How physical spaces can be designed to foster peacemaking in the criminal justice system

December 9, 2020, 2:45 PM UTC

Interior design is a concept not often associated with the criminal justice system, but a growing number of architects and designers believe it could play a vital role in addressing mass incarceration and inequity.

Architecture and real estate firms like the Oakland-based Designing Justice + Designing Spaces are working to replace the sterile environment of courtrooms with warmer, more hospitable spaces that can be used to practice “peacemaking” and restorative justice.

The nonprofit Project for Public Spaces notes that conflict theorists “define peacemaking as a process of forging a settlement between disputing parties—either through direct negotiations between the two disputants or through a third-party mediator who assists with process and communication problems.” This contrasts with the more traditional criminal justice approach of retribution, and firms like Designing Justice believe physical design can increase the effectiveness of this alternative approach.

Designing Justice has developed prototypes of “restorative justice centers” that adhere to this thinking. “What we’ve learned is that spaces for peacemaking must be on neutral territory,” said Deanna Van Buren, the firm’s executive director, during a Fortune Brainstorm Design panel discussion on Tuesday. IBM and Salesforce co-presented the event.

“It is decentralized; it is not downtown. We need to use biophilic design and integrate the natural world into the architectural interior and outdoor spaces,” she said. “So coming in through a garden or a courtyard, integrating those natural design features into the space.”

Van Buren said multiple entrances into the facility and “cool-off rooms” can help with managing the anxiety of the peacemaking process. “We need to be able to support their fight, flight, and freeze responses that we have when we go into a high-stress situation,” she explained. “I often do an exercise like: Imagine you have to have someone who deeply harmed you. What kind of an environment would you need for that?”

Gone would be the minimalist, modernist architecture that was dominant throughout the mid–20th century. “Those do not support people with trauma. We need to be able to have textures we can touch, things we can look at,” Van Buren said. “We need to be able to feel protected when we’re in that space, so looking at different layers and skins and walls that slide and move that allow light through, but you can’t see through them. Always having views to nature if possible.”

The firm’s design for its restorative justice center even included a kitchen. Breaking bread over negotiations, Van Buren said, is a powerful tool for reducing conflict.

“The justice system we have mirrors a very specific set of values. We think about peacemaking, restorative justice spaces—they sometimes just look like your home,” she added. “Imagine if justice looked like that? Like coming home.”

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