Vision for the Atlanta Center for Equity; Vision for the Atlanta Center for Equity;

Atlanta Center for Equity, Atlanta GA

Can an urban jail ever become a place of opportunity?

The community of Atlanta, Georgia had a radical vision for their downtown jail. Could this place synonymous with police harassment and deplorable conditions offer resources, not punishment? The Mayor supported their vision for what became called a ‘Centre for Equity’ - a place for support, health, local arts, education and job training for those leaving prison and re-entering society. Working with our partner, Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS), our technical teams created energy and cost saving approaches to making this transformation a reality.

Turning the architecture of isolation into community spaces

After a creative community outreach process, DJDS presented four options to the Mayor and the community organisations driving this initiative. Each option needed to balance social as well as engineering challenges: how do you take a building designed to separate and contain people and transform it into a space where people looking for liberation and opportunity can come together?

Change needs to be seen to be believed. One option - retaining and repurposing the entire building – may reduce costs but would obscure the building’s radical change of purpose.

Project Summary

14 story tower

471,000square feet of space

225,000lbsmaterial identified as salvagable and used to offset costs

Reuse, repurpose, resell, reimagine

In an act of ‘swords into ploughshares’ thinking, we looked for ways to use the site, its foundations, its materials and the project itself to create opportunity. The first pair of  options would see the entire building renovated and reclad to change its image and function. We identified over 225,000 lbs (100,000 kgs) of steel pipe, doors and hardware that could be salvaged to offset project costs. Cutting back the jail’s concrete slabs to bring daylight deep into the building would also create local job training opportunities in deconstruction skills. The oppressive structure of the jail itself highlighted a third option. Normally, foundations cannot be reused as their load capacity cannot be verified. But replacing the jail’s precast concrete facades with a softer, timber structure would not only be possible, it would save millions of dollars and months in construction time.

The final option would see the jail entirely removed and replaced by a much-needed park with a memorial, urban farm and seed bank. The Centre for Equity’s services would be moved into a distributed network of buildings across Atlanta’s neediest neighbourhoods, spreading their social benefits.

Local residents show their feelings towards the Atlanta City Detention Center Local residents show their feelings towards the Atlanta City Detention Center
The local group Women on the Rise wanted the prison, synonymous with harsh treatment and poor conditions, to become a place for support, education and job training for those leaving prison

A prototype for ambitious, socially-conscious cities

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic challenges facing local governments, the Mayor of Atlanta has committed to advancing a $400 Million bond measure to deliver the project. The options continue to be reviewed.

Our work with DJDS to deliver the radical vision of Atlanta’s residents will, we hope, serve as a prototype. Many other US cities have unwanted downtown jail buildings that could find new expression as places of healing and restoration. Our practical insights into the reuse of foundations, the sale of internal materials and the inclusion of training and vocational programmes into the project will, we hope, help those communities follow Atlanta’s bold vision.

Local news highlights the groundbreaking story of reimagining the jail
To view this video, you must enable cookies.

Arup founder, Sir Ove Arup identified the importance of the humanitarian aspect of our work. This remains central to our ethos.

Find out more about our community engagement work