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Neurodiversity: What is the planning profession’s role?

Atefeh Motamedi AssocRTPI is Strategic Planner at Atkins, co-founder of ‘Neurodiversity in Planning’, member of the RTPI General Assembly and the RTPI North West Regional Activities Committee’s Policy and Research Task Group.

This week is ‘Neurodiversity Celebration Week’, an initiative that challenges the perception and narrative around neurodiversity. Neurodiversity, which refers to the difference in the human brain, can influence how people experience places and raises questions around how the environment should be planned and designed to fit how people like to live.

Equality, diversity, and inclusion are central to urban ethics. Given that around 15% of the total population is neurodiverse, there is a compelling case for re-balancing urban resources and improving accessibility and standards for inclusion of neurodiversity. Here’s how town planners can play a role.

Planning for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Until recently, the focus of neurodiversity in the built environment has largely been on the inclusive and accessible design of buildings, an issue largely taken care of by architects and accessibility consultants.

But to create more inclusive built environments, we should look at neurodiversity through the lens of strategic planning from the outset of plan-making, policy development and decision-taking. It is important to recognise that ‘do nothing’ scenarios and poor design often cause harm and will have to be retrofitted at a later stage.

Under the Equality Act 2010, local planning authorities are required to advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic, such as ‘disabilities’, which can include some forms of neurodiversity, and those who do not.

However, there is still a huge gap in awareness and areas to tackle that needs to be addressed. To be truly robust, local plans should go far enough in their baseline evidence documents and policy wording to be neuro-inclusive. Where necessary, local planning authorities should introduce additional planning policies, local design guides and design codes that promote ‘designing for the mind’.

Homes that enable autonomy

Although there has been some improvements in diagnostic services and the provision of support for some forms of neurodiversity like Autism in recent years, identifying the need and provision of high-quality supported living – that meets the sensory requirements of Autistic people and enables their autonomy – remains largely overlooked, and a specialist area.

Around 75% of autistic people live with their parents, with many being housed inappropriately in inpatient and institutional settings, and separated from the community.

To create ‘non-institutional’ specialist housing developments for neurodiversity, various factors need to be considered in the site selection process, such as quietness and tranquillity of the site and its environs, proximity to established residential, community and employment uses, and the site’s capability to offer opportunities for ecological enhancement and substantial sensory planting to help with enhancing well-being and cognition.

All of these can be obstacle in finding the right site or making a development viable. Many neurodiverse people live in general needs housing, and the current pressure on local planning authorities to provide for more housing in their local area is undeniable too.

Comfort is key to enhancing mental health and well-being for everyone, but for neurodiverse people, this can be game-changing.

Last year, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology launched a commission on “Smart Homes and Independent Living” to suggest how the latest technologies can help disabled and older people have healthier lives.

Sites should consider 'quietness and tranquility', says Motamedi

This highlights the important role of tech-driven and well-equipped living spaces that increase independence, safety, security, and overall satisfaction with life.

Smart homes increase autonomy, de-clutter the mind and bring comfort, which is key to enhancing mental health and well-being for everyone. But for neurodiverse people, this can be game-changing and enable them to live more independently in general needs housing provisions.

An inclusive solution, therefore, might be mainstreaming affordable and ‘smarter than average’ general needs housing. Achieving this requires an improved awareness of the issues and better collaboration between clients, town planners, architects and designers, local planning authorities and developers.

Neurodiversity and Planning for Employment

Neurodiversity, amongst other unique characteristics, is about thinking ‘differently’. But doesn’t thinking differently bring a new perspective to ‘problem-solving and decision-making’, ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’? Neurodiversity can be a competitive advantage if the individuals’ strengths and skills are properly harnessed.

Yet the neurodiverse population has remained a largely untapped talent pool. There is a compelling case for why the provision of accessible and inclusive employment for neurodiversity should be an urgent priority.

Inclusive planning and design require the participation of all cohorts of society.

The recently unveiled Levelling Up White Paper promises moral, social, and economic support to tackle disparity across the UK and improve productivity, public services, and empowering communities, and recognises the huge disability employment gap that exists, though the employment gap for neurodiversity is a lot wider.

It is considered that recruiting and retaining a neurodiverse workforce largely relies on factors that are largely outside the control of town planners.

However, our profession can still play a crucial role in enabling neurodiverse people to access and remain in employment by thoughtfully planning for land-use and neuro-inclusive public transport, provision of inclusive and accessible local jobs, promoting local employment hubs in town centres close enough to high quality and smarter than average affordable homes and meaningful engagement with the neurodiverse community when planning for these.

Inclusive planning and design require the participation of all cohorts of society. Proactive and early engagement informed by the lived experiences of neurodivergent individuals is required to identify and understand the nature and scale of the impacts that planning can have on neurodiverse people and mitigate the adverse impacts before they become a barrier to enjoying a happy and healthy life.

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