Shannon Dowling Headshot

Shannon Dowling

2020–2021 SCUP Fellow and Senior Associate, Space Planner + Architect; 2020-2021 SCUP Fellow
Ayers Saint Gross

SCUP Coaches (developing list): Eve Klein, Co-Founder, User Design Information Group, Center for Human Environments, Environmental Psychology, CUNY Graduate School and University Center; Christiana Moss, Principal, Studio Ma, Inc

Read her research report.

Watch her SCUP 2021 Annual Conference presentation: Vision: Planning and Designing Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Learning Environments

Shannon Dowling is an architect, space analyst, and educator who focuses on creating research-driven and student-centered learning environments. Her extensive knowledge of educational trends and challenges informs her work in planning, programming, and design. Working closely with educators and students to optimize academic settings and create inspirational and functional spaces, Shannon’s interest in lifelong learning is reflected in the array of educational environments she creates. She researches and devises innovative strategies to address evolving educational requirements and learning styles.

SCUP Fellow Research Project

Project Title: Peripheral Vision: Planning and Designing Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Learning Environments

Project Description:

“My birth name is ‘Caitlyn’ but I prefer to be called ‘Dave’.”

“Now that my children are grown, it’s time to reinvent myself.”

“This is my first time in America. I arrived yesterday.”

The above quotes are samples from conversations I have had with students over the past decade. These conversations inform the questions I ask when planning, designing and assessing learning spaces. Those questions include:

– Is the furniture mobile, flexible, and accommodating to all types of users? Does the furniture support a range of postures, motions, and physical abilities?
– Is the building accessible and comfortable for students with learning differences?
– Are the acoustics consistent for all users? Are assistive devices available to students?

If you open any recently written strategic plan for a higher education institution and survey its core values, you will likely find three words: diversity, equity, and inclusion. Goals and metrics around these values are defined in terms of faculty growth, student enrollment and retention, academic programs, culture, and practice. Rarely will you see physical impacts or measure of these values: what do they mean in terms of campus planning? Moreover, how can an institution’s brand, scale, and student body play a role in how the physical campus nurtures a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive future environment? Can thoughtfully planned physical space increase academic success and campus connectivity among marginalized students?

This project will research ways diversity, inclusion, and equity can take a physical shape on campus: inside and outside of formal learning environments, through planning efforts, and through campus connections. As a focal point, the study will take a look at three campuses all located within seven miles of one another in the city of Richmond VA: Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), an urban public research institution, University of Richmond (UR), a private liberal arts institution, and Virginia Union University (VUU), a small, historically-black and Christian institution. The project will dissect the mission, vision, and strategic plans of each in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion and assess the physical expression of these values on their campuses and in their planning efforts. What are the lessons learned of spaces already created, and how can successful spaces for diversity, equity, and inclusion be scaled across various institutional typologies?

The results of this study will help inform how to take the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion and physically manifest their value on campus. Through the research, I hope to create a roadmap for architects and campus planners to address these issues in a way that is meaningful, authentic and creates a more inclusive and student-centered campus environment through thoughtful, informed, and provocative integrated planning.

Project Goal & Applicability

The goal of every planning project in higher education is to create safe spaces for learning that ensure the success of all students enrolled at the institution. The purpose of this project is to provide campus planners and facility designers with a set of metrics with which to assess physical space on campus in support of the strategic planning values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The project will take a look at various universities – public, private, and an HBCU – to understand how the three values are considered and measured in different environments. In addition, the project will seek to provide the tools with which to plan and design future learning environments with these values in mind. Working alongside students, I will develop a series of scalable vignettes and guidelines to provide a roadmap for translating diversity, equity, and inclusion from core values and strategic themes to impactful, informed, and authentic physical projects.

Methodology & Rationale

This project will use a case-study methodology. I will begin by analyzing the
mission, vision, values, and most recent strategic and master plans for the
three case study institutions, looking for measurable physical goals relative
to diversity, equity, and inclusion. I will conduct interviews with the
University Architects and Campus Planners at each institution and compare their
plans and progress to peer institutions to look for patterns of successful
ideas, designs, and campus interventions. I will work with the three campuses
doing quantitative and qualitative research on student activity. The analysis
will include:

  • Surveys from a representative demographic sample of the student body for each institution on their preferred locations to study, relax, and socialize and the reasons behind their choices in determining appropriate spaces for each.
  • Routinely scheduled observation and documentation of students’ preferences for study and socialization. I will look for trends between campuses, correlations between planning and implementation, and a correlation between survey responses and physical occupant counts.
  • The development of a series of repeatable, scalable vignettes for the physical implementation of diversity, equity, and inclusion (collaboration with Interior Design students at VCU)

SCUP’s network of expert planners will serve as a resource on trends, patterns,
best planning practices, and proven design responses.

Project Deliverables

Visual presentation of findings at SCUP annual conference, including planning
guidelines and design vignettes for future integrative planning efforts.

  • Final report and article for SCUP Planning for Higher Education Journal
  • Presentation and deliverables to participating campus communities on findings

What do you hope to learn from SCUP?

Much of my research on learning environments over the last several years has focused around understanding the future college student. Increasingly, students seeking higher education are non-traditional: minorities, working adults, parents, part-time students, and students with physical, social, and emotional learning differences. As a first-generation college graduate, a female in a male-dominated profession, and a parent to a child with a learning difference, the non-traditional student narrative is one that is deeply personal to me.

When my son was diagnosed with dyslexia four years ago, I read everything I could about the difference – its struggles and complications but also its strengths and unique abilities. As an architect and planner, I was compelled to explore the impact of planning and design on the equity and success of all learners inside and outside of the classroom. Moreover, as an adjunct professor, I grew more aware of the students in my classroom and their unique backgrounds, differences, and preferences. I started really talking to my students: I engaged them in uncomfortable conversations and sought their feedback on my professional projects. I learned from them, and those lessons fed my desire to dig deeper, research more, and make a difference. I am interested in knowing how planners and designers can listen to and amplify non-traditional and marginalized voices within a campus community and ensure that the physical environments we contribute to the campus tapestry are considerate, inclusive, and genuine in their intent. SCUP’s mission speaks to those very ideals of connection and relationship-building, and I know that my SCUP colleagues will be able to vastly contribute to this conversation.

I utilize SCUP’s publications and planning journals in my work. Membership to SCUP helps me stay relative and better understand the issues my clients are grappling with. Working closely with SCUP leaders, members, and mentors through this fellowship will allow me an opportunity to bridge my professional and academic careers and give a voice to each on an issue that I care about and feel will contribute to the conversation in a positive and forward-thinking manner. I attended all three of SCUP’s planning institutes in 2015 and 2016 and have been able to use my knowledge from the workshops in the office and on projects, but this will be my first time designing and implementing an academic research project. I see the SCUP fellowship as an opportunity to learn from and share best practices on an issue that is affecting each and every campus today and into tomorrow.

I look forward to merging the skills I have learned in my profession with those I have learned in the classroom to research this issue from both an academic and design perspective. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are important research topics because they affect both professional and institutional environments. The guidelines and vignettes will have a far-reaching integrated impact across the spectrum of university planning and design.