Designing for autism

Floor Plan, Blueprint, House, HomeWell designed buildings support people with physical impairment, but what about people with other sensory issues or cognitive impairment? Shelly Dival argues that we can do more in the built environment to support people on the autism spectrum in educational, work, and home environments.

As a Churchill Fellow, Shelly travelled around the globe in 2018 to gather international knowledge and raise awareness in Australia of how people with autism can benefit from more positive interactions with the built environment. Her report outlines building features requiring further research, including design theories, methods and outcomes. Her findings are also featured in an architecture magazine.

One of her insights was the crossover between autism and other neurological conditions including dementia. Designing for neurodiversity rather than specific conditions may be an effective future-proofing strategy that supports everyone. That’s similar to the approach adopted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in their forthcoming Guidelines on cognitive accessibility, based on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework.  

Learning through experience

A scene of the station showing people near the ticket barrier gates. Claremont College students from different disciplines joined the EnviroLab Asia 2019 Clinic Trip to Japan. A short video shows them checking out accessibility at Umeda train station and Ogimachi Park. The trip included time with Osaka Institute of Technology’s Robotics Department working on a project. They explored robotic technologies and universal design and created a model high tech recreational space for older people. The students conclude that barrier free places are not just for people with disability – it’s about including everyone. 

Abstract:  Studying Accessibility in Japan shows the research project led by Professor Angelina Chin (history, Pomona) with students who studied universal design and accessibility in Japan during the EnviroLab Asia 2019 Clinic Trip. The group also worked with the Osaka Institute of Technology’s Robotics Department.

Editor’s note: This is a video only publication – I couldn’t find any written material other than the abstract. The download button takes you to a high definition of the video, not a document. It is a very large file.

Toilets, taboos, and design principles

Directional sign to toilets in an outdoor area.Public toilets are a key factor in getting out and about. But are they useable by everyone? Ever thought about how they contribute to our economic and social growth? A myriad of issues are brought together for a thoughtful discussion in Katherine Webber’s Churchill Fellowship report. The report is based on her international study tour. It has several recommendations for design, maintenance and social planning. The title of the report is, “Exploring Accessibility and Inclusion in Public Toilets“. There is a one page checklist on public toilet design principles. See below.

The report has a great quote from Lezlie Lowe that indicates the importance of public toilets in everyday life, “Have we ever granted toilets – and especially public toilets – their due? Have we given them credit for how they’ve helped grow our world? As gross or goofy or quotidian as they may seem, public toilets represent higher notions and beliefs. Fundamentally: who is in and who is out. Whom we see as part of the city. Whom we see as human.” From, No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs. A list of public toilet design principles.

Building Code: Rights and Research

picture of a modern building Norway Opera House.Building regulation is a highly contested space, especially in relation to disability access. So the Norwegian Building Authority decided that standards and codes should be based on evidence rather than the views, compromises and experience of interest groups. The Norwegian Research Laboratory for Universal Design was set up to focus on access solutions using established research methods. But this brings about a dilemma.

People with disability have fought for many years to have equal access to the built environment. “Some of the criteria have been based on compromises and “old truths”. These criteria are now put under scrutiny. This examination and possible reversal of minimum requirements may feel like a slap in the face of those who have fought for these rights. But what is the possible downside?” 

Their research results are based on the 90th percentile. But what happens to those who are outside the 90%?  Who pays for the compensatory adaptations or assistance? This is where it becomes political. Nevertheless, research by the Laboratory suggests that “those who cannot manage the minimum levels cannot manage any level”.

The paper provides some interesting research results on doorway approaches and ramp gradients. A relatively short paper with some good food for thought.

The title of the paper is, Deregulation of the Building Code and the
Norwegian Approach to Regulation of Accessibility in the Built Environment

Abstract: Deregulation is on the political agenda in the European countries. The Norwegian building code related to universal design and accessibility is challenged. To meet this, the Norwegian Building Authority have chosen to examine established truths and are basing their revised code on scientific research and field tests. But will this knowledge-based deregulation comply within the framework of the anti-discrimination act and, and if not: who suffers and to what extent?  

This project is part of the quest for Norway Universally Designed by 2025 and the updated Action Plan

Housing Design for All?

Front cover of the dissertation.Environments that include older people include everyone else too. So it’s good to ask older people what works for them. The findings from a Helsinki study indicate that neighbourhood design, public transport and green environments influence mobility and social integration. Mainstream housing design is a key factor in supporting older people to stay within their communities.

The title of the dissertation by Ira Verma is, Housing Design for All? The challenges of ageing in urban planning and housing design – The case of Helsinki. The abstract summarises the findings well. 

From the abstract: The results indicate that the neighbourhood design, public transport network and proximity of green environments influence mobility and the sense of integration within a community. Moreover, the length of residency was related to the familiarity of the living environment, which gave residents a sense of security, and supported their activities of daily life. Furthermore, the results show that older residents preferred the local services that were the most accessible ones.

Comprehensive design and a versatile environment with various activities may promote Ageing in Place policies and enhance cross-generational social encounters. Moreover, many obstacles caused by reduced physical and sensory functioning capacities can be lessened by applying Universal Design of the built environment. Architects and urban planners have a major role in designing the city and ensuring that it does not exclude any resident groups. Mainstream housing developments with attention to a variety of resident groups will enhance living at home at old age. Moreover, frail people with high care needs should experience being part of community life. Collaboration with local service providers, schools, cafés and restaurants may enable to providing a variety of activities to the residents in sheltered housing.

Healthy Placemaking: Practitioner perspectives

Why do built environment practitioners create places that contribute to preventable disease and early death, despite evidence on healthy placemaking? That was the question the Design Council wanted to answer. And you could ask the same thing about access and inclusion. According to their survey of over 600 practitioners, many said they often have to convince clients and other professionals to invest in healthy placemaking. They also found that more emphasis was given to outdoor places than indoor places. Physical activity was given priority over buildings that could support job creation and boost employment rates. Homes were given the lowest priority. Not using available information to inform designs was a major concern. The 10 key insights capture the overall picture that emerges from the report.

There is much to take in with this report as it covers systemic issues, and competing priorities and individual attitudes. There is a web page with the introduction where you can download the report document in PDF.

There’s a related post on this topic: Healthy view of placemaking.

Editor’s note: The same issues are found within the industry in terms of access and inclusion. Many issues are systemic and that means individuals who support healthy inclusive environments cannot make a significant difference if the rest of the system does not support the ideas. And evidence is not the game-changer.


Smart and inclusive cities

A smart phone and wifi icons sit over a background picture of a cityscape.Smart cities is a term for the 21st Century. Technology and innovation are at the forefront of thinking in design. But will smart cities also be accessible and universally designed? This should be an underpinning concept if we are to call our cities smart in the future. The European Union is taking these issues seriously and has funded research to look into these challenges.

Inclusive and Accessible SMART City for All looks at the challenges, particularly in including vulnerable populations. There are related publications in this collection in Lopes N. (eds) Smart Governance for Cities: Perspectives and Experiences.  You will need institutional access for a free read.

Abstract: Since 2008, the European Union has been facing the economic crisis and many cities need to rethink their current model of socio-economic development in order to meet new challenges—social inclusion and city liveability. Modern cities are adopting smart city concepts all over the world in order to adapt to new emerging technological innovations. To become a smart city is the challenge of the twenty-first century. Smart cities promise the age of innovative urban planning driven by smart technologies that will make cities safer, cleaner, more economical and above all more efficient. However, making our cities not only smart but also more inclusive and accessible will be increasingly important in the following decades. Urban demographic changes require new approaches in urban planning and accessible smart cities represent a promising future. That naturally requires to address different social groups living there in both global and local smart city policies. However, the most vulnerable of them—people with special needs—are not always considered in mainstream policies and therefore cities are urged to rethink their urban agendas with greater focus on social inclusion and accessibility across all development actions. This chapter examines requirements of people with special needs on the quality of urban space for sustainable urban development. The chapter highlights why it is necessary to shift the urban development towards concepts that are aware of the specific needs of the whole population—smart cities for all.  

Designing for empathy

A distant view of a circular seating arrangement in a huge room for the parliamentary members.Human centred design and inclusive design processes focus taking an empathic approach to the users. But what if you turn that around and design for empathy itself? To shift from being the empathiser to become an empathy generator? That was the question a team of designers in Finland wanted to know the answer to. Using socio-cultural design tools rather than physical empathy design tools, they created a co-creative process with the Finnish parliament. 

The title of the paper is, Design for Empathy: A co-design case study with the Finnish Parliament

Abstract: Globalisation and the mixing of people, cultures, religions and languages fuels pressing healthcare, educational, political and other complex socio-cultural issues. Many of these issues are driven by society’s struggle to find ways to facilitate deeper and more emotionally meaningful ways to help people connect and overcome the empathy gap which keeps various groups of people apart. This paper presents a process to design for empathy – as an outcome of design. This extends prior work which typically looks at empathy for design – as a part of the design process, as is common in inclusive design and human centered design process. We reflect on empathy in design and challenge the often internalised role of the designer to be more externalised, to shift from an empathiser to become an empathy generator. We develop and demonstrate the process to design for empathy through a co-creation case study aiming to bring empathy into politics. The ongoing project is set in the Parliament of Finland, and involves co-creation with six Members of the Parliament from five political parties. Outcomes of the process and case study are discussed, including design considerations for future research.


Older people value outdoor spaces

Stockholm from the water showing classic Scandinavian heritage buildings.What makes a city or community age-friendly? The World Health Organization has researched this and produced a comprehensive guide. But sometimes it pays to drill down to the detail at a more local level. Older adults’ perceptions of public spaces could be different to younger people. A research paper from Stockholm looked at green spaces, transport infrastructure and urban development and growth. The methods included visual methods and focus groups. The title of the paper is Promoting ‘Age-Friendly’ Cities: Assessing Elderly Perceptions of Public Spaces.  

The report concludes that respondents gave a high degree of importance to green spaces, features that promote continuity and connection to local histories. Spaces that encourage social interaction were also important. Loss of identity or character of buildings, as well as being inaccessible and poorly lit, added to feelings of discomfort.

Editor’s comment: The speed of, and need for, urban growth must include population ageing in its plans. Dismissing the feelings of older people as being “out of touch” or “not liking change” can have unintended consequences.

Picture by Maria Michelle.

Underground movement and wayfinding

Station in Singapore showing complexity of design with escalators and shiny surfaces.A complex underground interchange station is a good subject for studying wayfinding. Legibility of the environment is more than just signage. In a short paper, the researchers from Singapore focus on different materials used to see if it makes a difference. They looked mainly at colour contrast and glare from lighting. Legibility of the environment helps people who cannot read signs as well as helping to quickly orientate people who can.The article looks to be a translation to English but the content is understandable.

Abstract: Getting lost and disoriented due to the lack of legibility of the space are common problems found in underground stations. Wayfinding inside underground stations is often thought as being solely supported by the presence of signage and directory maps as the tools that help users to understand their orientation and route better. However, the influence of materials on wayfinding in underground stations is often overlooked. Hence this paper presents a comprehensive examination of literature studies and an analysis on Dhoby Ghaut Station in Singapore as case studies. This station serves three interchange MRT lines and complex routes, which renders wayfinding issues even more urgent. The goal of this paper is to examine the
potential of contrasting the material application for effective wayfinding inside the underground station. To identify aspects regarding the impact of selection and placement of materials applied (on floors, walls, and ceilings of underground stations), literature and case study are carried out. The results indicate that the materials used in underground station influences wayfinding in varying degrees.

The title of the paper isInfluence of material application to wayfinding issue in
underground station design.