Trendspotting – Designing with Density; Lessons on Locating Prisons


 Stephen A. Carter

After recently replacing the BP gas station pump nozzle that directly connected me to the uncertain sands of distant Saudi-owned oil fields like an umbilical cord, I reasoned that stratospheric gasoline prices alone are not the only reason for America’s reconciliation with density. Years ago, in “History of Urban Geography” class, Peter Hall from the London School of Economics pounded in our idealistic heads the notion that we prefer to live collectively, rather than in isolation. Ruth Glass, another truth merchant and Marxist sociologist from the same academic address, suggested that the desire for density had to do with the need to protect what we believe to be ours. Jane Jacobs, in The Life and Death of Great American Cities, espoused the same theorem.

Dancing with Wolves

The rush for building permits on my Main Street (literally), and repeated throughout Main Street America, is an acknowledgment of the basic principles of urban planning that I heard 35 years ago in graduate school. From Columbia to Columbus to Cleveland, the reconciliation with density is transforming land use, street life, residential design, auto ownership and ultimately, political agendas. Have you ever considered that if we downsized refrigerators, we would change the entire settlement pattern of America since we would be forced to shop for daily essentials more frequently, and in doing so, would demand the return to corner grocers? That sucking sound you would hear is the disappearance of the Wal-Mart approach to purchasing, communication and urbanization.

Wal-Mart alone is not the wolf here, but also not the ideal dance partner. The concept of “big-box” merchandizing, in a manner of speaking, is about the concentration of goods under one roof (i.e., retail density) with little attention and concern for the living and travel patterns that result from this concentration of iPods, apples and aspirin. We build them; they come.

So where are prisons in this stretched nostalgic journey? With the rising tide (again) of prison population, we will be faced with the choice of “densifying” existing sites or pushing further into the hinterlands to find space in bucolic places to house the urban miscreants. As difficult as prisons are to locate, few examples exist where, over time, the community has not physically grown toward this dubious destination. Implanted in my memory is a Wisconsin prison that fought for years to be domiciled in a rural location only to have houses built right to the base of the decorative berm that was created to visually obscure the correctional complex.

For generations, communities have learned to dance with wolves of all land-use species. I look forward to a revitalized urban center, even in small towns like Columbia, S.C., where the 130-year old prison was pushed to a distant place in order to create an in-town paradise along the river. Closing urban prisons in Columbia, Richmond, Columbus and Dublin (Ireland) may be warranted for reasons that extend beyond revitalization. But the question worthy of examination is whether prisons, like gated urban neighborhoods, should follow the same pattern of densification.

Density with Dignity

One of the largest remaining city-center prison complexes is the Baltimore City Correctional Complex (BCCC) that houses more than 5,000 pre- and post-trial inmates. A recent master plan completed by PSA-Dewberry demonstrated how, with a different approach to management and design, density could be increased while sustaining a safe environment both inside and outside the complex. Certainly, some urban economist will argue that the land beneath the 25 miles of plumbing is worth far more as an in-town, limited-access neighborhood, but to increase the travel time of staff and visitors so that urban professionals can walk to a Starbucks may be missing the range of opportunities resulting from a refreshed view of density.

From the inside out, we have to examine the possibility that prisons do not have to be disconnected, butterfly-shaped buildings defined more by the space between than the space within. We recently completed an analysis for the United Arab Emirates of the operational and design implications of two-story housing units versus four-story housing units. Their thesis was activity and density will enhance the feeling of protection by staff and prisoners (Jane Jacobs revisited). The same was true for the design team at the BCCC; a higher investment in the design of the space within the living units can reduce the sprawl that has come to characterize American prisons.

From a visit to the Tbilisi No. 1 Prison in the Republic of Georgia, I recently was reminded that without space within, there will never be density with dignity. After logging about 1,000 prison tours in my career thus far, I thought that I could not be shocked, but entering a 65-man pretrial housing unit with 24 “hot-cotted” bunks was a transforming moment. My brief argument is that density need not be disastrous, but the need to improve the design of personal space is the basis for density with dignity that requires the creative focus of the readers of Correctional News.

Disaffection with gasoline prices and the proliferation of Art Deco coffee shops are not the only reasons for a return to Main Street. Clever use of interior space, charming old buildings, and people interacting with live people are also contributing factors. Prison design is not a lot different. If adequate and well-managed space is provided where inmates live, the space between buildings can be reduced. New ACA standards encourage a new examination of how, and not just why, we use space. In effect, this is an argument for “densifying” what we have rather than pushing the need for correcting beyond the suburbs and even further from the community’s sight and mind.

So much is bound up in the bundle of density: the concept of personal space that has largely been lost in prison design; the trend towards re-urbanization; the future of incarceration; and the use of scarce resources. Balanced solutions will require debate, vision, courage and tighter spaces. The new frontier is no longer the city limits; the new frontier is now the city block. n

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C.


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