Iowa State Landscape architecture seniors gain on-site experience

Building a prison landscape: Iowa State University landscape architecture students with prison Warden Patti Wachtendorf (center) and Assistant Professor Julie Stevens (front right). IMAGE CREDIT | Bob Elbert

This summer, five students and their professor constructed a series of multipurpose outdoor classrooms in the center of Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) new 30-acre campus. The classrooms will provide offenders, counselors and staff with a restorative outdoor environment for classes, counseling and vocational training. The project is part of a $68 million expansion and modernization, which includes a landscape master plan designed by Iowa State students. The new facility will open this fall.

Believed to be the first of its kind, the collaborative project was presented today at the Board of Regents meeting at Iowa State in Ames. John Baldwin, director of the Iowa Department of Corrections, has said he expects the project to “become a national model for bringing humane and therapeutic landscapes into a very restrictive environment.”

“The environment we give the women makes a difference in their attitudes and mentality,” said ICIW Warden Patti Wachtendorf. “We can make a prison environment positive. But it’s not a Holiday Inn. It’s a prison that we’re making a little bit softer so the women are more comfortable and can make the changes needed to get out and not come back,” she said.

A collaborative process
During the past two years, fourth- and fifth-year students in Assistant Professor Julie Stevens’ landscape architecture studio classes created ideas for a master plan for the prison landscape. Throughout the design phase, Stevens and her students consulted with ICIW administrators and the project architects (STV, New York, and Design Alliance, Waukee) and conducted focus groups with offenders and staff. Their comments guided the design in combination with academic concepts about therapeutic gardens.

“A lot of the design is based on Stephen Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theories that suggest people regain focus after they’ve spent some time outdoors,” Stevens said.

Graduate student Chad Hunter, Ames, and former grad student Colby Fangman combined student designs into one, comprehensive master plan. It features five unique spaces, including a visitor courtyard with a mother-child garden and a deck where correctional officers can take a break. Garret Munch and Nicholas King designed the multipurpose classrooms last spring before graduating in May.

The central and largest classroom is tiered with bench seating for 100 and a stage for lectures, graduation ceremonies and community theater. It is adjacent to a traditional classroom for about 30 people. ISU industrial design students designed desks (being built by Iowa Prison Industries) with desktops that rotate position so the class can face either direction, depending on the sun’s position. The third space is flexible and can be configured for small group activities or one-on-one counseling sessions.

When Stevens’ students graduate, they will have a one-acre developed landscape in use to show potential employers — an accomplishment few can claim before their careers begin.

Aerial view of Iowa State students’ multipurpose classrooms for the new Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. IMAGE CREDIT | Bob Elbert

Restorative healing space
Over the last 15 years, the number of women sent to prison in the U.S. increased by 191 percent, according to information from ICIW. Most are victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The majority of incarcerated women suffer from mental illness and more than half are mothers.

The therapeutic outdoor classrooms are next to ICIW’s “Building 9 Treatment Center,” where 96 women are in intensive treatment, dealing eight hours each day with addictions, abuse, self-esteem issues and mental health disorders. They learn parenting skills and gain an understanding of the victims they’ve created. The women and their counselors can use the classrooms to benefit from the restorative aspects of the outdoors to aid healing.

“We dig down to why they do what they do. Then we rebuild them so they don’t leave here and do the same things,” Wachtendorf said. “We try to teach them healthy coping mechanisms. We want to break the cycle. We want them to be positive role models with their children so the patterns aren’t repeated.”

In the coming years, Stevens and her students will continue to work with the ICIW to design and build the landscape. In September, they’ll plant aspens and oaks with a crew of female offenders, and return next spring to do prairie planting.

“I can’t wait to see the women using the spaces our students have worked so hard to design and build,” Stevens said.


More Information

Iowa State Landscape architecture senior students
Nicholas Gulick, Cedar Rapids
Colten McDermott, Newton
Branden Pentico, Perry
Nate Schlorholtz, Ankeny
Meredith Ver Steeg, Des Moines

Construction materials
202 tons of limestone wall block from Weber Stone, Stone City
600 tons of gravel
1,700 cubic yards of soil
Black locust (bench seating) that is locally sourced and milled

Planting materials
6 oak trees
60 aspen trees
15 serviceberry trees
10,000 square feet of high-traffic turf
12,000 square feet of native prairie plants supplied by the Department of Natural Resources and Polk County Conservation Board

About Damian Holmes 5735 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at

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