variability, or changes in light, temperature, texture, and other environmental features; and Biomimicry, which is the “mimicking” of natural structural systems, such as that of a sea shell, in the built environment (Benyus, 1997; Heerwagen & Hase, 2001). The current discussion just scratches the surface of possibilities within human-centered design.
As prisons are “total institutions” (Goffman, 1961 as cited in Wener, 2012) the negative effects elicited by inadequate consideration of human environmental needs are magnified. While others can escape a pleasing environment when they are dissatisfied with their current location, inmates are not able to do so. Architects have the ability to create humane environments based on principles of biophilic design. Keeping in mind the studies discussed above, the interventions do not require complete redesigns or excessive changes to the norm; simple interventions can go a long way. Arguments asserting that it is not important to implement these features within correctional facilities because the purpose of these institutions is to punish are missing the point: these features are not luxuries, but rather are fundamental to basic human health.
Erin Persky is a San Diego-based justice/civic facility planner. She can be reached at email@example.com.