Every day in the United States, it seems, there’s another gun-related crime in the news. While politicians and activists argue about the issue, Mardelle McCusky Shepley, Design and Environmental Analysis, is tackling it through the lens of architectural design.
“We have a horrific problem with guns in this country,” she says. “At the same time, there have been a number of studies that have shown when there’s more green space, violent crime goes down.”
Collaborating with Naomi A. Sachs, Design and Environmental Analysis postdoctoral associate, Christine T. Fournier, life sciences librarian at the Cornell Mann Library, and Hessam Sadatsafavi, University of Virginia School of Medicine, Shepley initially surveyed 15,000 titles on the impact of nature on the human physiological and psychological state. “There’s a huge body of literature on the subject,” she says. “But few have looked at the urban scale in very much detail.”
How Might Green Space Help Curtail Violent Behavior?
Shepley wants to pinpoint the mechanisms that cause violence to go down when exposure to nature goes up. “One hypothesis says humans have an innate affinity to nature because we needed to read nature to survive in the past,” she explains. “There’s another that says, when we provide green space we’re replacing bad activities—drug dealing, for instance—with a positive environment. There’s also the idea that people from the community gather in the green space and get to know each other, which could lower crime. Or it could be just knowing someone cares enough to provide a park for their community helps people feel less inclined to violence.”
While city planners and architects could just opt to put in some green space without knowing exactly why or how nature influences human behavior, Shepley sees pitfalls in that approach. “One of the mistakes that happens is that people might hear a certain message—such as, plants have a positive outcome for human behavior and mental health. So they rush to provide plants. But if you just replicate someone’s solution without knowing why that solution worked, yours might not work in the same way. For instance, in the case of plants, one reason people might like them is because it allows them to nurture something. So your goal is not to provide people with a plant, it’s to provide them with a sense that they have something to nurture. Plants could be one possibility. But it could also be taking care of a pet or using a skill, like carpentry, to upgrade the surrounding space. It could be a number of things.”
An Architectural Eye on Neonatal Concerns
Providing real-world architectural solutions for human health issues is Shepley’s forte. For decades she has worked collaboratively on health issues with doctors, healthcare professionals, designers, and patients and families to address the built-environment needs of a variety of populations. Since the mid-1990s, she has been part of a group focused on optimizing the hospital environment for the care of high-risk infants. Every year, members meet for the Gravens High-Risk Infant Conference to share the latest research and outcomes of neonatal intensive care.
In the past, high-risk infants were kept together in one large hospital room, without individual privacy. The environment could be chaotic. Often, at least one baby would be crying, sometimes one might be actively dying, and parents could only stand by their child’s isolate. “It was terribly stressful for the parents,” Shepley says. “You expect the birth of your baby to be a wonderful event, and instead it turns into this life-and-death situation.”
Shepley and fellow group members—led by Robert White, a neonatologist at Memorial Hospital in South Bend, Indiana—promoted single-family rooms for neonatal care, where the baby and family members remain together. Parents may spend up to 80 percent of their time in the room with their baby. The innovation has completely changed neonatal intensive care. “Apart from the stress reduction for the family, this has positive outcomes for the child,” says Shepley. “The nurses can’t be there all the time, so the family provides a second set of eyes. Also, one of the problems with neonatal care is that parents and babies are separated because of the baby’s illness. But with single-family rooms, the parents can participate in their child’s care. It creates a better bond between parents and infant and has positive outcomes later.”
An Intensive Look at Mental Health Care Facilities
Shepley is currently in the midst of a large project, looking at redesigning mental health care facilities. “For the most part, they’re abysmal,” she says. “If you were healthy, you wouldn’t want to be in one.” She found scant literature on the design of these facilities, so she set out to discover the design issues by asking mental health staff, administrators, and designers. She ultimately developed two survey tools—one for staff and one for patients—that ask respondents to rate the importance to their environment of a certain aspect, such as daylight or access to the outdoors, and then indicate the degree to which their facility effectively provides this aspect.
“For the most part, they’re abysmal. If you were healthy, you wouldn’t want to be in one.”
Shepley is still refining the tools, but she has already used the staff survey with psychiatric nurses and is now administering the patient survey. “We’re waiting to find out two important things,” she says. “One is whether staff and patients have different perspectives on what’s important, and the other is discovering what is actually available in mental health facilities right now.”
Architectural Design by Objective Questioning
In the meantime, Shepley worked with a team led by architect Tammy Thompson from the Institute for Patient-Centered Design to build a mockup in the Veterans Administration hospital in Lyons, New Jersey. The model is a new room design for mental health facilities. Patients and staff toured the room and afterward filled out a survey about their experience.
“We didn’t just ask questions we felt like asking,” Shepley says. “We went back to the original design objectives and treated them as if they were hypotheses. Those were the questions we asked.”
Asking the right questions is extremely important to evaluating design work. Shepley says, “I teach students that we have a social responsibility as designers to create environments that are not just for aesthetics but also meet human needs,” she explains. “As architects we must set our goals before we build because we need to demonstrate that we were able to do what we said we would do.”
From an early age, Shepley knew she wanted to be an architect, but just designing beautiful spaces wasn’t enough. “This work I do is a calling first and then a career,” she says. “I really love to design and draw, but every time I head down that path, I feel pulled back to ask, what is the contribution to society going to be? It’s a big responsibility, really.”