In December of last year New York City Mayor Bloomberg oversaw the opening of what I hope to be the first of many Opportunity Network sites. Commonly known as NEON this project is a new kind of probation office that takes advantage of on-site services to create a problem solving approach to helping men on probation. In the past probations role has been to make sure that clients showed up to appointments and stayed out of trouble. As an alternative this new model works to address the problems these young men have in order to prevent them from returning to the system.
One of the things I find most interesting about these new centers from an architectural standpoint is that they are purposefully disassociating them from the courthouse. These new centers will instead be placed in buildings that house community programs. It is one example of how innovations such as these are no longer appropriate within the context of the existing typology from a programmatic point of view. I also think that another benefit to this divorce will be freedom from negative associations with the old punitive model. In this there is an opportunity for us and those being treated to rethink what being on probation means. Opportunity Networks could be seen as places of support and rehabilitation through the inclusion of spaces for restorative justice along with other traditional social service programs. The values these centers uphold will have an opportunity to be reflected in the spaces they occupy
Here in Oakland our new Chief Probation Officer of the Alameda County Probation Department,David Muhammad, seeks to open these kinds of centers here using his experience from the one he helped start t in NYC. I see a great design opportunity that will be important in helping to establishing practices like these as another alternative to incarcerating the men and women of our communities.
Deanna VanBuren is the principal and founder of FOURM design studio in Oakland California.
Her practice specializes in designing for alternatives to incarceration. She is currently on the national board of Architects Designers Planners for Social Responsibility