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trauma-informed design

a definition and why it's a problem

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Oftentimes, people experiencing homelessness have been subjected to trauma in their lives. Trauma is “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” (SAMHSA, 2014) Crime, mental disorders, racial discrimination, and violence are contributors to trauma. This condition is often the reason that people engage in coping responses such as withdrawal, denial, emotional outbursts, or substance abuse. It is situation that can last many years and is difficult to overcome.


One empirical study examining the prevalence of trauma within homeless populations reported that 100% of its women participants with co-occurring disorders had experienced a life-altering traumatic event. Among male participants, 68.6% also reported trauma histories (Christensen, et al, 2005). Trauma is widespread, globally speaking. For example, poverty is a strong causation of stress leading to trauma, and approximately 2.1 billion people live in extreme poverty worldwide. 


Trauma informed design has emerged alongside the trauma informed care movement emerging from the social work and psychology fields. Principles of trauma-informed design provide actionable guidance intended to help preserve people’s dignity and personal control in the physical environment (A Review of Research: Designing the Built Environment for Recovery from Homelessness).

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Trauma informed design is an emerging concept that does not have a consensus definition nor goals at this time. However, a definition may be gathered around the meaning of trauma-informed care: “Design actions and implementations that support the strengths-based trauma-informed care framework that is grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma, that emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both providers and survivors, and that creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.” (Hopper, Bassuk, & Olivet, 2010). 

The broad goal of trauma-informed design is to support a ‘wraparound’ recovery environment that includes the built environment itself along with training, therapies and other support activities for people in need. 

Why does addressing trauma through built environment design matter? 

Trauma informed design is important because it may help lower the high levels of a person’s emotional stress or tension that they are feeling. Lowering these levels provides a heightened opportunity for those that have experienced trauma to successfully move forward with their lives. 

Trauma-informed environments can increase levels of safety for clients and staff in that it may reduce the incidence and frequency of coping behaviors such as emotional outbursts. Such environments may also reduce the likelihood of re-traumatization. Through trauma-informed design’s adherence to the principles of trauma-informed care its application to architectural projects may also help improve outcomes regarding mental health and substance abuse behaviors (SAMHSA, 2014). 



View the TED talk

Trauma informed design prioritizes human experience

Six fundamental human needs form the core of considerations for designing with trauma in mind. 


Download the report at the top of this page for  implementation strategies.

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