Deanna Van Buren: How to Unbuild Racism

“To unbuild racism, we have to build what we believe,” said Deanna Van Buren, an architect, urban developer, and founder of Designing Justice+Designing Spaces, in a powerful keynote speech at the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering.

Van Buren believes that unearthing and rooting out “ingrained racism and patriarchy” requires daily practice because these issues are so embedded in our society. “There have been hundreds of years of displacement and disenfranchisement — redlining, ‘urban renewal,’ and reverse redlining in the form of predatory lending.” In too many communities, “there is a continued manifestation of racism through the co-location of toxic waste sites, freeways that cut through cultural hearts, inadequate housing, and food deserts.”

To bring equity to the built environment, architects, landscape architects, planners, and developers need to “stop creating prettier versions of racist systems.” Instead, planning and design professionals should focus on restorative justice, a system of justice “not anchored in enslavement, but in indigenous processes.”

Restorative justice is a process in which those who have created harm can make amends and heal the people they have hurt. In many communities, restorative justice is increasingly becoming a viable alternative to the conventional justice system. Cases are being steered out of court to mediators trained in restorative justice.

“The process involves Native American peace making approaches,” Van Buren explained. Peace making is led by a trusted elder figure, a “circle keeper,” who can facilitate the addressing of wrongs. Someone who stole a car or committed a theft at gunpoint sits in a circle across from the person they have wronged. Peace making has to be “hyper local but also happen on neutral ground.”

Her planning, design, and development projects all aim to replace the conventional justice system with a new holistic approach rooted in community needs.

In Syracuse, New York, her organization designed the Center for Court Innovation, a peace making center out of an abandoned house, creating a space that feels like a home, not a court, and include circles of chairs, sofas, a kitchen, and gardens. The center is a safe place and has become a true community mecca that offers food and drink and space for other events, even engagement parties.

Near Westside Peacemaking Project, Syracuse, NY / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Near Westside Peacemaking Project, Syracuse, NY / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Van Buren hopes restorative justice system will become the primary way to provide justice. She envisions a network of restorative justice centers distributed in neutral places, outside of gang zones, across communities.

In Oakland, California, she has been realizing this vision through Restore Oakland, which will host a “constellation of non-profit organizations” that provide both restorative justice and economics. In addition to peace making spaces, the center will include community organizing spaces and a restaurant on the ground floor that trains people to work in fine dining. “It will be an anchor for this entire community.”

To create more equitable and safe communities in the Bay Area, Van Buren and her team are also co-organizing pop-up villages with custom-crafted wood stalls. “These are temporary projects designed for impact.” Visitors can have everything from a breast cancer screening to an AIDS test to a haircut. “These villages help build community relationships, which is how we keep people safe and also support local businesses.”

Popup Village, Bay Area, California / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Popup Village, Bay Area, California / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

In another project, Van Buren’s organization re-imagined a re-entry center for incarcerated women. “When they get out of prison, they are confronted with so many barriers.” Her team collaborated with women just released to design a mobile refuge that provides a safe space to get oriented before moving to transitional housing and its dormitory living. The mobile refuge provides therapy and social services.

Women’s Mobile Refuge / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Women’s Mobile Refuge / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Another goal is repurposing hundreds of downtown jails that have closed in recent years. “These are toxic holes in downtowns that can be re-imagined as community centers,” she said.

Van Buren has worked with community groups to re-imagine the Atlanta City detention center as a community center with co-located city services and new revenue streams. One option is to daylight the old jail, creating daycare space and meeting rooms. With the right broadband infrastructure, the dark spaces in the bowels of the building could be rented out as server farms. Another option is to simply tear the existing building down and distribute restorative justice centers across the city.

Reimagining the Atlanta City Detention Center / Designing Justice + Designing Spaces
Reimagining the Atlanta City Detention Center / Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

And over the long-term, Van Buren wants to see more wealth come to underserved communities. This can happen if more low-income residents can purchase their own homes or earn profits from development projects.

In Detroit, Van Buren’s team and a number of partners are working on an ambitious community land trust — the Love Campus, which aims to “build the infrastructure to end mass incarceration by creating re-investments that can divert funding from criminal justice into restorative community assets.”

Love Campus, Detroit / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces
Love Campus, Detroit / Designing Justice+Designing Spaces

Retrofitted buildings will become an arts and culture hub, with low-cost gallery space, digital fabrication tools, and industrial design spaces. The community development will also include housing; job training, because “people don’t kill each other when they have jobs;” and a youth center, because “youth have no place to go.” The project will be crowd-funded so people who don’t meet minimum real estate investment thresholds can participate in wealth generation. “Affordable housing is a poverty trap; people need to own their own homes.”

These projects demonstrate that designers play an important role — they can “ignite radical imagination, create a co-learning process and democratic tools for change.”

New Research: The Built Environment Impacts Our Health and Happiness More Than We Know

ASLA 2020 Urban Design Honor award. Yongqing Fang Alleyways: An Urban Transformation. Guangzhou, China. Lah D+H Landscape and Urban Design

People living in dense cities are among the least happy. Their rates of depression are 40 percent higher than other populations; and their rates of anxiety are 20 percent higher. Why? Because the built environment is directly linked with happiness and well-being, and too often urban environments fail to put people at ease.

In a session at the American Planning Association’s virtual conference, Justin Hollander, professor of urban and environmental planning and policy at Tufts University, said planners, landscape architects, and architects have a responsibility to design a built environment that increases well-being. Through his fascinating research on cognitive architecture, he has found “we are deeply influenced by our surroundings” — even more than we know.

“We have an automatic (non-conscious) response to shapes, patterns, and colors. Our minds are like icebergs — we are only aware of less than 5 percent of our responses to our environment,” Hollander said. These findings, which are covered in greater detail in his book Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, co-authored with Ann Sussman, have significant implications for the planning and design of communities.

Hollander argued that “humans are wall-hugging species. Well-defined corridors and streets encourage our walking.” (see image at top)

On an innate level, humans are also “programmed to look for faces everywhere.” This may be why many traditional or vernacular buildings almost look like faces, with a central door and windows on either side.

A building that looks like a face / Ann Sussman, Tufts University

Humans connect with these forms because they help us tell stories about buildings and places. “We go to places because of stories we tell ourselves. We can imagine identities in these places. Tourist attractions always tell a story.”

Given nature is our original context, humans also have an innate biophilia — a deep attraction to and affinity for nature. “It’s an artifact of evolution.”

ASLA 2020 Landmark Award. Millennium Park — A Fortuitous Masterpiece. Lurie Garden by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol / P. Psyzka and City of Chicago

As we now understand, humans are drawn to landscapes that provide a refuge, a sense of safety, and prospect, a view of the entire scene, which supports that sense of safety. Storytelling is also important in landscapes, whether they are gardens, parks, or streetscapes. Humans are drawn to landscapes that provide clear sequences.

ASLA 2018 Professional Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Juliane Schaer

At Tufts University, Hollander is examining students’ cognitive responses to a variety of images of the built environment. Through eye-tracking software, “we can see the unseen — we can see what our minds are looking at an unconscious level.”

In his lab, Hollander uses 3M’s visual attention software to map the path students’ eyes take across an image — where they fixate and experience an unconscious response to visual stimuli. In a study of 30 students, Hollander found they universally looked at the entrance and windows on a traditonal building first, ignoring the blank areas. And when he showed students’ eye tracks of a contemporary all-glass library, they fixated briefly on the edges, but the glass facade itself seemed faceless, almost invisible. They just looked at the sky because the image simply caused too much cognitive stress. (In the image below, the areas of highest fixation are in red, followed by orange, with blue indicating the least attention).

Eye tracking of a traditional building and a glass library / Justin Hollander and Ann Sussman, Tufts University

Hollander said eye tracking software shows that New Urbanist-style communities, which have homes closer to the street; traditional architecture that mimic faces; and sidewalks all “encourage walking.” If a pedestrian can see a sequence — one, two, three, four homes in a row — they are more likely to want to walk down that row. He knows this because he could see the students unconsciously looking at all the facades down the street in a sequence.

In contrast, an image of a row of parking garages, with no clear doors or windows, caused students to scan for windows, quickly give up, and again look at the sky. “There was far less visual intensity, and it’s a less walkable environment.”

Flags and columns succeed in grabbing attention, which has been known for millennia. Flags predate permanent settlements, and the ancient Greeks and Romans used columns in their architecture.

Why does this matter? Hollander argues that environments that are easier to fixate on cause less cognitive stress.

Megan Oliver, an urbanist based in Baltimore, Maryland, and founder of Hello Happy Design, said the research of Hollander and others is critical, because there is a “mental health crisis” in the U.S., particularly American cities.

People are constantly responding to the built environment and in turn trying to shape it in order to reduce the impact of environmental stressors, such as blank glass or concrete building facades, crowds, noise, and air pollution. These stressors combine to make people anxious, sick, and unhappy.

In contrast, happy places are designed to encourage pro-social behavior. This is because “people need social connections in order to thrive.” Happy places help create layers of social relations, including “weak ties,” which are actually very important. “Weak ties create a sense of belonging and identity. They build trust, which helps pull communities through challenges.” Communities with higher weak ties and trust fought the COVID-19 pandemic better.

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. Walker Art Center Wurtele Upper Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Inside | Outside + HGA / Theodore Lee

Oliver argued that communities with pro-social behavior are also more inclusive and participatory and therefore better at shaping the built environment to meet their needs. The ethos in these communities is “change ourselves by changing the city.” These communities shape their spaces, creating shared identity through gardens, public art, and other improvements that help reduce stressors. Happy places then go beyond “places we inhabit and become extensions of ourselves.” These places enable us to “bond with the environment around us.”

A related conversation, also with Hollander, occurred at the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering. In a rapid-fire Zoom roundtable, the debate about what makes people happy or not in the built environment continued.

Architect Don Ruggles, CEO of Ruggles Mabe Studio, argued that “humans are always looking for safe spaces. We think about survival every minute of the day. But beauty is equally as important. We have an intuitive response — it creates a sense of pleasure.”

The problem, he argues, is that “our survival instinct is about five-to-seven times stronger than our pleasure instinct,” so anything in the built environment that is a stressor overwhelms our ability to experience beauty. He called for designers to focus on projects that engage our parasympathetic system that create deep relaxation so that pleasure can be experienced.

According to Nikos Salingaros, professor of mathematics, architecture, urban, and complexity theory at the University of Texas at San Antonio, architects today are wed to a style rooted in 1920s Germany — the Bauhaus — that creates an unhealthy built environment. “Trillions of dollars are wasted on creating stylistically irrelevant glass boxes that are essentially invisible to people. Whole cities — districts, neighborhoods, and downtowns — have become invisible, because of the geometries and math of the structures built.” Given humans are cognitively stressed by Modernist or contemporary glass buildings, these places are “close to malpractice, based on the medical evidence.”

Instead, Salingaros called for privileging human connections through walkable, bikeable places. “Start with network connectivity. No giant blocks. Create intimate networks that are comfortable to humans.” Furthermore, all urban spaces should be “continuations of those people-centric networks. Use the correct dimensions, apply pattern languages, and make the boundaries of buildings and spaces permeable.”

Urban designers, architects, and landscape architects should be “applying mathematical symmetries at multiple scales. The urban, landscape, architectural, and ornamental scale should all be aligned through sub-symmetries” — or the entire design will fail. “The measure of success will be the flow of people.”

He especially cautioned against contemporary buildings that purposefully try to be disharmonious — “these place intentionally violate symmetry laws,” creating stress in their attempt to grab attention.

For Ann Sussman, an architect, author, and researcher, designers can retrofit environments that create stress and anxiety, but only to a degree. She pointed to a project in Somerville, Massachusetts, where the negative impact of the blank concrete wall of a parking garage was mitigated through public art and greenery. Students shown the blank wall and then an image of the redesigned wall while wearing eye-tracking monitors experienced higher visual fixation on the art.

But in the case of a car-centric suburb, with a wide road with few houses along it, even adding in sidewalks would do little to reduce the impact of its inherent car-centric nature. “As people look down the street, they can’t fixate on the sidewalk and therefore safety. There are some suburbs built in the 1950s and 60s that just will never be walkable. These places are too foreign to our brain architecture.”

Unfortunately, new developments can have the same problems. Sussman asked: “Why is the Seaport district in South Boston so loathed? It’s because people can’t focus on it — they can’t anchor their sight on the glass buildings, so their fixation is anchored to the sky.”

Seaport District, Boston / Signature Boston

After the Worst of the Pandemic, What Will Happen to Open Streets?

During the pandemic, many neighborhoods that were once bounded by streets designed primarily for cars became permeable and open. With the spread of open, slow, or shared streets, pedestrians and cyclists quickly took over traffic lanes, creating an expanded, often safer public realm. Vehicular traffic into downtowns and town centers also saw a dramatic decline, which made wider streets and boulevards and expansive parking lots ripe for transformation into safe spaces for exercise and socially-distanced community events.

Now that the coronavirus is ebbing, at least in many parts of the U.S., communities are wrestling with the legacy of their open streets initiatives. Should some streets remain pedestrian and bicyclist-first spaces? Should temporary changes to slow or ban cars be made permanent? How can landscape architects and planners sort through the options?

In a session at the American Planning Association’s virtual conference, Lian Farhi, senior transportation planner with Sam Schwartz in Brooklyn, New York, said when reevaluating new shared spaces and deciding whether to make them permanent, communities should first ask: “what is their added value?”

Communities need a “decision-making framework, with overall goals and objectives,” she said. Temporary street closures, pop-up parklets, painted sidewalks and bike lanes, and other new shared outdoor dining and recreational spaces should be evaluated in terms of “usage, safety, accessibility, equity, diversity, mobility, and maintenance requirements.”

The city government of New York City, which opened up 60 miles of streets in five boroughs to pedestrian and bicycle use during the height of the pandemic, is now looking again at some of their temporary open streets.

Irene Figueroa-Ortiz, senior project manager with NYC’s department of transportation, said of all their pilot open streets, 34th Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, was the most successful. “26 continuous blocks were closed to cars and immediately taken over by people.” Parts of the avenue in front of schools became expanded playgrounds and used as educational spaces. Figueroa-Ortiz said “there’s now broad public support for this new public space. The community wants to make it permanent.”

To determine whether to keep 34th Avenue open, the city needs to measure impact. Her department has undertaken an extensive multi-cultural community engagement process in Jackson Heights, one of the most diverse communities in the country, with surveys, webinars, and design workshops, supported by real-time translation in numerous languages.

The department of transportation received more than 2,000 responses to their requests for input, whereas before they would expect around 100 responses. The feedback is helping to map out safety concerns, determine community members’ satisfaction, and re-imagine traffic lights and flow to enhance safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Figueroa-Ortiz said that survey results also show that open streets in New York City “weren’t successful in underserved communities, because of higher crime rates and the fact that essential workers were too busy to take advantage of the spaces. But overall, only a handful of shared streets in NYC were deemed unsuccessful.”

Steven Bossler, a landscape architect and planner who founded Shift Planning and Design in Denver, Colorado, said putting together packages of small federal, state, and local recovery grants has been critical to making temporary COVID-19 park and streetscape improvement projects come together — and more financing will be needed to make them permanent.

Olde Town Arvada, a community in Colorado, found the funds to reimagine their streets as public spaces free of cars. Restaurants and stores lining the street saw a 200 percent increase in foot traffic, which was matched by a 200 percent increase in sales tax receipts. Now coming out of the worst of the pandemic, “80 percent of residents say the open street should continue.”

Olde Town Arvada / Olde Town Arvada Business Improvement District

But in Paonia, Colorado, which used $46,000 in state grants matched with $8,000 in local funds to undertake temporary tactical urbanism projects, the results were less positive. Projects included vibrant painted crosswalks, bump-out parklets, and bike lanes. “Residents liked the greenery and colorful sidewalks, but didn’t like that parking was removed for the new bike lanes,” Bossler said. (The survey results are worth a read).

Jenny Baker, a land use consultant with Clarion Associates in Denver, Colorado, said communities can better leverage their zoning code to make long-term changes now that the coronoavirus is being contained by greater numbers of vaccinated people. “Codes can be used, for example, to enable outdoor seating. Parking requirements can also be revisited.”

Baker said much still needs to be figured out to make these new open streets permanent. “Where do the intersections begin and end? If there are now different visual cues at intersections, how do people navigate safely? Are shared streets legally the right-of-way or park space? Do the agencies managing these spaces need to change? Some of these things are a little difficult to answer.”

Just as temporary COVID-19 solutions were largely driven by local needs, long-term changes will be as well. But, hopefully, greater flexibility and experimentation are here to stay.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 16-31)

Swing Time by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, Boston / via Bloomberg CityLab

Teen Girls Need Better Public Spaces to Hang Out — 05/28/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Basketball courts, skate parks and playgrounds overlook an important demographic: teenage girls. A burgeoning design movement is trying to fix that.”

D.C. Retakes Top Spot in Annual Survey of Nation’s Best Parks; Arlington at No. 4 — 05/27/21, The Washington Post
“The survey, released Thursday by the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group, ranks the nation’s 100 largest cities on park access, acreage, investment, amenities — and, for the first time this year, ‘park equity.'”

Anna Halprin, Teacher and Choreographer Who Embraced Improvisational Style, Dies — 05/25/21, The Washington Post
“Mrs. Halprin [wife of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin] made a bold statement by making California her base. ‘I’m accused of being touchy-feely,’ she once said. ‘Well, I am. California is a very sensual place, and its landscape has become my theater. I’ve found much inspiration in the way nature operates.'”

An Open Space Plan for Cultural Landscapes, Resilience, and Growth in the Coastal Southeast — 05/25/21, Planetizen
“The Beaufort County Greenprint Plan, completed in 2020, offers an innovative model of open space planning integrated within a larger planning framework.”

Canadian Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Dies at 99 — 05/24/21, The Architect’s Newspaper 
“German-born Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who revolutionized mid-20th century urban play spaces and cleared the path for women in the profession, has died in Vancouver, British Columbia, just weeks ahead of what would have been her centenary on June 20.”

A New $260 Million Park Floats on the Hudson. It’s a Charmer — 05/20/21, The New York Times
“Signe Nielsen, a co-founder of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, designed everything green and flowering that visitors will see, smell, lay a blanket on and walk past.”