Architecture and Justice

by Laura Kurgan / Spatial Information Design Lab

Architecture and Justice was created by the Spatial Information Design Lab as part of ‘Architecture and...’, the Architectural League’s celebration of its 125th anniversary. The League asked where and how architecture might engage other disciplines to expand its own definition. We answered this call by exploring the relationships between policy and design, and specifically between criminal justice and architecture in light of recent debates about ‘prisoner reentry’. The United States currently has more than 2 million people incarcerated in its jails and prisons. A disproportionate number of them come from a very few neighborhoods in the country’s biggest cities. In many of these neighborhoods, the concentration of home addresses of incarcerated individuals is so dense that some states are spending in excess of a million dollars a year to imprison the residents of single census blocks, which we have called ‘million dollar blocks’. The research suggests that the criminal justice system has emerged as the most important civic institution in these areas over the last 30 years. In the United States, 600,000 people return home from incarceration each year, many of whom go back to prison within three years. Architecture and urban planning are implicated in this structural refugee crisis and need to develop some responses.

The Lab’s work was on view from September 14th through October 28th, 2006, changing over the course of its six week installation.

Today, experts in criminal justice policy talk about ‘Justice Reinvestment’. The notion is conceptually simple: take the public funding currently spent on prisons and redirect it toward the places to which inmates return when they are released, to the ‘million dollar blocks’ and the other neighborhoods from which civic institutions have been evacuated in favor of incarceration.

To explore what sorts of investments might be made and to do so in architectural terms, the Lab hosted a Justice Reinvestment Scenario Planning Workshop at the Architectural League in September 2006. Facilitated by the Global Business Network, it brought together local government agency leaders, technical assistance specialists, community developers, architects, and urban planners to debate the possibilities of policy design in a single neighborhood. We encouraged the experts gathered at the tables in the exhibit space to work with our maps and push the project into various possible futures.

The workshop took place over the course of a single day. It was structured around the presentation of a variety of data – criminal justice, homelessness, health and human services, socioeconomic, land-use, and architectural – which workshop participants used to explore possible scenarios for a particular series of ‘million dollar blocks’.

Brownsville, Brooklyn was our focus because it has one of the largest prison- and jail-migration populations in New York City. It is also the focus of current efforts by local housing developers like Common Ground and the family-focused justice reform agency Family Justice, and is part of a three-year urban initiative, the ‘Jail Discharge Planning Initiative’, jointly undertaken by the Department Of Corrections and the Department of Homeless Services. These groups are all engaged in planning and testing new ways of resettling the homeless and those reentering society after being in prison, and were active participants in our day’s work.

The evidence on the walls and tables was the beginning of a design project for reinvesting in the city and re-imagining its infrastructure after so many years of building its exostructure – the prisons which are so far away yet still so integral to these blocks. The maps showed a combination of data analysis and communication design in order to expose, first, the invisible geography of the city, and second, how the built environment, in combination with a series of governing agencies, influences social interaction and the structure of the city. Over the course of the day, participants envisioned ways in which governance (expressions of collective, public obligations to each other) and the design of the built environment (where we live, work, play, and even suffer) could interact to produce different possible futures for our cities.

The Matrix
Scenario planning is formulaic. It works best when problems are intractable and no single solution emerges easily as an answer to a complex matrix of conditions. Work is organized around two opposing and independent axes, often called ‘axes of uncertainty’ because they best represent variables that are most likely to change in unpredictable ways. For our work of imagining scenarios for Justice Reinvestment in Brownsville, the axes fell easily into place: Axis 1. Policy, Governance and Decision Making: from Centralized and Autonomous, to Localized and Interdependent Axis 2. Design and Institutional Structure: Closed Institutions and Total Communities, to Open Institutions and Flexible Communities.


Participants were organized around four tables and assigned a quadrant of the matrix, around which they had to name and invent a scenario, which in this case meant a vision of a future which combined the axis of policy and governance with the axis of institutional design.

Quadrant 1: Centralized and Autonomous Governance with Closed Institutions and Total Communities

A world in which governance is driven by incentives to minimize individual risk. This logic emphasizes total confinement punishment, centralized and narrowly defined measures of performance accountability, and formalized models of political participation like candidate voting. This is a world in which the built environment is structured around protecting populations from one another. Prisons keep people in, gated communities keep people out. Present day examples include: Prisons, Shelters, Gated Communities. Future typologies might include: Mega Individual-Confinement Prisons, Regional Drop Out Schools, and even Fuller's Dome Over Manhattan if we rethink it as the largest gated community ever imagined.

Quadrant 2: Centralized and Autonomous Governance with Flexible Institutions and Open Communities

A world in which governance is driven by incentives to minimize individual risks. This logic emphasizes discretely supervised custodial punishments, behavioral accountability, and formal political participation like referendum voting. This is a world in which the built environment is structured around isolating behaviors from one another. Present day examples include: Drug Courts, Outpatient Clinics, Section 8 Housing.
Future models might include: Community Prisons, Neighborhood Parole, Resettlement Parks.

Quadrant 3: Local and Interdependent Governance with Closed Institutions and Total Communities

A world in which governance is driven by incentives which maximize collective well being. This logic shares risks among various stakeholders, subordinating individual responsibility to collective institutional goals. Political participation is fostered among local non-governmental service providers. This is a world in which the built environment is structured around multi-sector collaborations and population quarantines. Present day examples include: Residential treatment centers, Community schools, Gated Communities, Megachurches and Malls. Future models might include: Therapeutic Community Blocks, New Urbanism.

Quadrant 4: Local and Interdependent Governance with Flexible Institutions and Open Communities

A world in which governance is driven by incentives to maximize collective well being. This logic distributes risk among various small group stakeholders subordinating responsibility to broad community goals. Political participation is fostered among citizens and local interest group associations. This is a world in which the built environment is structured around changing behaviors and interests. Present day examples include: Community Development Corporations, Settlement Houses,Small schools,Block Associations. Future models might include: Community Service Centers, Vocational Transition Guilds, Infill Housing Networks.














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