The neuro inclusive city

The problem with standards for accessible places and spaces is they don’t keep up with current thinking. Consequently there are no standards for the neuro inclusive city.

A graphic with lots of stick figures. Above, in the middle is an umbrella shape and underneath the stick figures are in different colours. Neuro diversity.

In Australia, standards focus on mobility, vision and hearing. Consequently they don’t cover invisible disabilities or health conditions. That’s why it’s dangerous to think that meeting legislated standards is sufficient to create access and inclusion for everyone.

In the absence of standards, which are based on minimums, we now have a plethora of guidelines. These either focus on a disability, such as Down syndrome, or a built space, such as a playspace. Guidelines are not mandated and so they often disappear into cyber-space or gather dust on a shelf. But that doesn’t stop more attempts at guidelines and design principles.

There is a growing awareness that a significant portion of the population is neurodiverse. This term captures people who appear to have different behaviours and/or have a specific diagnosis such as autism or ADHD. Sensory factors such as noise and crowds, pose barriers for some people who are neurodiverse. However, these factors are rarely considered in urban planning and design. Until now.

Natasha Mickovski tackles the issues in her Master of Architecture thesis. Her thesis is comprehensive with drawings and case studies illustrating her ideas and key points. Of interest is her adaptation of the 7 Principles of Universal Design.

It’s good to see these principles taken as a starting point and adapted to suit this context. To this end, Mickovski presents her Enabling Design Guidelines which are briefly outlined below.

Enabling Design Guidelines

1. Spatial Organization: Spatial organization is an integral part of neurodiverse design. People who are neurodiverse require a continuous and organized loop of circulation. The use of common and repetitive elements provide a sense of order which allows for them to easily navigate through a building. Repetition within the design also promotes a point of predictability.

2. Spatial Character: A variety of types of spaces such as alcoves, nooks, refuges or clusters are essential. The colours, patterns, and textures are also important for creating a sensorial environment.

3. Lighting, Acoustics, Thermal Quality: Dimmed lighting in low-stimulation zones is good for rational decision-making tasks. These spaces also need a high level of acoustic control. Adjust thermal qualities through a high-performance building envelope. Include spaces such as naturally ventilated atriums or outdoor terraces.

4. Ease of Transition: Wide corridors are good transitional zones which can be used for occupational therapy and movement breaks. It is also important to provide enough space within the corridors for programmable seating options.

5. Sensory Grouping: High stimulus zones such as the music room, makerspace, flex space, café, and marketplace should be grouped together. Group together low stimulus zones such as counselling centres, study rooms, reading zones, and studios.

6. Escape / Reset Zones: Retreat areas and alcoves are essential in the overall planning of a neuro-inclusive building. These are important places for people when they feel overwhelmed.

The title of the thesis is, Design Enabled: The Everyday Refuge for a Neuro-Inclusive City. This is a 15MB document downloadable from the Laurentian University website.

A drawing showing design elements in a learning area.
Neurodiverse design elements in an activity room.
Graphics from the thesis


One of the most pressing issues within the built environment is the ever-evolving conversation of accessibility and its relationship to obsolete building standards from the past.

Standards such as the Ontario Building Code and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) provide insufficient solutions to users with invisible disabilities, particularly the underrecognized realm of neurodiversity.

This thesis explores the possibility for a new set of design guidelines, adopting principles to enable the users’ senses and, in turn, create a neuro-inclusive environment. It also presents the design of a neuroinclusive library centre with a secondary urban park to mitigate the challenges neurodivergents experience at both a human and city-wide scale.

By designing a community-oriented project within the already-established arts and cultural hub of downtown Sudbury, this thesis creates a network of inclusive, user-centered, and sensorial design that can begin to decode the issue of accessibility

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