“We hope that our center serves as a model for other cities across the country as a place where folks impacted by prisons and punishment can unite, access restorative justice services to resolve conflict, and create opportunities rooted in healing,” Norris said in a statement.

Oakland isn’t the only jurisdiction where Van Buren and company are helping cities reimagine a more equitable future via socially conscious design.

Construction has begun on Detroit’s LOVE Building, a century-old structure that will serve as a hub for multiple social and restorative justice organizations. Broad accessibility for people with disabilities is a centerpiece of the project, and the site will incorporate childcare, prayer/meditation spaces and gender-neutral restrooms.

“We helped the owners find financing to purchase the adjacent land, to expand it into what we call the LOVE campus,” Van Buren said. “It should be done this year. So that’s exciting.”

In Georgia, DJDS served as consultants on proposals related to the Atlanta City Detention Center, an 11-story, concrete-and-brick fortress-like structure built in 1995.

Social justice advocates have pushed for years to close the 471,000 square foot facility. In 2019, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed legislation creating the “Reimagining ACDC Task Force” to study the matter. In 2020, its 52 members recommended that the facility be demolished and replaced with what planners are calling a Center for Equity to serve the community.

Van Buren’s firm submitted four design concepts. During a series of subsequent town halls, the team used board games, stickers, building blocks, dice, poker chips, models and other tools to spur dialogue. DJDS also educated community members on the basics of design, financing and real estate development.

While debate continues about the jail’s future, in January, the mayor signaled her commitment to reform. “We will continue to champion initiatives and policies that reduce crime and violence, address the root causes of these problems and ensure fairness and accountability in the criminal justice system,” she said in a statement.

As a thought leader and pioneer, Van Buren has led efforts to catalyze architecture, design and real estate into tools for decarceration, garnering national and global recognition along the way.

Her TEDWomen talk on what a world without prisons could look like has been viewed more than a million times. In 2013, she was selected for a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Van Buren received University of California, Berkeley’s prestigious Berkeley-Rupp Architecture Professorship and Prize in 2018. Upon announcing the $100,000 award, university officials described her as “a visionary leader, whose design work and activism are reshaping the cultural construct of justice in the U.S.”

Van Buren is active in her profession, and formerly served on the board of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. Along the way, she’s taught college courses to incarcerated people via the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at Chester Prison in Pennsylvania. And she has also helped found a co-working space to support small minority and women-owned firms in the architecture, engineering and construction industries.

“I wasn’t always a social impact architect,” she said. “But I have learned a ton.”

Van Buren said she believes DJDS is the only architectural firm in the country fighting to end mass incarceration via design, but she’s hopeful more industry peers will join the effort.

“I always say that if there are 100 architects in the room, one can be looking at making those facilities better,” she said, referring to prisons. “And 99 of them need to be involved in building the kind of infrastructure projects in communities so you don’t need them at all.”