What Restorative Justice Can Teach You About Architecture

Design has an important role to play in criminal justice reform–and architects can learn a lot from the restorative justice process, too.

Deanna Van Buren, cofounder of the Oakland-based organization Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, remembers exactly where she was when she first heard the term restorative justice. It was Martin Luther King Day in 2006, and Van Buren was at Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church in West Oakland. The social justice activist Angela Davis and her sister, Fania Davis, were there speaking on the subject. 


“I really had that moment of understanding, and a belief that restorative justice was the way forward for us,” Van Buren, an architect who at the time was working at the global architecture firm Perkins + Will, tells Co.Design. “I became pretty committed from then on to helping that system grow.” 

Restorative justice is an alternative approach to the criminal justice system, one that focuses on rehabilitating offenders back into the community through an ethos of reconciliation and understanding. Architecture and restorative justice don’t immediately seem related—until you consider that our current penal system exists within a very specific type of architecture: high-security jails and courthouses. An alternative system, of course, would have its own reinforcing architecture.

After hearing the famed activists speak, Van Buren spent the next decade trying to figure out how to define an architecture of restorative justice and apply it nationwide.

[Photo: Emily Hagopian/courtesy Designing Justice + Designing Spaces]
In 2015, Van Buren founded Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS), along with friend and real-estate developer Kyle Rawlins, with the mission of designing and developing spaces with the goals of restorative justice in mind.

DJDS designs physical spaces where the practice of restorative justice can take place. That might include reconciliation between offender and victim, or preparation for someone’s assimilation back into society peacefully and productively. But more than that, Van Buren and her team at DJDS have applied certain values of restorative justice to the way that architecture itself is practiced. That has involved adopting a model of collaboration that is rare in the architecture world—one that touches every aspect of the business, from project conception to designing to funding.

At the end of June, DJDS and Five Keys Schools and Programs will officially launch the Five Keys Mobile Self-Determination Project, a mobile classroom housed in a renovated MUNI bus, which provides academic programming and resources for formerly incarcerated individuals. I talked to Van Buren about how architecture can take after activism, and how designing spaces that address the root problem of a social issue requires listening and cooperation from all sides.

[Photo: Emily Hagopian/courtesy Designing Justice + Designing Spaces]

Redefining An Architectural Practice

Before founding DJDS, Van Buren had worked for over a decade in traditional architecture firms. For a few years she designed retail spaces overseas in Australia and England, then came back to the states to design mostly academic and office spaces for Perkins + Will. While getting her MA at Columbia University in the ’90s, she had expressed an interest in working with the community in Harlem, which neighbors the university, only to abandon the idea when it received a less-than-welcome reception. “I worked for 12 years before I came back to the idea that we could be doing this work in a different way,” she says. 

[Photo: Emily Hagopian/courtesy Designing Justice + Designing Spaces]
After that fateful MLK Day in 2006, Van Buren began doing extensive research in restorative justice. Though the restorative justice process takes a number of forms, the most prominent is similar to mediation: It involves the accused, the victim, and a facilitator in a face-to-face meeting. Each party gets a chance to speak uninterrupted, before coming to a consensus about how to repair the damage done. It’s typically used for less-serious crimes like petty theft or vandalizing, and in the U.S. it has proven effective at reducing recidivism in places like Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Oakland.

The most obvious spatial element in this process is the mediation room itself–and Van Buren’s first project applying architecture in this way was to refurbish a dilapidated room for precisely that purpose. While still at Perkins + Will, Van Buren convinced the firm to take on the project pro bono for the nonprofit Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. She also started thinking about other spaces that could embody the values of restorative justice, resulting in projects like the Designing From the Inside Out workshops, held inside prisons throughout the country, that ask inmates to design and mock up their own spaces for rehabilitation and reconciliation. In 2014, Van Buren helped lead a community-driven design process for the Near Westside Peacemaking Center, an initiative of the Center for Court Innovation, that brings Native American peacemaking practices into the Near Westside community in Syracuse, New York.

By the time Van Buren and Rawlins founded Designing Justice + Designing Spaces in 2015, the mission was to also create spaces that supported job training and education—the two biggest factors that reduce recidivism rates. “We really look at the root causes of mass incarceration,” says Van Buren. “We look at: Why do people end up incarcerated in the first place? And try to design an infrastructure to address those things.” 

[Photo: Emily Hagopian/courtesy Designing Justice + Designing Spaces]

Creating The Space For Criminal Justice Reform

As DJDS shifted to focus on education and jobs, a new model emerged–one where projects would be developed with partner organizations from the ground-up. When working on a community-driven project, Van Buren says, architects need to seek out people who are already doing the work at a social level and offer their assistance as designers. Incidentally, this follows an activist mentality that Angela Davis espouses: treating community members as equal partners in the struggle.

Similarly, Van Buren says, DJDS looks for community partners before starting any project. Rather than focusing on competitions—as with a request for proposal (RFP) or design contest—this approach relies more on building relationships. “What we’d prefer to do is find people who are innovating with their programs and talk to them about how we can work with them, their stakeholders, and their community, and then fund it together,” says Van Buren. “It’s always a shared process.”


[Photo: Emily Hagopian/courtesy Designing Justice + Designing Spaces]
Two years ago, Van Buren was approached by Five Keys Schools and Programs, one of the organizations that DJDS had built a relationship with, about working on a new project. Originally founded by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, Five Keys offers educational programs for formerly incarcerated individuals by opening up schools in underserved communities in the Bay Area. Together, DJDS and Five Keys wanted to create a school that was mobile, so their programs would reach more people. With funding from the Artist As Activist grant from the Rauschenberg Foundation, Van Buren spent months in meetings with Five Keys students and teachers to find out what they needed. She also spent a week with the women in the San Francisco County Jail talking to them about the resources they’d most like to have access to when they are released.

The result of that research is Five Keys Mobile Self Determination Project, a flexible, mobile classroom hosted in a gutted San Francisco transit bus. Since the education program is self-guided, DJDS designed the space so that students could work at their own level, and teachers could come around to each of them individually. At the center of the bus, there are a series of sliding white boards and tables that allow the space to be reorganized quickly—by sliding the boards back for an open space, for example, or sliding the tables together for a long workspace. The back of the bus is kitted out with comfortable chairs and pillows for students to relax, socialize, and study. 

By working closely with Five Keys and the students, DJDS was able to design a space that will create job opportunities for the formerly incarcerated, and smooth their transition back into the Oakland community. “The question is always ‘How do our projects help create opportunities in these communities so that crime that revolves around a lack of resources are reduced?'” says Van Buren. “We believe the real focus should be on that and not how can we make prisons better places to house black and brown bodies.”

[Image: courtesy Designing Justice + Designing Spaces]

It Takes A Village

The Five Keys classroom is part of a wider effort by Five Keys and DJDS to create a Pop-Up Resource Village. The project, which is funded by various foundation grants, would include mobile social services, medical services, and a pop-up marketplace to sell produce. The next aspect of the village, to launch in San Francisco within the next year or so, is the Women’s Resource Bus, which will provide a place for women to stay the night they are let out of jail.

As DJDS continues to grow and take on new projects, Van Buren maintains that she has learned a lot about architecture from working with partner nonprofit organizations and incarcerated individuals—particularly when it comes to being accountable for one’s mistakes and communicating clearly with people. The most important thing that has guided her practice is also one of the central tenets of the restorative justice process: to listen.

You’d be surprised how many architects don’t even listen to their clients or stakeholders,” she says. “We do our best to share our tools, help [our partners] learn our tools, help them make decisions, plan and strategize. It’s important that everyone understands what’s happening so that they can participate in the process and carry it on.”

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.