Learning from Copenhagen: A Focus on Everyday Life

København: Urban Architecture and Public Spaces / © Edition DETAIL, Munich

By John Bela, ASLA

København (Copenhagen), the capital of Denmark, is at the forefront of many landscape architects and planners’ minds for both its groundbreaking moves towards sustainability and cutting-edge public spaces, bicycle culture, architecture, and food scenes.

Having spent a significant amount of time in the city over the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity to begin to get to know the city and its people. One of the striking things about the city, perceptible in even my time there, is its continued trajectory of improvement. A chorus of people working diligently for decades to optimize the city for the everyday lives of its inhabitants have been laying the groundwork for what is possible today. I’ve been in Copenhagen in every season — in the depths of winter when the term Hygge takes on a deeper meaning and the scant hours of sunlight and the chilly winds inspire the strong desire to gather together by the soft light of a fire or candlelight to pass the dark hours. And during the summer months when the long hours of sunlight inspire a collective feeling of exultation and the city’s public spaces: the streets, parks, plazas, waterfront, and the harbor itself are teeming with life and energy. This was not so 20 or 30 years ago. The character of the city has radically changed and the new book København: Urban Architecture and Public Spaces, edited by Sandra Hofmeister, beautifully captures the new spirit of the city.

The book features many places in the Danish capital that have made a significant impact in public space and public life over the past several decades and groups them into four chapters: public spaces, sports and leisure, culture and education, and housing. Well-illustrated project descriptions are complemented by a series of interviews and essays with some of the most prominent and thoughtful designers part of the city’s design scene today.

One of the many featured projects in the public spaces section of the book offers a useful inspiration for what could be possible in U.S. cities if we recognize the value of urban spaces now occupied by parking and remake them in ways that draw public life, commerce, and play.

The Flying Carpet: Israel’s Plads (Israel Square) is a great example of the transformation of public spaces taking place in Copenhagen over several decades. A former vegetable market site near one of the busiest transit stations had degenerated into a parking lot and eyesore. The municipality led the transformation of the site by erecting two covered market halls (the wonderful Torvehallerne) and a public plaza that hosts a weekend farmers market.

Across the street, the city issued a design brief outlining that the former parking lot should be converted into a new public space. The winning competition by Cobe, a Copenhagen-based multidisciplinary planning and design firm composed of landscape architects, planners, and architects, envisaged a “flying carpet” across the entire square. The cars would be “swept under the rug” with underground parking. In the completed design, organically shaped areas punched out of a neatly paved surface provide a variety of public recreational functions. As one the city’s largest new public spaces, Israel Plads is an “informal uncoded space that enables the public to enjoy urban life.”

Israel’s Plads by Cobe, Sweco Architects / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

What you don’t get from the beautiful images and plans featured in the project description — and what is so useful for those of us in the planning and design professions — is covered in an essay that follows. The lead designer for the plaza, Dan Stubbergard from Cobe, illuminates some the underlying processes and struggles that were fought and won and resulted in a new plaza that functions as a diverse and active public space.

Stubbergard notes that “infrastructure had a very important role in defining our cities from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. Public spaces and zones in between buildings became carspaces, and this affected everyday life. But today we know that we have to combine infrastructure with the public quality of urban space. Be it a bicycle parking lot, a metro station, or a streetscape, you need to insist that all infrastructure is also a social and public space.”

Cobe has been leading some of the most impactful urban design efforts in Copenhagen. Their approach to Israel’s Plads reflects the deeply collaborative and creative approach of the practice that co-designs with communities. Dan continues: “Israels Plads is the biggest public space in Copenhagen, but it’s also a schoolyard shared by two schools – we argued it should be an open space nevertheless…We created a discrete boundary and that’s how we persuaded the school to have a safe zone in the middle of the city and an open environment at the same time. The challenge for [landscape] architects is to offer new ways of living together and to foster a lively everyday life.”

Swimming in the Harbor

You can’t comprehend Copenhagen today without understanding its changing relationship to the water. The book’s sports and leisure section describes one of the city’s newest ways to interact with the water: the Kalvebog Bolge (Kalvebod Waves). “An undulating sculptural promenade…the complex stretches out over the water like a park landscape, leading back to land with walkways that rise to different levels. Benches, play areas, and lookout points invite visitors to linger. What may seem coincidental follows a precise plan. Rough winds in the exposed location were considered in the positioning, as well as the course of the sun and the shadows created by surrounding buildings.”

As is typical of the projects described in the book, the space combines various programs in interesting ways. The “wave” stacks many functions: a kayak and canoe club, a swimming basin, a floating mini-hotel for canoeists, and a platform for cultural events all come together in this prominent harborside location. Furthermore, “the site’s cradle to cradle approach ensures that all materials can be separated by type at the end of their service life so they can be recycled or reused.”

Kalvebod Bolge by Urban Agency, JDS architects / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

The Kalvebod Wave harbor bath and others like it in different parts of the city are emblematic of the radical transformation that has occurred regarding the city’s relationship to the water. As in many former industrial waterfronts, the harbor water, as recently as the 1980’s, was polluted and dangerous, and one would not conceive of diving into it headlong as you see so many young and old people doing today.

In an essay, Hofmeister unpacks the process of transforming both the physical quality of the water and the harborfront as well as its mental image in the mind of Copenhageners. “With the shift from an industrial city to an eco-conscious city not only has the quality of life improved, but also the water quality…thanks to targeted measures in wastewater management and modernization of the sewage system. Today living on the waterfront is integral to the city’s image.”

These critical water quality improvements laid the foundation for a fundamental restructuring of the city’s relationship and orientation to the waterfront and a re-conception of the harbor from the “back of the city” to a blue-green central park. So many of the projects featured in the book show how to take advantage of this new orientation. The areas along the harbor offer high quality waterfront living and opportunities to swim or gather to watch the sunset. This is where the city opens up to offer wide views. The city’s master plans stipulate that all harborfront areas must not only be accessible to the public but also enlivened by the public.

Kroyers Plads by Vilhelm Lauritzen Architects, Cobe / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

This orientation of the city around the harbor as its central park is enabled by a steadily growing set of landscape, open space, pedestrian, and bike circulation connections around and across the harbor that provide continuous access around the water’s edge and have opened up new areas for the city’s famous pedestrian and bicycle culture. There are important lessons here for landscape architects and planners working in the U.S.

The first is that protecting, enhancing, and restoring the ecological health of extant water bodies and open spaces is crucial for laying the groundwork for future public access and enjoyment. The second is that a powerful vision in the form of a masterplan framework must be established that can live beyond short-term political cycles to guide the actions of many actors over time. The third is that landscape architects must conceive of each intervention, even if it is a small piece of a larger puzzle, as contributing to the realization of the larger vision that will, eventually, result in a radical transformation of place.

The first carbon-neutral capital

Copenhagen, as in many cities with ambitious leaders across the globe, is leading the way towards a more equitable and sustainable future for its inhabitants. By 2025, Copenhagen is to be the first-ever carbon-neutral capital city. Switching from cars to bicycles plays a decisive role.

As described in an essay on cycling culture and quality of life, the city’s bicycle culture is well known to urbanists throughout the world, and it’s a powerful experience to be immersed in it. But what is less well known are the other factors that contribute to making Copenhagen a city where you can actually live without a car, such as the provision of dense, human-scale, compact, and transit-connected urban infill for areas of new development and providing citizens with mobility choice in the form of a world-class transit system. As the city gradually implemented and expanded its famous bicycle infrastructure, there has been commensurate major investment in expanding mass transit, including the brand new Cityringen line completed in 2019.

The wonderful essay by Jacob Shoof unpacks the critical role of innovative public-private partnerships, a role played by redevelopment agencies in the U.S. These partnerships have been charged with re-imagining some of the city’s most valuable port lands and new development areas, financing the construction of major public transport projects such as the Cityringen, as well as leading the re-imagining of the city’s largest new development area, Nordhavn, under its masterplan by Cobe.

Back to the Water, Jakob Shoof, with image of Nordhavn / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

One essay goes into the details of one private-public partnership focused on the port: “The City of Copenhagen and the Danish state the laid foundations for this in 2007 with the founding of the project development company By & Havn (City and Harbour)…the new company has two main tasks: to manage and regulate the use of Copenhagen’s port waters and shore facilities and to promote the conversion of disused port areas…the company operates like a private company largely free from political influence, and can therefore pursue long-term strategies…the business model of By & Havn is to use sales proceeds [of port lands] to build public infrastructure in the newly developed areas. The new Cityringen (City Circle line) of the Copenhagen Metro has been running under the city since 2019 and was also planned by By & Havn. In order to pre-refinance the development of the infrastructure without having to rush property sales the company has taken out long-term loans, using land in its possession as security.”

Innovative financial models and thoughtful long-term planning for public infrastructure investment from bicycle lanes to the new underground metro line are critical to making a thriving and successful public realm as well as incentivizing active mobility and transit use, and therefore enabling the city to meet their ambitious long-term sustainability goals

Dense, diverse, and green. Is it possible?

As with so many urban areas around the globe, Copenhagen is experiencing an urban renaissance as more people choose to reside in dense, amenity rich, and socially diverse urban neighborhoods. But how has the city managed to maintain affordability and access for people at the beginning of their careers or those who are just forming families? So many areas in the U.S. experiencing this same urban renaissance are characterized by significant social conflict due to rapid gentrification and displacement of long-term residents.

A final theme that emerges in the book is the role of an engaged citizenry in generating grassroots-level action to provide a strong political mandate for the municipality and the design community to work for things like mobility choice and affordable housing. For instance, part of the less well-known story of the city’s bicycle culture, which reemerged in the 1970’s after going into decline in the age of the automobile, are the massive protests and collective action in response to the 1970’s oil crisis that inspired city leaders to take seriously the role of the bicycle in urban mobility.

And this level of community engagement has also shaped the city’s approach to housing. Since the late 1960’s, the city’s different forms of communal living have drawn international attention. The final chapter of the book focused on housing describes several of the innovative and beautifully well-designed housing complexes on the re-energized harborfront as well as some excellent examples of co-housing, a trend which is growing in popularity globally and was featured prominently in this year’s Venice Biennale exhibition theme: “How will we live together?”

One of the defining characteristics of Copenhagen’s inner city housing stock is the traditional form of the perimeter block that surrounds a shared green space. These forms can accommodate a variety of functions — from a safe play area for children, food producing gardens, bicycle parking, and larger community gatherings. These collectively owned and managed semi-private green spaces are rare in the U.S., but they contribute significantly to the quality of life in Copenhagen and are a major factor in attracting and retaining young families within the urban core.

The Lange End Co-housing project by Dorte Mandrup is a wonderful, contemporary interpretation of this traditional perimeter block with a large, internal shared green space. Mandrup describes how this happened: “The central aim of the project was to establish a community accommodating a range of age and occupational groups, cultural backgrounds, and ways of living. To determine the different spatial requirements – common areas for meeting and communication, but also more private areas – an extensive participatory process was carried out, with various workshops held between the planners and future residents.”

Lang Eng Cohousing by Dorte Mandrup / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich
Lang Eng Cohousing by Dorte Mandrup / courtesy of Edition DETAIL, Munich

Hofmeister’s interview with Mandrup reveals the deeper motivations behind the work. “We already have numerous co-housing situations for very specialized groups – elderly people, students, or young families. My dream is that we can mix the different groups much more and build co-housing spaces that reflect the whole society – singles and families, old and young people.” And in a commentary on the next challenges the city faces, Mandrup says: “I would also wish that the city of Copenhagen would move forward with densification without simply doing things on a larger scale. We have to find better solutions to densify our cities than simply higher buildings. Densification on a small [human?] scale – that’s a real challenge for the future!”

Landscape architects have a critical role to play in the design of new housing areas in our urban neighborhoods. We can ensure there is a clear hierarchy of spaces from public to semi-public to private open spaces. Establishing this hierarchy and definition of whom these spaces are designed to serve is often overlooked but is crucial for achieving quality and livability in dense urban environments.

A beacon of sustainable urbanism

The many innovative ideas and projects described in this book and the exploration of some of the values and motivations that drive the work are what make this book a valuable resource for landscape architects and planners in the U.S. or anywhere in the world.

We can now point to these works and say, look what is possible if we work together for the common good of our communities! The City of Copenhagen brings together innovations in public participation, long term planning, finance, and a socially engaged design community to create the sustainable city of the future for residents today. It’s no wonder city leaders and design professionals around the globe are taking notice!

John Bela, ASLA, is an urban strategist and designer based in San Francisco. Bela co-founded Rebar, the creators of Park(ing) Day. A founding partner and design director at Gehl San Francisco, he left Gehl in 2021 to form his own design advisory and consulting practice: Bela Urbanism + Design. He is a licensed landscape architect in California.

Women Landscape Architects Take the Lead on Climate Action (Part 1)

Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate, UK / Studio Olafur Eliasson

When thinking about climate change, many of us focus on the looming environmental impacts — sea level rise, more intense storms and floods, rising temperatures. And landscape architects are increasingly creating solutions to those “ecological, technical problems,” said Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, professor at the University of Virginia, during the kick-off of Courageous by Design, a day-long conference organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in New York City, comprised entirely of women speakers.

But as landscape architects fix these ecological problems and increase landscape performance, Meyer advised the masked, in-person audience of hundreds not to forget that design also matters. “Landscape architects need to design for the immediate human experience as well as long-term community survival.” Design must support “psychological well-being” today in order to build social resilience for what is to come.

Landscape architects can design with the goal of eliciting “affective responses” to the climate crisis. For example, meaningful “landscape experiences could provoke a young activist to shift their consciousness.” Through landscape design, “we can create a culture of care and spark environmental investigation. By addressing spatial and social justice, we can create transformative socio-economic experiences in public spaces.”

Meyer argued that the latest dire warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) don’t spur on greater climate action in most people. Designers should instead look to Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s Weather series, which evoke “awe, dissonance, and wonder” (see image above). These kinds of immersive, powerful experiences can reduce the disconnect we all feel between reality and climate change. Sir Anthony Giddens’ book The Politics of Climate Change argues that “this disconnect is between what we know and what we do everyday.” Giddens speaks about the “invisibility of climate change” caused by “scalar and relational disconnects.”

Olafur Eliasson’s Icewatch, Paris / Studio Olafur Eliasson

One way to bridge the gap is to treat climate adaptation not just as a technological, ecological process but also as an emotional and social one. “Landscape form matters and can suggest scalar connections that affect mood, emotions, and feelings.” To address the social impacts of climate change, landscape architects can create “new collective experiences based in new spatial and material practices. Feelings also perform and are affective: Awe is a biological reaction and can cause us to care and cultivate compassion.”

Awe can be found in simple, everyday designed places. “Walks in my neighborhood where I experienced awe sustained me during the long pandemic.” Experiencing small moments of awe in designed nature, through experiencing a beautiful garden or bird, can spark “new thoughts about our multi-species co-dependence.” Meyer believes that this kind of “everyday exposure to awe” are also affective experiences.

Frederick Law Olmsted understood these ideas when he said: “A park is a work of art designed to produce certain effects in the minds of men.” Like Olmsted, landscape architects can not only design ecological solutions but also change sensibilities. New landscape design should address climate change, urban form, and social aesthetics together. “This is how we can insert landscape architects into the climate crisis.”

Central Park, NYC / Ed Yourdon, NYC, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

A subsequent series of talks by leading women landscape architects further wove together ideas about how to solve climate challenges and create those personal, immersive experiences that change attitudes and spur on awareness and action.

According to Martha Schwartz, FASLA, founder of Martha Schwartz Partners and a professor of practice at Harvard Graduate School of Design, “there is no place more vulnerable to climate change than New York City.” The city will be impacted by sea level rise, flooding, and rising temperatures, along with increased food insecurity. In the Northeast, which supplies a significant amount of food to NYC, climate change is already impacting agriculture. As things get worse, “we can imagine access to food will become harder as communities stop trading with each other.”

Compounding these risks is the poor state of NYC’s infrastructure, which will lead to “cascading failures.” The subway system is 90 years old, outdated, and dangerous. “It’s dirty, dingy, with leaking roofs, and the city can’t pay for upgrades.” The sewer mains are 80 years old, and overflows from combined sewer outfalls result in 27 billion gallons of sewage and stormwater to enter waterways each year. 50 percent of the city’s streets are now sub-standard.

Schwartz outlined a set of solutions to save NYC, rooted in a few guiding ideas: “the urban landscape needs to be treated as a necessity, not a commodity. The urban landscape is the largest piece of infrastructure.”

Given the importance of the urban landscape, landscape architects need to re-arrange the city to maximize its potential benefits in addressing climate change. “We need to create less dependence on centralized infrastructure. We need bold, more flexible smaller-scale, nature-based systems.” She called for all streets to be lined with actual forests, not just trees, to embed immersive nature experiences into the city.

Another key idea: Instead of further building up NYC as a mega-city, focus on neighborhoods. “Decentralize the infrastructure so it can work at a neighborhood scale.” Schwartz called for “re-spatializing” the city as a set of smaller 15-to-20 minute cities, which is the maximum amount of time pedestrians will walk. New transportation networks will be key to achieving this. NYC doesn’t have a choice but to abandon its “dangerous and unfeasible” subway system in favor of a new above-ground system.

And NYC and other vulnerable cities can be made more resilient by incorporating nature-based solutions that address both flooding and rising urban temperatures. “Copy from nature and create ecological urbanism. NYC can un-build itself through strategic erasures.” The city can install linear farms and forests in the rights-of-way. Using the Miyawaki forest model, New York City could plant dense, biodiverse forests that grow in 2-3 years in polluted areas. “We need real forests instead of street trees.”

Miyawaki forest model, Lahore, Pakistan / Global Village Space

Lisa Switkin, ASLA, senior principal at Field Operations in New York City, more directly engaged with Meyer’s thesis, arguing that too often beauty is pushed to the sidelines as less important in comparison with the scale of environmental and social problems facing communities.

She finds solace and inspiration in the Navaho worldview, Hózhó, which puts beauty at the “center of life and thought.” In Western societies, “beauty is a surface phenomenon,” but the Navaho believe that “beauty is about balance between land and water, place and belonging.” Switkin called for “expanding and redesigning beauty,” creating a new urban nature that conflates the city and wilderness, urbanism with ecology.

Balance and beauty in Navaho worldview: Hózhó, Navajo Beauty, Navajo Weaving, Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, Indiana University

As an example, Switkin pointed to a Field Operations-planned and designed project in Shenzhen, China, the Qianhai Water City, a new “sustainable city” for 4 million people. “Water fingers running through the development will improve water quality. Linear parks that will act as stormwater filters.” 70 percent of the development will be natural, with 13 acres of constructed mangroves. “This project is meant to create immersive natural experiences in a dense city.” The first segment of the project just opened.

Qianhai Water City, Shenzhen, China / Field Operations

Another project Switkin highlighted is Freshkills Park in Staten Island, New York, a 2,200-acre landfill reclamation project Field Operations has been working on for two decades. “The park offers a world of contrasts — both natural and engineered beauty.” The park is designed to capture both landfill gases, which are being transformed into usable methane for Staten Island residents, and leachate. The landscape includes restored creeks and meadows, tree and seed farms, wilderness areas, mountain biking and cross-country skiing — all on a former garbage dump. The park is currently functioning as an environmental research station but will soon open to the public as it becomes more naturalized. “This has been a process of renewal — both in terms of ecology and spirit and imagination.”

Freshkills Park, Staten Island, NY / NYC Parks

“Landscape architects can make a contribution to adapting communities to climate change, but the effort must be collective,” she said. Designers can help foster ecological health and resilience, better connect communities to place, increase health and well-being, and inspire and improve people’s lives.

Like Meyer, Switkin believes that creating immersive experiences and redefining beauty will help ensure landscape architects remain “relevant and resonant” in the midst of the climate crisis. Designing immersive experiences and taking climate action “aren’t in opposition, but central to each other.”

Kate Orff, FASLA, founder of SCAPE, who has recently made the case for the role of landscape architects in addressing climate change in The New Yorker and CNN, relayed her own doubts and questions she has for herself.

Given the scale of the climate crisis, and the fact that “our largest landscapes are dying,” she wonders “whether the unit of a landscape architecture project is sufficient.” An estimated one million plant and animal species are facing extinction. Wetlands are being lost at a rate three times faster than forests. Two-thirds of birds and other wildfire have vanished since 1970. “There is an eco-cide, and we are designing amid that.”

But she thinks that landscape architects are “special and qualified” to do the hard work of restoring biological diversity to our landscapes and finding ways to incentivize communities to protect these places. “We can see the relationships. We can make projects, but not close our eyes. We can listen, make, and unmake.” She said some landscape architects may complain that addressing the climate crisis isn’t design, but we have to “grapple with that, and reflect on what is design and what isn’t.”

She pointed to just a few of SCAPE’s recent projects, including Living Breakwaters in Staten Island, New York, a designed and engineered oyster habitat that will protect communities from storm surges and support local livelihoods and environmental education efforts. In that project, “policy and regulations informed everything we did. Then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan spent months re-writing code to make that work.” But even this modest $100 million project took eight years of planning and design before construction began in the past few months.

Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY / SCAPE
Construction of Living Breakwaters, Staten Island, NY / SCAPE

Orff argued that “working upstream in the policy environment is critical,” but “addressing people and their behavior will enable us to scale up change even faster.” She called on landscape architects to continue to wade into the toughest environmental and social challenges and lead collaborative efforts to de-pave roads, undam rivers and remove the concrete channels around them, and rip-out car-based infrastructure as much as possible.

In the Q&A, Meyer asked how all three women toggle between being humble and listening to communities and being courageous in designing new solutions to the climate crisis.

Orff said “I keep toggling between ‘I gotta get this done,’ and climate grief. I feel humility in knowing my role isn’t enough, but I have the courage to do it anyway.”

“I learned about how methane could be released with the Arctic permafrost, and I basically stopped doing landscape architecture for a few years,” Schwartz said. “I quit because I felt that landscape architecture wasn’t relevant. But I did a deep dive on climate change and read a lot of books. I have a whole new education about Earth systems. I now have a new scale of thinking. Running my own firm for 37 years, I solve problems. I started Mayday, a new non-profit organization focused on climate engineering. We need to cool down the atmosphere while we drawdown carbon. Landscape architects are super important, but are not recognized. We need to broadcast what we do and that everyone needs to do this. We need to envision; use your creativity.”

“Indigenous belief systems offer powerful concepts,” Switkin said. “Beauty is balance. The question for me is what will push people to achieve greater balance with nature. We need to better collaborate. We can bring our realm of expertise, form alliances, and create a shift. We can’t do everything though.”

Orff reiterated this focus on forming new alliances. For a project on the Mississippi riverfront, SCAPE brought together more than 15 organizations involved in separate efforts at different scales. “We can convene organizations, make a map, and pull it together.”

Switkin mentioned the book New Power: How Anyone Can Persuade, Mobilize, and Succeed in Our New Chaotic, Connected Age, which explains “movement culture.” With social media, “there is an exponential growth factor and influence circles outward. Individual actions can make a difference.”

Meyer concluded that “you have to be an optimist as a designer.”

Brooklyn Bridge Park Wins 2021 Rosa Barba International Landscape Prize

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation. Brooklyn, NY. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Alex Maclean

Brooklyn Bridge Park, which spans 85 acres and 1.3 miles along the East River waterfront in Brooklyn, New York, beat out 10 other projects around the world to win the 2021 Rosa Barba International Landscape Prize at the 11th International Landscape Architecture Biennial in Barcelona, Spain. Designed over twenty years by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), a New York-based landscape architecture firm, the project has “transformed an industrial site of abandoned warehouses, obsolete piers, and decaying bulkheads into a vibrant public space,” the prize jury said.

Brooklyn Bridge Park, which pre-Covid boasted 5 million visitors a year, was the first major park to be created in Brooklyn since Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Prospect Park in the late 19th century. Five flat, concrete piers were re-imagined as sports fields, gardens, and playgrounds, all connected through interwoven green spaces and paths. A new berm reduced noise from the nearby Brooklyn Queens Expressway, an elevated highway that once produced a deafening “roar,” so much so that it was difficult to talk.

Brooklyn Bridge Park sound berm / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

The first public meeting for the master plan of the park was way back in 1998. In just a few months, the final segment — Emily Warren Roebling Plaza — will open. A video with Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, from 2009, as construction begins, offers a sense of his enduring passion for this transformative, two-decade-long project:

MVVA explains that the original “idea for the park came from Brooklynites, who live in the NYC borough with the least amount of park space.” Communities around the site couldn’t access the waterfront when it was a shipping terminal owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. More than a decade of advocacy by local community groups finally convinced elected leaders to stop the Port Authority’s plans to transform the defunct terminal into a profit-generating mixed-use development and instead created a city and state-financed public park.

Over the course of more than 400 public meetings while planning and designing the project, MVVA heard a few key messages: the park should “feel democratic,” and in order to accomplish that, should offer “many programs within its whole,” including desperately-needed space for recreation. The park should also feel friendly and accessible — “a space for everyday life, a place to relax.”

Brooklyn Bridge Park / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Brooklyn Bridge Park / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Brooklynites also wanted more than just views; they wanted to feel immersed in a restored natural environment along the East River – “to step into the water, smell the breeze, and feel surrounded by the landscape.” To bring those benefits to multiple surrounding neighborhoods, MVVA created a plan that “stretched both ends of the park” beyond its originally conceived boundaries.

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation. Brooklyn, NY. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Elizabeth Felicella

The park itself is a model of urban reuse. Instead of tearing down the pier infrastructure, MVVA found ways to reuse both the stronger and weaker parts of it, arranging park uses on the surface based on the piers’ structural capacity. Some piers had piles that would only support limited weight so any programs on the surface had to be “light and relatively thin.” Pier 1 had the strongest supports, so it became possible to build up new land forms.

Within the park itself, yellow pine wood from a demolished factory was reused as site furniture; piles and pier structures became playground and park elements; granite was broken up and became rip rap; and bulk fill from a subway tunnel extraction was used to build up land. A shed found on Pier 2 shed was also reimagined as a shade structure for basketball courts, and a pile field at Pier 1 was kept to protect a new salt marsh.

ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation. Brooklyn, NY. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Alex Maclean
ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation. Brooklyn, NY. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Scott Shigley
ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Brooklyn Bridge Park: A Twenty Year Transformation. Brooklyn, NY. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates / Etienne Frossard

MVVA carved out land forms within the site, creating sweeping lawns and gardens down to the waterfront that also act as a resilient flood basin during storm surges. More than 3,000 trees were planted along with a rich understory of native plants, all guided by an ecological approach. As in nature, the trees and plants compete for resources and adapt over time, instead of being isolated specimens like in a typical urban park. Plants were also selected to “support human comfort, wind shelter, and shade.”

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

“If you ask a hundred different people why they come to Brooklyn Bridge Park, you could easily get a hundred different answers. Sports are interspersed with epic views, social spaces, natural beauty, and quiet moments,” Van Valkenburgh explains.

The Rose Barba prize jury also honored another innovative space: Parques del Río Medellín in Medellín, Colombia, designed by Sebastian Monsalve Gomez and Juan David Hoyos Taborda. The park, also decades in the making, creates new access to the Medellín River and partly de-channelizes the river and restores its ecosystem.

Parques del Río Medellín in Medellín, Colombia / 11th International Landscape Architecture Biennial

The Rosa Barba International Landscape Prize included an award of €15,000 ($17,439). The prize jury included Esteban Leon, UN-Habitat; Cristina Castelbranco, a landscape architect and professor at the University of Lisbon; Kongjian Yu, FASLA, a leading Chinese landscape architect and founder of Turenscape; James Hayter, a landscape architect and president of the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA); and Julie Bargmann, a landscape architect, professor at the University of Virginia, and winner of the first Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (October 1-15)

Landscape Architect Whose Designs Reclaim Toxic Sites Wins International Prize — 10/14/21, The Washington Post
“Landscape architect Julie Bargmann, who for 30 years has transformed postindustrial and sometimes toxic sites into inviting spaces, is the winner of the first Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize, a biennial award of $100,000 given by the Cultural Landscape Foundation.”

A Landscape Architect Who Loves Ruins and Hates Ruin Porn — 10/14/21, Curbed
“Bargmann, who has just been awarded the first $100,000 Cornelia Hahn Oberlander prize in landscape architecture, never lost her taste for such wounded and poisonous places, even after they’ve stopped being productive.”

The Modernist French Garden: Design by the Vera Brothers Highlights the Legacy of André and Paul Vera — 10/11/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Although restrained, The Modernist French Garden: Designs by the Vera Brothers presents an informative, yet concise, survey of the brothers’ drawings produced for their 1912 landscape design treatise, Le Nouveau Jardin.”

Could Low-Carbon Trains Cure Europe’s Flying Addiction? — 10/11/21, Next City
“In April, the French government voted to ban short-haul domestic flights where alternatives by train exist. Research by French consumer group UFC-Que Choisir had found that planes emit 77 times more CO2 per passenger than trains on journeys lasting under four hours.”

Biden Restores Beloved National Monuments, Reversing Trump Cuts — 10/08/21, The Guardian
“Biden signed three proclamations that increased the boundaries of Bears Ears to 1.36m acres, while restoring the Grand Staircase-Escalante to 1.87m acres – both spanning large swaths of southern Utah. He also reinstated protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine, about 130 miles off the coast of New England, and extended limits on commercial fishing.”

Trams, Cable Cars, Electric Ferries: How Cities Are Rethinking Transit — 10/03/21, The New York Times
“Today, a quiet transformation is underway. Berlin, Bogotá and several other cities are taking creative steps to cut gas and diesel from their public transit systems. They are doing so despite striking differences in geography, politics and economics that complicate the transformation.”

Julie Bargmann Is the Winner of the First Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize

Julie Bargmann / Photo by Barrett Doherty, courtesy of TCLF

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) announced Julie Bargmann has won the inaugural Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize for her innovative work that regenerates neglected, often polluted, communities. The biennial award of $100,000 will include two years of public engagement focused on Bargmann’s work and the state of contemporary landscape architecture. The prize is named after German-born Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, FASLA, who passed away from complications from Covid-19 earlier this year at age 99. TCLF states that the prize is bestowed on a recipient who is “exceptionally talented, creative, courageous, and visionary” and has “a significant body of built work that exemplifies the art of landscape architecture.”

The Oberlander Prize jury said Bargmann, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia and founder of D.I.R.T. (Dump It Right There) Studio, has been “a provocateur, a critical practitioner, and a public intellectual. She embodies the kind of activism required of landscape architects in an era of severe environmental challenges and persistent social inequities.” She is known for her work regenerating “contaminated, neglected, and forgotten urban and post-industrial sites.”

In her own words: “unearthing the raw ingredients of design from waste and wastelands defines my life’s work.” And this passion has driven her to “seek a larger canvas, namely, post-industrial cities and regions. There exists massive potential and sublime beauty in places that may seem, at first blush, to be trashed. Sites, neighborhoods, entire cities—they are full of energy waiting to be recognized, released, and given new form.”

TCLF states that Bargmann’s aesthetic approach is “strongly influenced by the work and writings of Robert Smithson, the American artist known for his land art installations including Spiral Jetty, and the American artist Eva Hesse. Bargmann describes her approach as ‘rigorous intuition or intuitive rigor.'”

Bargmann and D.I.R.T. are known for leading conceptual landscape designs that guide multi-disciplinary collaborations with architects, historians, engineers, hydro-geologists, artists, and the communities with which she engages.

A few of Bargmann’s key projects:

For the Vintondale Reclamation Park in Vintondale, Pennsylvania, which was completed in 2002, Bargmann collaborated with historic preservationist T. Allan Comp, hydrologist Bob Deason, and sculptor Stacy Levy on a 35-acre site in coal country designed as a “natural filtration system” that addresses polluted mine runoff. Entitled Acid Mine Drainage and Art: Testing the Waters, this “model of bioremediation” helped Bargmann win the 2001 National Design Award from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Museum. She explains that “Vintondale is the project that I feel launched D.I.R.T. and still defines its trajectory.”

Acid mine drainage / Julie Bargmann
Vitondale excavated ponds / Julie Bargmann

Her work on the Urban Outfitters Headquarters at the U.S. Navy Yard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania won Bargmann an ASLA Professional Award in 2014. According to TLCF, the project “became a model for the artistic and ecologically sound reuse of materials, including concrete chunks nicknamed ‘Barney and Betty Rubble,’ as well as brick, rusted metal, and other materials.” The project shows that reusing materials is not only beautiful but also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Reusing concrete and buried train tracks saves the tons of embodied carbon emissions in these materials and avoids creating new materials that generate more emissions. A greater focus on reused and recycled landscapes is needed in the age of the climate crisis. The ASLA awards jury also noted that the “site perviousness was increased by about 800 percent.” For this project, Bargmann worked with architects at Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle, engineers with Advanced GeoServices, Corp., and environmental engineers with Blue Wing Environmental.

ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Urban Outfitters Headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Philadelphia, PA. D.I.R.T. Studio / JJ Tiziou
ASLA 2014 Professional General Design Honor Award. Urban Outfitters Headquarters at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Philadelphia, PA. D.I.R.T. Studio / D.I.R.T. Studio

And in 2019, in Detroit, Michigan, Bargmann designed the 8,000-square-foot Core City Park in partnership with developer Philip Kafka of Prince Concepts, architect Ishtiaq Rafiuddin, and project manager Randy Pardy. The park is another ingenious model of artful reuse — almost all design elements were unearthed from the site, including “pieces of a demolished late-19th century fire station, the walls of a bank vault, and other excavated artifacts.” TCLF also calls the park an urban woodland, with tree groves that “allow visitors to break away from the city without leaving it.”

Core City Park, Detroit, MI / Photo courtesy of Prince Concepts and TCLF
Core City Park, Detroit, MI / Photo courtesy of Prince Concepts and TCLF

Bargmann’s projects will be added to TCLF’s What’s Out There® database, and she will be the focus of an upcoming Pioneers of American Landscape Design® video oral history.

Stay tuned for upcoming public programs organized by John Beardsley, Oberlander Prize curator at TCLF and former director of garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks.

ASLA Ratifies International Federation of Landscape Architects’ Climate Action Commitment

ASLA 2021 Professional Urban Design Honor Award. Xuhui Runway Park, Shanghai, China. Sasaki / Insaw Photography

Landscape Architects Unite in Advance of Key United Nations Climate Change Conference

ASLA announced it will join a global coalition of 70,000 landscape architects in 77 countries in committing to limiting planetary warming to 1.5°C (2.7 °F). This is the largest coalition of landscape architecture professionals ever assembled to advance climate action.

IFLA’s Climate Action Commitment will be issued to sovereign nations at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will be held in Scotland, October 31 – November 12.

ASLA has committed to the six goals outlined in the IFLA Climate Action Commitment:

1) Advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)
ASLA and its member landscape architects and designers will accelerate efforts to protect and repair ecosystems.

2) Attaining Global Net Zero Emissions by 2040
ASLA and its members will dramatically reduce operational and embodied carbon emissions produced by projects, increasingly harness the unique capacity of landscapes to draw down carbon dioxide, and continue to advocate for low-carbon multi-modal transport systems.

3) Enhancing Capacity and Resilience of Livable Cities and Communities
Implementing green infrastructure approaches, ASLA and its members will increase efforts to mitigate the urban heat island effect and reduce climate impacts associated with fire, drought, and flooding.

4) Advocating for Climate Justice and Social Well-Being
ASLA and its members will maintain our priority on equity and equality and ensure the right to nearby green spaces and clean water and air.

5) Learning from Cultural Knowledge Systems
ASLA and its members commit to respecting and working with indigenous communities and honoring cultural land management practices to mitigate climate change impacts and continue work towards reconciliation.

6) Galvanizing Climate Leadership
Landscape architects are uniquely positioned to lead the built environment community’s response to the climate crisis. ASLA will continue to collaborate with clients, suppliers, and allied professions to champion climate positive landscapes, which involves planning and designing landscapes that sequester more greenhouse gas emissions than they emit.

“ASLA is proud to be joining forces with IFLA and the global community of landscape architects in advancing our climate action goals,” said Torey Carter-Conneen, CEO, ASLA. “We speak as one voice, globally, when it comes to advancing climate action.”

“As landscape architects we can make a tremendous difference to climate change and to climate action through our work, so thinking globally but acting locally is critical,” said IFLA President James Hayter.

“In a year marked by historic flooding in Europe and China and deadly wildfires and heat waves in the United States, it’s clear we’re running out of time to start healing a century’s worth of harm done to our Earth and its atmosphere,” said Tom Mroz, FASLA, ASLA President.

“I am gratified that Climate Positive Design has been incorporated into the global Commitment,” said Pamela Conrad, ASLA, Founder of Climate Positive Design, Principal at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, and IFLA Climate Change Working Group Vice Chair. “All landscape architects must rapidly scale up their work transforming designed landscapes into natural carbon sinks.”

The IFLA Climate Action Commitment is the second major coalition ASLA has joined this year. ASLA also signed on to Architecture 2030’s 1.5°C COP26 Communiqué, calling for built environment industries to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

Landscape architects plan and design with nature to help all communities reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Landscape architects use climate positive design approaches that transform parks and open spaces into natural carbon sinks. They develop resilient nature-based solutions that reduce the impacts of extreme heat; coastal, ground, and inland flooding; sea level rise; pollution; and wildfires. They also increase biodiversity and protect and restore ecosystems, which underpin life on Earth.

“Landscape architects are already helping communities adapt to climate impacts. We are having a particularly big impact on reducing dangerous urban temperatures, saving many lives in the process,” said Vaughn Rinner, FASLA, former ASLA President and ASLA representative to the IFLA Climate Change Working Group.

ASLA Announces 2021 Professional Awards

ASLA 2021 Landmark Award. Portland Open Space Sequence, Portland, Oregon. PLACE.

ASLA announces the 2021 Professional Award winners. The 40 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement in the profession, and the professionals themselves will be honored at ASLA’s Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.

Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 40 winners were chosen from 486 submissions from around the world. Award categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research. In addition, one Landmark Award is also selected each year.

“This year’s winners demonstrate how landscape architects are increasingly leading the planning and design of healthy and resilient communities for all,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA. “Landscape architects are advancing communities’ diversity, equity, and inclusion goals in significant ways.”

Professional Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored in-person at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, TN on Saturday, November 20th, at 6pm ET.

Explore the full list of this year’s Professional Award winners

ASLA Announces 2021 Student Awards

ASLA 2021 Student General Design Honor Award. The Interaction Between Masks And Desertification: A Paradigm of Family Sand Control by Mongolian Herdsmen. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Xi Zhao; Xue Li; Xinyu Yang; Qiong Wang, Student International ASLA, Beijing Forestry University

ASLA announces the 2021 Student Award winners. The 35 winning projects exemplify the highest level of achievement by future landscape architect professionals. The students themselves will be honored at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture, Nov. 20 in Nashville, TN.

Winners each year are chosen by a jury panel representing a broad cross-section of the profession, from the public and private sectors, as well as academia. The 35 winners were chosen from 440 submissions of projects from around the world. Awards categories include: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, Student Collaboration, and Community Service.

“This program not only honors the tremendous creativity and passion of these future landscape architect leaders, it also highlights the extraordinary contributions they will make to communities upon graduation,” said Torey Carter- Conneen, CEO of ASLA.

Student Award recipients will be honored in-person at the awards presentation ceremony during the ASLA 2021 Conference on Landscape Architecture in Nashville, TN on Saturday, November 20th, at 6pm ET.

Explore the full list of this year’s Student Award winners

At the Congress for New Urbanism, A Critique of European Eco-Cities

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Freiburg Tourism Bureau. Copyright FWTM-Spiegelhalter

Are European eco-cities models for the future or do they reflect poor urban design practices? During the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 Virtual Gathering, a group of architects and urban designers debated the merits of a few well-known sustainable cities, including Vauban in Freiburg, Germany; Bo01 in Malmö, Sweden; Kronsberg in Germany; and Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm, Sweden. While there was agreement on the need to densify cities through new compact low-carbon development, there was a lack of consensus on the best way to make sustainable communities more walkable and aesthetically pleasing and how to best incorporate landscape and access to nature.

According to Dhiru Thadani, an architect and urbanist, the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.2 billion by 2050. “Where will all these people live?,” he wondered.

Land scarcity isn’t the issue. “We could fit 14 billion people into the state of Texas if it was as dense as Paris.” But creating enough dense low-carbon communities is.

Increased density of human settlements is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Walkable, bikeable communities, with access to low-carbon transit, have the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any development model. The key to encouraging denser development is making these communities as livable and beautiful as possible.

Architect and academic Michael Dennis, author of Architecture & The City: Selected Essays, argued that “dense urbanism is the most efficient” way to live. He also believes that ecology can be integrated into compact developments — “density doesn’t preclude ecological considerations; ecology and density are fraternal twins.”

But he believes density must be the priority with any new development. Two-thirds of Americans now live in suburban environments where they are dependent on cars that use fossil fuels. These sprawled-out, car-based communities continues our dependence on the “oil empire.”

Citing arguments made in the books Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change by urban planner Peter Calthorpe and Green Metropolis by The New Yorker writer David Owen, Dennis argued that dense urbanism “uses less land, carbon, and energy, and is the best climate solution.” To stave off the climate crisis, “we have 10-15 years left to make major changes,” which he argues involves transforming our communities into higher-density ones. He added that “stormwater and recycling issues didn’t create this crisis.”

While contemporary European eco-cities offer a model for how to maximize density and incorporate ecological landscape design, his issue is with their urban forms, “which aren’t good.” He believes that the issue is “confusion in terms of the role of landscape: the urbanism-to-building connection.”

Dennis believes ecological systems can be integrated into traditional dense and humane European community forms, but European eco-cities haven’t created the right connections between urban form, buildings, landscape, and people. These communities have an urban design problem.

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany, which is one of the original European eco-cities built on the site of a former military base, “still looks like army barracks.” While Freiburg is a “beautiful traditional European city,” Vauban “looks like a trailer park on steroids, invaded by an untamed landscape that looks like a jungle.” Its environmental merits are solid — the development is powered by solar energy and includes all ultra-low energy passive house buildings — but “the landscape is confused and unclear.” It’s a “good environmental solution, but not necessarily good urbanism.” (Dennis didn’t mention the wealth of research on the health benefits of nearby nature).

Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Taras Grescoe, Twitter
Vauban in Freiburg, Germany / Taras Grescoe, Twitter

As for Bo01, a development designed in the early 00s that is powered entirely by renewable energy, the community is too distinct from the beautiful streets and squares of Malmö. In Bo01, “there are no squares or real streets; it’s an architectural project, not an urbanism project. It’s formed of architectural lego blocks.”

Bo01, Malmo, Sweden / Wikipedia, Johan Jönsson, CC BY-SA 4.0

For Dennis, Kronsberg was “so awful I couldn’t spend time on it.” Hammarby in Stockholm is the best of the set, but “it’s still problematic — it has an architectural design, not an urban design.”

John Ellis, a consulting principal, architect, and urban designer at Mithun, disagreed. “Hammarby isn’t as bad as Michael says.” The project, which transformed a polluted brownfield site, was created as part of an Olympics bid the city didn’t win. The development, which now has 20,000 residents and 11,000 jobs, was designed to extend public transit in a ring loop and provide close proximity to a number of other jobs in Stockholm. Hammarby is powered by 50 percent renewable energy and 50 percent biogas from waste.

Hammarby, Stockholm, Sweden / Flickr, Design for Health, CC BY 2.0

There is a transit stop every 984 feet (300 meters), and the tram arrives every 12 minutes. Studies found that 80 percent of trips in Hammarby occur through walking, biking, or public transit.

Blocks were scaled at 200 feet by 360 feet, and buildings are all U-shaped in order to give everyone views of the surrounding lake. There are networks of landscaped pathways that criss-cross the development, adding green space and alternative ways to traverse the community. The development includes a high school and childcare facilities. “While there is a certain monotony, there are many ingredients that create a good urban pattern. And with buildings 5-8 stories tall, Hammarby is 2.5 times as dense as San Francisco,” Ellis said.

Hammarby, Stockholm, Sweden / Flickr, Design for Health, CC BY 2.0

Architect Doug Farr, who Planetizen called one of the top 100 most influential urbanists, said the world is now facing a climate emergency, so we need to move on from the traditional urbanism of the past. A leading sustainable architect, he has also found design inspiration in Freiburg and Vauban, which he has studied in depth in person.

“Traditional urbanism is part of the fabric of 19th century Europe. But we are facing 21st century questions. Traditional urbanism is good for creating walkability, but development models can’t be fixed in amber. They need to evolve to meet the challenges of today.”

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.”