Every summer, the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) brings together practitioners from around the world interested in augmenting their training in peace and conflict transformation. This year, a new course was offered on architecture and design as a peacebuilding practice taught by Deanna Van Buren, architect, and Barb Toews, practitioner and educator in restorative justice. I was honored to be among the students. It’s an uncommon intersection of disciplines, but one that is bound to keep growing as architects and designers long to have greater social impact in their work.

For me, you could say it began with our friend, Wendell Berry. From his poem, “The Sycamore,” an excerpt reads:

It bears the gnarls of its history healed over.
It has risen to a strange perfection in the warp and bending of its long growth.
It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.

This could be describing an old sycamore, but also in good hope, you and me. It could be describing a place too, I thought, as I walked along streets, through neighborhoods and cities that bear the gnarls of war or conflict and I wondered how or when the healed over part would come.

In graduate school for landscape architecture, I began doing research in war-torn cities a few years after the conflicts had officially ended. This period seemed crucial to me for a lasting peace. An “official end” might be marked by a peace treaty, but how does one make a way through the unresolved shambles left on the ground? Is the need for healing being addressed? Are there safe, welcoming places for dialogue, debate and intermingling? Do people awaken in the morning and sense signs of life and resilience?

One should think of these things from many different perspectives. I focused on the built environment but I needed to hear from other disciplines too. In Beirut, I was excited to hear that sociologist, Samir Khalaf, was speaking to architecture students about rebuilding the city. What he said seemed simple and yet was incredibly radical: create spaces for art and music, for recreation, for constructive things. For these have the power to heal society, to create more “transformative, transcending experiences” for people, than politics and economics alone, to bring people together in active collaboration, rather than passive consumption.

In that sense, it’s not just about the space per se, but the degree to which it facilitates rebirth, rebuilding trust, and healing the soul of a place. This is the long, hard work of everyday peacebuilding, of reforming a cohesive society out of one that, to varying degrees, has been divided and polarized. It is the long, hard work of moving towards the lofty goal of shalom — holistic human flourishing and well-being, not just an end to war.

Back in the classroom at EMU, we talked about architecture and design as peacebuilding tools in our own contexts, ranging from Kabul to Tehran, Waterloo to Monrovia. In my own context of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I thought of the neighborhoods where most of the violent crime is committed and in turn incarceration is most common, and wondered if it is just a coincidence that these are places that have by and large been neglected by the city, developers and architects, with weedy vacant lots and absentee landlords; with little opportunity to experience nature or safe, contemplative space, few places for recreation or educational enrichment; distant from the halls of justice and power; and most of all, not offering agency in one’s own place, perhaps metaphorically in one’s own life.

But some cities have caught on, taking a more holistic approach to social problems including paying attention to the physical space — Medellín, Colombia; Curitiba, Brazil, South Bronx, NYC; Kigali, Rwanda, to name a few.

Looking back at Berry’s sycamore that “has gathered all accidents into its purpose,” reminds me that we are not seeking perfection here, but an ongoing transformation. As more brokenness and more division occurs every day – in our own hearts and communities and between nations, we can hope that at the same time, some of this history is already in the process of being “healed over.”

For further reading:

John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art & Soul of Building Peace, 2005.

John Paul and Angela Lederach, When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys through the Soundscape of Healing & Reconciliation, 2010.

Barbara Toews, The Little Book of Restorative Justice for People in Prison, 2006.

Million Dollar Blocks project, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation & Planning and Justice Mapping Center

A City Rises Along with its Hopes,” New York Times, May 18, 2012 (on Medellín)

Architecture of Peace project

Tashya Leaman Dalen worked in international development and peacebuilding before studying landscape architecture out of an interest in resilience after disturbance. After working as a designer in Manhattan, she returned to Pennsylvania, setting up The Good Land Collaborative, teaching urban anthropology and ecology and coordinating a public art and poetry project. She and her little family are about to embark on a Latin America learning tour.