Environments for the impoverished: New psychological theories shape an opportunity [imperative?] for design research

Presented by: Jill Pable

Those that experience poverty are often afflicted with other issues too, such as substance abuse, mental illness, or domestic violence. These problems breed stress and can in turn affect self-esteem and sense of identity that hinder their recovery (Burn, 1992). Arguably, the poor have the most to gain of all human groups from physical environments that assist them, yet for a variety of reasons many environments such as homeless shelters, psychiatric hospitals and other facilities are substandard, hampered in their ability to deliver care. At least some of this problem is due to lack of information on how to design the built environment for this population (Rog & Buckner, 2007). Both existing and new psychological theories and procedures examine the cognitive operations and emotional needs of impoverished persons, as well as the circumstances that affect their life choices. A growing consensus of these researchers identifies that persons in these situations are conditioned to reach conclusions that are different than persons without these stressors, and thus, poor persons may hold different perceptions and priorities than formerly was assumed. Several psychological theories in particular are gaining acceptance, and may reveal as-yet unexplored potential ramifications for the built environment. These include: • Life history theory: people have limited cognitive resources and must make choices based on their past history. Impoverished people under stress often adopt a ‘fast life history’ marked by decisions that are beneficial primarily in the short term, such as stealing rather than buying merchandise (Griskevicius, V. et al., 2013). Such findings point out the reasons behind seemingly illogical life decisions, and can help build empathy when designing for impoverished users. • Theories of scarcity: being without food, shelter, and money to pay bills captures the mind such that there is little cognitive load available for other thinking operations (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013). There may be ramifications in this for built environment wayfinding and signage, for example, and the theory of scarcity points out potential benefits of built environments so in tune with their institutions’ policies that they function at an intuitive level. • Trauma-informed care: previous mental care systems that disempower staff and hinder client recovery have led to new therapeutic approaches that identify stress as a major impediment (Bloom & Farragher, 2013). In this new approach, attention to both mind and body is penultimate for progress. Environmental implications exist here for lighting, space planning and color, to name but a few, and for environments that deeply support these new institutional policies and procedures of care. Several studies by the author on these topics have already been completed, and two others are planned (one on psychological constructs poor persons develop about their built environments and the other on how the built environment can encourage positive coping methods). Through this poster session, the author seeks to introduce and explain the potential benefits of built environment research for impoverished persons in general, and invite dialogue with visitors on this array of built environment-related theories. A handout for visitors that provides the literature review’s bibliography will be distributed, along with a visual mind map that shows connections between these theories and human response (see attached image). The intent is to elicit comments that help evolve and grow this beginning mind map further. Lastly, the author hopes to start conversations that may result in collaborative studies with others. Doing so may speed discovery of built environment findings for this often-ignored segment of the population.


  • Bloom, S. & Farragher, B. (2013). Restoring Sanctuary: a new operating system for traum-informed systems of care. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Burn, S. (1992). Loss of control, attributions, and helplessness in the homeless. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 22(15), 1161–1174.
  • Griskevicius, V., Ackerman, J. M., Cantu, S. M., Delton, A. W., Robertson, T. E., Simpson, J. A., Thompson, M. E., et al. (2013). When the economy falters, do people spend or save? Responses to resource scarcity depend on childhood environments. Psychological Science, 24, 197-205. doi:10.1
  • Mullainathan, S. & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. New York: Time Books.
  • Rog, D., & Buckner, J. (2007). Homeless families and children. In D.L. Dennis (Ed.), Toward understanding homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services and U.S.Department of Housing and Urban Development.