Designing Spaces for Justice & Care | Deanna Van Buren

Design and architecture play an integral role in facilitating the lives that unfold inside of them. Architect Deanna Van Buren committed her life to create spaces that harness care and restorative justice. Our nation’s current punitive architecture is designed with cruelty compounded by a criminal justice system that disproportionately impacts communities of color. Deanna Van Buren is the co-founder, Executive Director, and Design Director of the Oakland-based architecture and real estate development non-profit Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS).

Deanna shares how her studio works to counter the traditional adversarial and punitive architecture that characterizes our legal system by creating spaces and buildings that enable Restorative Justice, community building, and housing for people coming out of incarceration.

Deanna Van Buren delivered this talk at the 2021 Bioneers Conference. Watch the video to this transcript here!

I’m so excited to be here at the Bioneers Conference. This community is amazing to me in that it includes people from so many places and from every discipline I can imagine. There are so few communities that have this interdisciplinary approach to solving our problems. I passionately believe that this is the way we need to do things, and I, in fact, set up my entire firm, Designing Justice/Designing Spaces, to do just that because I think we all have gifts to bring to change the world.

And my gift, my thing, is that I’m an architect. That’s the role I play. And architects are the folks who take the beliefs and the values of our society and manifest them in the world around us to support human lives, but I think we have to start to question whose values and whose beliefs we’re actually manifesting.

I’ve had a pretty visceral experience of this. I was able to travel the world for years working for the 1%, the wealthiest people in the world. We were designing huge shopping centers, leisure precincts, luxury buildings. And I’m not going to lie, it was fun; I had a good time, but I also started to look around me, and I started to see the gross inequities the built environment was manifesting. I was seeing situations on my job sites in which the construction workers were basically living in squalor. I started to see the informal settlements they were living in literally in the shadow of corporate towers. And here in our own country, I started to see many members of BIPOC communities living in conditions in which they had drastically limited access to basic resources—food, adequate housing, clean air, water, etc.

I started to realize that our society was still permeated by white supremacy, structural racism, patriarchy, and classism and that I as an architect was actually manifesting those beliefs, the values of a very elite group of people who didn’t much care about all the rest of us. Most architecture tends to anchor and amplify a society’s dominant beliefs and the worldview of its elites, so I started to realize that we have to be careful what we believe and what we’re building. I came back from all my travel and working abroad with a new set of eyes. I started feeling that we were living in somebody else’s imagination.

Ruha Benjamin (note: author of Race After Technology) has said that “we’re living in the imaginations of the elite.” And as an architect, I had participated in giving form to that elite’s beliefs in the built environment, and I didn’t want to do that anymore.

And here in this country, I started to see deeply that there was one system that was the most egregious and intense manifestation of those twisted values, and that was our system of mass incarceration. We have about six million of our citizens under some form of carceral control, a grossly disproportionate amount of them people of color. It’s the most blatantly obvious expression of our structurally racist system.

This is what the architecture of the system looks like. What values and what beliefs is this communicating to us? How do you feel in your body when you look at this? I feel terrified, actually, and I see punishment; I see separation; I see naked power. And I don’t want to reimagine this. This is not an imagination coming from me or anyone that I want to love and care for.

But what do we do? What do we build instead of this? And at first, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to use design to impact and change a structurally racist system, such as our mass incarceration infrastructure, but then I heard about Restorative Justice. It was like a light coming on for me. It opened my heart to know that there was another approach to justice, an ancient, Indigenous form of justice that has a totally different set of values. It says that when harm has been done, healing, is required. It is based on the idea that those who have been harmed have needs that need to be addressed so they can be made whole, and that those who have committed the offense or done the harm are obligated to make those amends and be accountable, but it is not based on punishment as its guiding principle.  

Once I encountered Restorative Justice, I began to think that perhaps we designers could really do something tangible to help support this sort of “re-indigenization” of the justice system. What if we could start to talk to folks who have been most impacted by the system and see what kind of justice they might imagine and what kind of physical infrastructure would help manifest that vision? I started to work with a social worker and Restorative Justice practitioner named Dr. Barb Toews, and we started to run the first design studios inside prisons and jails around the intersection of design and Restorative Justice. And the folks held in those institutions were coming up with incredible ideas. It changed my life to get to know these folks.


We began to build our team, and we started to grow. We started to talk to municipalities and community-based organizations. We started to work with systems-impacted people and their communities of care, and we started to take the sort of creative tools that we’d previously used to design for the wealthy to begin to design with and for these folks, and together we began to come up with new ideas. It started small. Bigger is not always better. The small things can have huge impacts, so we started by creating a peacemaking center, a space for Restorative Justice in which we brought some Native American peacemaking practices into a non-Native community for the very first time in the U.S. We took what had been a drug house and turned it into a peacemaking center that had spaces for circles where elders were the judges and could moderate conflicts.

New, unexpected things started to happen there. The place started to amplify and foment a totally different way of being. People started to come there for celebrations and rituals, from birthdays to baby showers. The community was coming together and creating social cohesion, which is really the only thing that ultimately keeps us safe. That early success was heartening. We realized we could make beautiful spaces and engage with a community imagining alternative systems, but we had to figure out how to finance these sorts of initiatives to be able to scale it up.

Designing Justice/Designing Spaces, the organization I helped co-found, really came out of that understanding that we could be architects and designers, but we also had to be real estate developers. We had to figure out how to pay for these projects to make them sustainable. Restore Oakland became one of our first attempts to integrate those elements. We helped community organizers buy this building, find it, purchase it, and it became the country’s first center for Restorative Justice and Restorative Economics.

Restore Oakland LLC

We were able to gut the building and create a space in which community organizers could fight mass incarceration and resist gentrification. We included a restaurant that trains low-wage restaurant workers to get living-wage jobs in fine dining. We were trying to create conditions that would help address the root causes of problems people face, by bringing jobs to the community and giving organizers the space to work to change policy. We also included the first dedicated spaces in our county for Restorative Justice work. We were able to take what we had learned in that original Indigenous justice center in Syracuse, NY, and expand it in Oakland, so that some young people could get diverted out of court and come into Restorative Justice circles and be part of community conflict resolution processes.

We noticed quickly that survivors, folks who had been harmed, had no way to heal their trauma in the standard criminal justice system which is so obsessed with a punitive lens that it doesn’t focus on actually addressing the suffering of those who have been harmed, so we started to engage in something called evidence-based design research and to initiate real-world projects that created a series of spaces that could support survivors throughout the entire experience of recovery. Through these sorts of projects, we started to see there are some basic contexts that we need to create for healing to be possible. We have to create environments that are deeply embedded in and connected to nature, that can moderate our “fight, flight and freeze” responses—spaces for refuge in which we can cool off; spaces where we can break bread; spaces of comfort with art, light, sound, texture and materials that are soothing and enriching for our senses.


The building of some new spaces is necessary, but in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we built hundreds of prisons and jails all over the country, so there’s also a lot of “unbuilding”/repurposing that needs to happen. Realizing that, we started a new type of project. Working with community organizations such as the Racial Justice Action Center and Women on the Rise in Atlanta who were fighting to close prisons and jails, we started to repurpose a 475,000 square-foot jail in downtown Atlanta to take what had been a place of punishment and re-imagine it as a center of wellness. On the architecture side, we had to take off a lot of the outside of that building. We had to literally let the light in. We began to open it up. We began to integrate into the façade art that spoke about freedom and a sense of liberation, and then we started demolishing all the cells, taking down the interior and really transforming it into a space for community. This is what folks wanted more than anything, a place for daycare, for their families, a space to come together.

But infrastructure is expensive. It costs a lot to build a new building, and maybe not as much but still a whole lot to gut and transform old structures. We know that we need to stop investing in the old criminal justice system and begin to reinvest in the communities most impacted by that system. Building a jail can cost $300 million, but for $300,000 I can create a mobile classroom, so we started to do that, to build classrooms that bring GED and high school education to system-impacted folks coming home from prison to their communities of care, so they are able to get their GED and high school diploma and have a much better chance to get jobs.

They also have circles and reading groups and all sorts of activities in those spaces. It’s one of the most copied prototypes that we’ve ever made.

We then realized we could expand on that model. We could build mobile, pop-up villages that could bring social services and health and wellness resources as well as provide spaces for music and art to disenfranchised communities, bringing people together to help foster community cohesion. From there we realized we could draw from those pop-up models to create permanent versions. We’re doing that in Detroit where we bought 12 parcels of land to create a campus, which is intended to be a creative oasis for social justice, a development that will support the social, economic, and environmental health of the adjoining communities.

In just about every community we work in, we get the same message: “We just need space to come together; we need space to be with our families and neighbors, a safe place people can come to.” We always try to anchor a project with arts and culture. We realize that feeding the soul has to be at the center of any such initiative, so it’s always good to place a theater that folks can come to in the center of the action. We also have to always create opportunities for income generation, nurturing local social enterprises, micro-entrepreneurs, and cooperatives, and of course provide healing spaces for restorative justice processes.

On the environmental side, we’ve been fortunate to be able to work with the Biomimicry for Social Innovation Group, so we’ve been able to keep an environmental sustainability lens in the development of these projects. We’re trying to think seven generations out, as Indigenous traditions teach, with all the infrastructure we’re designing and building.

There are so many communities that have been hit hard by structural racism and inequity, that have been devastated by mass incarceration, and so we have so much work to do. One critical issue is that most people (around 95%) who are incarcerated come back to their communities from prison at some point, and their re-entry can be very difficult, so another piece of infrastructure we are working on is a different kind of campus, a campus for reentry, where the formerly imprisoned can live and transition, where they have access to behavioral health resources, job training, a family reunification space, etc. We’ve been working with black churches to create these kinds of environments for men and women coming home. As part of that, we’ve been designing and fabricating what we call mobile refuge rooms. It’s our first patent. They’re designed to provide home-like environments on these campuses, where people can regain some dignity and privacy in their lives.


We’ve also begun to create tools and databases that draw from all the work we’ve done, so communities can use that information as they design their own initiatives and spaces. One key project we’re working on is developing an “alternatives to incarceration” tool that takes the lessons from all the prototypes we’ve built, so communities everywhere can begin to plan out what their neighborhood would look like without mass incarceration and without the police state as we know it. It would include everything from diversion and reentry spaces to restorative reinvestment funds to spaces for behavioral health, for youth, for survivors, etc., etc. There’s a lot to build.

I want to invite all of you to join me in thinking about what our justice system would look like with a different set of values in place. What would a system that values love, that is rooted in care, look like? I believe we could create such a system just as easily as we can build a prison or jail, maybe even more easily, and I honestly don’t think there’s a better community than this one to begin to reimagine what those spaces could look like. I’m really looking forward to everything that we’re going to make together.

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