The property industry talks a lot about creating communities that work for everyone but while progress is being made, there’s still a lot to do to achieve greater inclusivity for people with differing abilities. Crucially there is one major area that’s often overlooked: how we design spaces for neurodiversity.
It’s true that access as a broader consideration is factored into design and planning, and different approaches to improve development accessibility are included in the National Planning Policy Framework. This sets out the importance of elements like clear signage, well-lit spaces and hearing loops. But this guidance doesn’t go far enough to ensure spaces are inclusive across all abilities. Specifically, it doesn’t go into detail on requirements for people with neurological differences such as dyslexia, autism or dyspraxia.
It’s estimated that 1 in 7 people in the UK are neurodivergent – that’s about 15% of the population. As developers and managers of the built environment around us, our industry has a responsibility to make sure that everyone gets the same experience and enjoyment of a place as others. So how can we be better?
The first step is to make sure development teams consult people with different needs at the design and planning stage. Speaking with neurodiverse people in a community well before build-out means developers and their supply chain partners can better understand and accommodate their needs. Adding in relevant infrastructure and technologies as this stage is a much lower cost overall and can really differentiate a location or scheme.
These conversations can make a big difference to people’s lives. Last year for example, Renfrewshire Council in Scotland decided to put up new communication boards in play parks after speaking to parents of neurodivergent children. The boards make it easier for autistic and non-verbal children to interact with others, have fun and get involved in games.
After construction is complete, lessons learnt from community engagement must be carried over to how a place is managed. It’s about keeping different needs in mind at all times. For example, leisure and retail schemes have started to provide quiet times, but there’s an opportunity to push this further – with management teams utilising technical infrastructure and data to create live heat maps so that customers can choose to avoid busy areas and pick different routes, or to come back to shops / venues later. In residential, one change could be that concierge teams give people the option of providing an audio signature for any packages if they find it harder to read and write.
Training property management teams to understand how the needs of neurodiverse people might differ and empowering them to make changes should help. Critically we need to recruit more diversely too so that different ways of thinking and behaviours are embedded within teams.
Designing places with neurodiversity in mind makes commercial sense – why would we want to rule out potential customers or residents from the new places we build? It’s also the right thing to do. By changing the way we shape and manage developments, property can play a significant and positive part in opening up places for ALL people.