“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”