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Neurodiversification of public space

04 of April '24
w skrócie
  1. Neurodiversity and perception of the environment - our perception of our surroundings changes as we age.
  2. Sensory challenges in public spaces are the difficulties that overly sensory-sensitive people may face in everyday situations, such as traveling during rush hour.
  3. Designing a welcoming experience for all is the need to design public spaces with diverse sensory needs in mind.
  4. Healthy cities as a result of social inclusion.
  5. For more interesting information, visit the home page of the AiB portal

What if I told you that one day going to a store half a kilometer away would be unfeasible? Not because you will break your leg, but simply the world will overwhelm you. This is a reality that may be facing both you and me.

Our perception changes over time, and our level of sensitivity to stimuli slows as we age. For each of us, there are different levels of sensory processing, which means that everyone has their own preferences for how they respond to stimuli from the environment. When we want to solve a problem, we need the right level of arousal - for some it may be a brisk walk, for example, while for others it may be a calming moment. Some of us, however, may be overly sensitive to stimuli, making many places inaccessible to them or requiring an enormous emotional investment to survive in such an environment.

We now know that people with neurodivergent traits vary from person to person. Their life experiences and capabilities are and will also be different. We also know that all neurodivergent traits often co-occur. Thus, there is no "classic autistic person." However, we can design to make the space more comfortable. A good example would be traveling to work during rush hour. The crowd, the squeeze, the palpable tension of having to make it to a given hour - it doesn't sound like a comfortable trip even for a strong, young and healthy person.

The challenges of daily functioning in light of sensory hypersensitivity

All of our reactions are part of sensory processing, which is central to how we function. Particularly important is the design of sensations when performing trivial daily activities like crossing the street. For people with neurodiversity, these simple activities can be a challenge. People who are sensory over-responsive can easily become over-stimulated. Their system for reading reality requires less input to stay alert. The brain may interpret environmental stimuli differently, making it difficult to function in certain situations. In order to cross the street safely, our nervous system must be able to integrate all the information and then filter out the unnecessary ones - such as the color of the hat of the person across the street, the clatter of someone's shoes, the shine of a car body, etc[1]. Neurodiverse people may experience the Act of Crossing the Street quite differently. Basically, such people simply feel the world more. They may feel an overload of their senses, making the simple act of crossing the street appear challenging.

Designing user-friendly experiences in public spaces for all

Neurodivergent traits do not always occur alone. There is often an increased prevalence of disorders such as depression and anxiety that accompany autism in middle age and beyond[2]. This is also more common with ADHD.

Although it is usual to think that older people generally lose the ability to see clearly, smell, taste, and have impaired hearing, these traits can be viewed differently - as neurodiversity. Many elderly people experience sensory processing problems that can make it difficult to navigate the environment. For example, for an elderly person, bright, blinding lights, loud street sounds, or lights changing too quickly at a pedestrian crossing can be overwhelming to the point where they are unable to leave the house. Increasingly, we are becoming aware of physical limitations that at some point in our lives will impede our daily functioning. This is a reality we will face as we age. Changes in the way we process stimuli are directly related to our ability to navigate and perceive our surroundings. If urban design does not become more inclusive, we too will face exclusion from public spaces.

Improving the accessibility of public spaces in cities, both for the elderly and other social groups, will increase their mobility and freedom to move between home, work and other places. This, in turn, will make our cities more livable and healthier for all residents, which is extremely important in the context of an aging population.

The impact of the environment on our social well-being

Sensory experience has been experimented with in various urban planning projects, and even the basic elements of the streetscape have been rethought. Since most of us live in large cities and will have to navigate public spaces and transportation systems to get to work, to the doctor or specialist, or to school or university - it is essential that we better understand how these environments affect all people. Urban space navigation, wayfinding, has been the subject of extensive research since the 1960s, and has been tested and implemented in the design of many places. However, we know little about how to measure and adjust our urban environments to improve the health and well-being of the various people living in these places. The challenge remains for designers to be sure which elements and attributes of the urban environment trigger positive interactions.

The relationship between well-being and the built environment has been studied by several disciplines, including psychology, geography, architecture and urban planning, but there is no general consensus on the dynamics of perception and its impact on the design of the built environment. Therefore, it is important to take into account the diversity of sensory needs in the design of urban spaces and provide appropriate support for those who may have difficulty processing environmental stimuli.

Healthy cities are inclusive cities, and how we perceive and are able to navigate them affects our well-being. Inclusion of all people - those in the mainstream, but also people with disabilities and multi-generational families - strengthens the social and economic fabric, enabling citizens to lead healthy, productive and fulfilling lives. One of the recommendations for creating such cities is to ensure that diverse people are part of the planning processes. After all, "Nothing about us without us."

Magdalena Milert

[1] Holt-Damant, K., Guaralda, M., Taylor Gomez, M., & Nicollet, C. (2013). Urban jungles: Making cities healthy places for australians with neurodiversity. In Proceedings of the 6th Making Cities Liveable Conference in conjunction with Sustainable Transformation Conference (pp. 116-132). AST Management Pty Ltd.

[2] (Geurts and Vissers, 2012; Geurts et al, 2015; Lever and Geurts, 2016b)

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