Landscape architecture project receives national recognition

Ashley Green

A landscape architecture project has received a national award from the American Society of Landscape Architects.

The focus of the project is the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, Iowa. It first began in late 2010 when the Department of Corrections and the women’s prison contacted the landscape architecture department.

Julie Stevens, assistant professor of landscape architecture, heads the project and has been teaching a class concerning the prison since 2011.

The project receives installments each year to contribute to the master plan that is in place for the prison.

It was announced Sept. 29 that the project had won the Community Service Award of Excellence from the American Society of Landscape Architects.

The award was for the work done in 2013 and 2014 and was titled “Landscapes of Justice: Redefining the Prison Environment.”

The focus of the 2014 group, consisting of seven undergraduate students and one graduate student, was an outdoor area, while the 2013 group constructed outdoor classrooms.

The area provided staff with a place to relax after work or during breaks.

While the staff only works at the prison, they are behind bars just like the inmates. The area built for them by the landscape architecture students helps take away from the feeling that they are also in prison.

Students involved with the project were presented with the main problem and introduced to the space.

“We, as students, met with the prison and facilitated different meetings with them,” said Austin Javellana, senior in landscape architecture. “We presented a variety of ideas and got their comments on what they wanted and then combined everything together.”

After three weeks of design, students spent the summer working side by side with inmates. Students were trained on how to interact with the inmates, from how to address them to how to be comfortable being around them.

It was intimidating for students to be so involved with the inmates, but after the first day, both parties became used to it.

“They recognized us after that, and that we were somewhat relatable to them,” said Lauren Iversen, senior in landscape architecture. “We were doing the same tasks as them most of the time.”

A series of two main areas were constructed.

One was a garden in memorial of a deceased warden. The garden included a requested magnolia tree, as well as a fountain designed and created by students with a very limited budget.

The other is known as a decompression deck. The deck addressed the problem of the staff needing a space. It has a grilling area, seating and beautiful scenery.

“We identified a problem,” Javellana said of the eight-hour shifts held by staff. “When they were changing shifts or coming to work they were sitting in their cars.”

Environmental psychology was implemented in the project.

The areas that were constructed, and continue to be constructed, aid offenders in their healing processes. 

“We drew a lot of inspiration from our Iowan landscapes,” Stevens said. “People find comfort in things that feel a bit like home.”

Native plants were introduced that now draw wildlife, thanks to the care given by the offenders.

The ongoing project, according to the Department of Corrections, may become “a national model for creating humane and restorative landscapes in a restrictive environment.”

What made this project different from other projects was the students’ approach.

“It wasn’t just like, ‘Let’s go, let’s plant some trees.’ It was ‘Let’s go in with them women and with the prison, let’s figure out what’s most beneficial,’” Javellana said.

Warden Patti Wachtendorf provided support for students. Stevens, Javellana and Iversen all had very positive reflections of the warden.

“She’s very progessive,” Stevens said, with hums of approval from the others.

Future crews, including the one from this summer, will continue to work with the foundations laid by previous crews to finish the master plan.