Memorials tend to follow formulas: figurative statues or monumental buildings commemorating a sole historical figure or casualties of war, disease, and disasters. But how does one design a memorial for tragedies that are ongoing, such as mass shootings, a scourge that continues to claim the lives of 40,000 Americans every year? Some memorials to specific incidents (Las Vegas, Pulse) are underway but not yet finished—a testimony to the frequency of gun violence events, the fraught political approval process, and the complexities that designers must address to create thoughtful places of reflection.
The Clearing, a newly opened memorial to the 20 students and 6 educators who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, on Dec. 14, 2012, may have an answer. Instead of going down a traditional route, Dan Affleck and Ben Waldo of Bay Area landscape and urban design firm SWA opted for a tranquil outdoor reprieve within a wooded area a quarter-mile from the school. As visitors enter the five-acre site through three curving terraces lined with indigenous dogwood and maple trees, they descend on a single London planetree planted on an island in a water feature. Names of the 26 deceased are engraved on the perimeter of its granite basin.
Affleck and Waldo’s proposal was chosen from 189 submissions by the Sandy Hook Permanent Memorial Commission, a group that included three parents of the victims. The duo envisioned a memorial that respects grieving loved ones—Newtown locals mark anniversaries of the shooting with quiet reflection rather than planned ceremonies. At the Clearing, nature does all the talking. Local landscape firm Artemis selected flowers to attract pollinators like butterflies and native birds, who gleefully chirp in warmer months. Gravel crunches underfoot; frogs croak in the woods. As the paths give way to a stone-paved ring around the fountain, its gently whirling water hushes nature’s cacophony, giving visitors clarity to contemplate the tragedy and its ongoing reverberations.
“We felt that landscape as a medium was something that would express and evoke honor for the reality of [grief] much better than an object would,” Waldo told AD. “I have no sense of how frequently any given person in this community intends to use this space, but we hope it’ll be a respite. The topography and the site lends itself to that. It’s a place where you can just be with your feelings and your memories.”
In the United States, mass shootings continue to become more and more commonplace. This year alone, a teenager opened fire at an elementary school in Uvalde, TX, fatally shooting 19 students and two teachers. A racially motivated mass shooting caused the deaths of ten Black people at a Buffalo supermarket; a similar incident targeted Asian church-goers in California. While each new tragedy revives discussions about gun control, political entanglements often stymie progress. (Though President Biden did sign the first major gun safety legislation in 30 years this past summer.) Meanwhile, family, friends, and communities are left to grieve their losses and, in Newtown’s case, stand up to malicious conspiracy theories insisting the shooting never happened at all.
The reverberations of gun violence—especially when children are targeted in hallways and classrooms—can devastate communities for years, yet the loss of life is now so routine that many incidents go unreported, and victims’ stories untold. The Clearing will ensure the tragic events of Newtown are not soon forgotten: “Time will smudge this orderly arrangement, just as it slowly alters the texture of grief,” Justin Davidson writes for Curbed. “The young plane tree at the center of the fountain will reach up and spread out, something that day’s victims never had a chance to do.”