Using Trauma-Informed Design to Address Intergenerational Trauma Caused by Systemic Oppression in Segregated Communities

by Charlotte Rose, Student ASLA

Graphics from a UC Denver studio project that applied trauma-informed design and universal design principles to Mestizo-Curtis Park in Five Points, Denver, a neighborhood historically characterized by redlining that continues to experience the ongoing impact of housing discrimination. / image: Charlotte Rose

Segregated communities in various parts of the world have long been subjected to systemic oppression, resulting in enduring cycles of trauma that span generations. Systemic oppression can manifest in the form of racial discrimination, economic disparities, lack of access to quality education, healthcare, and other basic resources, and the perpetuation of social stereotypes. These communities often face a multitude of challenges, including high levels of stress, violence, substance abuse, and mental health issues due to the cumulative effects of historical and contemporary injustices.

Intergenerational trauma refers to the transmission of trauma and its effects across multiple generations within a community. It is a complex phenomenon that has deep-seated roots in historical injustices such as slavery, colonization, and institutional racism. This ongoing trauma hinders the well-being and development of individuals and communities, perpetuating a cycle that is difficult to break.

Trauma-informed design, a concept rooted in trauma-informed care principles, recognizes the need to create environments that are sensitive to the experiences of trauma survivors. While commonly applied in healthcare and social services, the application of trauma-informed design principles in the built environment and community planning is an emerging field. This approach emphasizes safety, empowerment, and the prevention of re-traumatization in physical spaces and social interactions.

Researching the prevalence of traumatic conditions in segregated communities across the United States related to systemic oppression and exploring how landscape architecture can address unmet needs through the design of the built environment is significant for several compelling reasons:

  • Social Justice and Equity: Segregated communities have historically endured systemic oppression, leading to disparities in access to resources, education, healthcare, and economic opportunities. Researching traumatic conditions in these communities sheds light on the persistent inequalities that need to be rectified for the sake of social justice and equity.
  • Public Health Impact: Traumatic conditions, such as high levels of violence, limited access to healthcare, and inadequate housing, have profound public health implications. Understanding the prevalence of these conditions is essential for devising strategies to improve the well-being and health outcomes of community residents.
  • Interconnected Problems: Trauma, systemic oppression, and the design of the built environment are interconnected. Traumatic conditions often stem from environments that lack safety, social support, and resources. Landscape architecture has the potential to play a crucial role in mitigating these conditions by creating more inclusive, safe, and supportive spaces.
  • Community Resilience: By addressing unmet needs through landscape design, communities can become more resilient. Resilient communities are better equipped to withstand adversity, recover from trauma, and foster social cohesion.
  • Innovation in Design: This research opens the door for innovation in the field of landscape architecture. It challenges designers to think creatively about how to create environments that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also address fundamental social and psychological needs.
  • Policy Implications: The findings of such research can inform policy decisions at various levels of government. Understanding the traumatic conditions prevalent in segregated communities can lead to more targeted policies and funding allocation to address these issues.
  • Community Empowerment: Involving communities in the design process empowers them to take an active role in shaping their environment and addressing their specific needs. This can foster a sense of ownership and agency among residents.
  • Long-term Impact: Improvements to the built environment have the potential for long-term positive impacts. Well-designed spaces can contribute to the revitalization of communities and break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.
  • Cross-disciplinary Collaboration: Research at the intersection of trauma, urban planning, and landscape architecture encourages collaboration between different fields, fostering holistic solutions to complex problems.
  • Education and Awareness: The research can also serve an educational purpose by raising awareness about the challenges faced by segregated communities and the potential for design to effect positive change. It can inspire future landscape architects and urban planners to engage in socially responsible design practices.
Graphics from UC Denver studio project / image: Charlotte Rose

In summary, researching traumatic conditions in segregated communities and exploring the role of landscape architecture in addressing unmet needs is significant because it addresses deep-rooted social and health disparities, offers innovative solutions, and has the potential to create lasting positive change in communities that have historically faced systemic oppression.


“Designing for Healing, Dignity, and Joy” Trauma-Informed Design Framework, Shopworks Architecture

Universal Design Framework, University of Washington

A Conversation on Trauma Responsive Design Thinking, ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN)

Trauma-informed neighborhoods: Making the built environment trauma-informed, Prev Med Rep.

From therapeutic landscapes to healthy spaces, places and practices: A scoping review, Social Science & Medicine

Biological pathways for historical trauma to affect health: A conceptual model focusing on epigenetic modifications, Social Science & Medicine

A Systematic Review of Built Environment and Health, Family and Community Health

Using Trauma-Informed Design to Address Intergenerational Trauma Caused by Systemic Oppression in Segregated Communities, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

Implementing a Four-Phase Trauma Informed-Design Process, Shopworks Architecture

Trauma-Informed Design, Shopworks Architecture

To learn more about trauma-informed design, join us at the ASLA 2023 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Minneapolis this October 27-30 for:

Exploring Trauma-Informed Design at Parrott Creek
Parrott Creek, an 80-acre farm site, is an alternative to incarceration for adjudicated youth in Oregon—a place that creates a trauma-informed environment to help break unhealthy cycles. Our panelists span the disciplines of landscape architecture, architecture, and ecology to explore trauma-informed design as a methodology for communities in need.

Healing on the Inside: The Benefits of Nature Interactions within Carceral Environments
The therapeutic benefits of nature interactions in carceral environments positively impact those living in high stress environments, lacking sensory stimulation, healthy social interactions and support rehabilitative outcomes, humanize oppressive environments, and can reduce recidivism. Landscape architects as activists and designers should and can have an important role in this process.

Remembering the Children: Rapid City Indian Boarding School Lands Project and Memorial
This powerful session will lead attendees on a journey through history, injustice, remembrance, and reconciliation around the Rapid City Indian Board School. Panelists will discuss the Indigenous-led community-driven collaborative projects that are addressing this difficult history while reworking the physical landscape and collective memory of this northern Great Plains city.

Charlotte Rose is a second year MLA student and Masters of Urban Design candidate at the University of Colorado Denver. She is interested in how landscape architecture and other forms of design can be used to address deep-seated societal issues rooted in systemic oppression. She loves to travel and explore the ways in which the design of a city can impact social attitudes and values.

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