Q&A: Oakland Architect Deanna Van Buren Is Building a World Without Prisons

Ms. spoke to @deannavanburen, co-founder, executive director & design director of @designtorestore about her vision for a world without prisons.

7/2/2020 12:43:00 AM

Ms. spoke to deannavanburen, co-founder, executive director & design director of designtorestore about her vision for a world without prisons.

Deanna Van Buren is co-founder, executive director and design director of Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, an Oakland-based architecture and real estate development nonprofit working to end mass incarceration by building infrastructure that redefines the entire criminal justice pipeline. 'There's an entire infrastructure for criminal justice; we could create an entire infrastructure for restorative justice.'

actualizing​these prison alternatives. What do these healing spaces you build look like? What are some key features and why?DVB: We practice in a very specific way, where we go into communities and develop tools and games and workshops where they are deeply engaged in the thinking through and design of these spaces. These are environments that had not existed before; these are also environments that are attached to cultural practices and uses that people may or may not have engaged in.

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What do you need and what are things that can happen here that would support your lives?You have to engage people in that, and you have to do it in a way that’s intentional and deeply integrated.Our engagementmeans theyunderstand what goes into building a building; what goes into making a place, everything from the financing to the design. From there, we’re able to get lots of creative ideas from the community on what these spaces should look like and be like. We take that data, we code and analyze it and we come back with design concepts.

And so in the case of a place like the Syracuse Peacemaking Center, for example. We learned that spaces for peacemaking actually need a more domestic feeling. People don’t want to come into a sterile environment and feel like everyone is staring at them. This needs to be activated with art, objects, things to touch, things to see, textures. There needs to be a greeter, someone to welcome you. There needs to be food, meaning you have to have a kitchen. Almost all of our projects have a food anchor; breaking bread together is part of justice too.

We know justice when we come together as a community. Evidence-based design and other types of building often tell us that our environments need to be integrated with nature—whether that be daylight, art that represents nature, gardens, et cetera. We try to build as much of that into our projects as possible and try to use aspects of

biophilic design.We have a permaculture designer on the team, so we’re looking at the systems of nature as ways of stacking functions and integrating them into the project. Everything from the lighting we choose … things can be very simple, they should be calm but they should also be dynamic.

And howdo you that balance in these environments? Specifically, I’m speaking to peacemaking spaces and restorative justice spaces. People need to feel safe and contained. So there’s a privacy level—but they also need to be able to have views out and see ways of leaving an intense conversation … everything from cool-off spaces to translucent surfaces. You have to think through all the furniture; you have to think through every wall surface that can support these kinds of processes.

And these kinds of spaces need to be integrated with other kinds of spaces. What does it mean to have environments for conflict resolution alongside a restaurant? Or alongside a community organizing facility? Or alongside a grocery store? What does that look like?

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And so we have to start to pull these different things together and co-locate them into a single hub that provides people with the resources that they need, which are multifaceted. You don’t just need to go eat; you might need to be with a caseworker, or have daycare for your children. There’s a lot of things that we need to support our lives and they need to be made very easy for people to get access to.

Near Westside Peacemaking Center in Syracuse, Ny., (Imgur)VR: I thinkMs.readers would be interested in hearing about the mobile women’s refuge you designed in San Francisco. Could you talk a bit about that project and how it has evolved?DVB: I’d love to talk about it, and I wish that it was being more used. This was a project that we worked on with Five Keys Schools and Programs many years ago when we learned that women were getting released from jail in the middle of the night and getting killed. Just straight up killed. Folks know these are often drug dealers, men engaged in sex trafficking that are there waiting for them. This was meant to be a refuge.

And I think it will still be used that way and we’ve also been working with groups who want to use it for survivors of sex trafficking. Oakland has a huge sex trafficking issue which is actually spiking right now. These are young girls out on the tracks—literally.

I think this is where you sometimes kind of break down and are like, okay, infrastructure is there—but you need to have an operator and a program provider to activate it. So it’s there, it can be used by anybody. We did the thing, we paid for it, we fundraised for it, we built it. Now we’re even trying to make connections to program providers

—something we end up doing a lot of as architects. Like, hey, program provider or sheriff’s department or probation department, we have a piece of infrastructure that we think you could use; why don’t you come out and look at it?And they’re always like, Oh yeah, woo woo! And then you’ve got to take the next step where you have to get a budget for it, right? So because of the way our systems work, if I’m a sheriff’s department or I’m a nonprofit, my budget’s set. When something new comes along, they then have to find a way to allocate and organize the funding. What we’re seeing now during COVID is that money’s starting to move faster, which is good. It can also be bad if you don’t have a plan for it.

But that project is one that can serve a lot of different groups. They’d have to work together and get along, but this mobile piece of infrastructure is really valuable. Read more: Ms. Magazine »

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