"The design of a play area must always be based on the principle of inclusion"
 Emma Cortés

Photo: Emma Cortés

Joan Antoni Guerrero
Emma Cortés, coordinator of the Barcelona Institute of Childhood and Adolescence's Playable City and Participation programmes


The ASD Publics: Activating Spaces with neuroDiverse Publics project led by the UOC and Barcelona City Council has developed a guide for designing public play areas for children with autism. The project has been carried out with the support of the Barcelona Institute of Childhood and Adolescence (IIAB), the Global Institute of Neurodevelopment Integrated Care (IGAIN) and the LEMUR urban emergency laboratory. In this interview, Emma Cortés, coordinator of the Playable City and Participation programmes, explains that the project has made it possible to focus on the needs of children with autism. For Cortés, the UOC's research has arrived at just the right moment, as it has been possible to make it part of a more extensive strategy developed by Barcelona City Council over a number of years for the design of public spaces that are better to live in while promoting accessible play areas designed to meet the needs of children with disabilities. And this, she points out, is very much in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

For those who may not know what neurodiverse public spaces are, could you briefly describe them for us?

Neurodiversity is a broader concept, but in the context of this project, the idea is that the design of these spaces takes into account the different ways in which children on the autism spectrum relate to their surroundings. This neurodevelopmental condition is characterized by alterations in social communication, repetitive behaviour and restricted patterns of interest. The way in which autistic children perceive, handle emotions and analyse situations is very different from that of the rest of the population. A neurodiverse play area takes this diversity into account.

Are we talking about separate, differentiated spaces?

Creating special spaces for these children and singling them out is not the model we propose. The design of a play area must always be based on the principle of inclusion. These areas must be designed with everyone in mind, but taking special needs into account.

When and how did this concern with designing and creating methods and tools to devise sustainable, inclusive play areas begin? Who are these tools going to help?

In 2016, the Institute of Childhood and Adolescence set up a multidisciplinary workspace with agents in all the departments of Barcelona City Council, in order to analyse what public spaces we had for children and adolescents in general. The working group concluded that there was a need for much greater diversification in play areas to meet the needs of children, especially those who are disabled. When people talk about diversifying play areas to make them inclusive for children with disabilities, they usually emphasize physical accessibility. In the case of neurodiversity, we're talking about other concerns beyond accessibility: cognitive, relational and social aspects which are sometimes not so obvious.

Can you give us an example to illustrate that?

For instance, one of the conditions for spaces to be inclusive is that they have to be accessible, so that children in wheelchairs can reach the playground equipment and use it. The starting point is the idea that they must be physically accessible. But the concept goes much further than this. There are many organizations for children with disabilities, but also for children with autism and other disorders, that are beginning to analyse the guidelines that could be given to design better play areas. The Network for Accessibility and Independent Living (XAVI) issues a series of recommendations in which the need to design play areas differently is made clear by different organizations and points of view. Overall, it has been known for some years now that the question of disability and play areas is a challenge for cities. Until the UOC project began in 2022, there was no perceived need for a separate focus on children with autism and they were included within the general framework of disability.

Before the UOC research project began in Barcelona, were there no spaces designed with this approach?

This research project, which is intended to produce a guide to designing neurodiverse spaces, appeared when Barcelona already had a policy on public play areas. But until 2018, when a government proposal was approved, and, more specifically, until 2019, when the city drew up a plan for public play areas, there was no awareness of the issue. Now an important aspect of the plan for public play areas is designing a city with areas that are better to play in. The quality criteria for the design stipulate that play areas must be planned so that they are inclusive of everyone and do not discriminate in terms of disability, gender, origin, age, etc. Other criteria also need to be considered, such as making play areas more natural, diverse, creative and challenging. Between 2018 and 2019 the city developed an overall strategy for play areas to be designed differently. It pays little attention to children with autism. However, the specific focus of the UOC project allows us to look more closely at appropriate designs for these children. The project comes at just the right time and enhances what the city is already doing.

What future challenges do you see for designing public spaces that are inclusive of neurodiversity?

There are design features that would be excellent for neurodivergent individuals but are also good in general for many other people, such as the need to reduce the level of stimulation. Today children are constantly stimulated. So there is a need to create calmer spaces that allow you to feel comfortable, away from the sound of traffic. This is a benefit for everyone. If we can identify design features that are especially necessary for children with autism but are also good for people in general, these should be used systematically and be given precedence. Another challenge is that children with autism have specific needs that are difficult to meet in public spaces or run counter to other criteria the city applies. For example, the need to create enclosed spaces: the city does not want play areas to be enclosed, as play should be an integral part of the urban environment. But then what? For children with autism, it's important to have an enclosed space because of their tendency to run away without any warning. We need to see how we can bring the two criteria together. For us a key element in the quality criteria for the Playable City is the need to create ecosystems for play. Barcelona is very densely populated and we don't have large spaces that can meet all the criteria. This means that the different play spaces in an area need to complement each other. Another challenge is determining how programmes other than those for urban design can respond to the needs of children with autism, for example by promoting activities in public spaces or providing monitors for children's games. This is not an architectural solution, but part of a social programme, and needs to be borne in mind. The last challenge is a general one related to communication. We need to inform families about all the opportunities for play offered by the city, so that they can know what each park offers and choose where to go.

What are the main guidelines in the recently published guide to designing neuroinclusive play areas?

First, it gives guidance on the space, how to reduce stimuli and avoid having separate areas for different ages. There may be some play equipment we think of as being for smaller children but there may be older autistic children who would like them. Secondly, it indicates that the space must cater to how different children behave. For example, autistic children have a tendency to rush out of the area and their parents may not be able to stop them. The space needs to be enclosed. Guidance is also given on the type of play equipment available: it should promote different motor activities and children should be able to choose what they want to play at according to their interests. Or there could be sensory play activities, which interest these children, relax them and motivate them. Or, for example, it is suggested that there could be quiet, peaceful spaces where they are more sheltered. The guide offers solutions for designing the space and the play equipment. The result is that we are not only concerned with architectural solutions; there is also a need for communication and raising awareness among the public. Sometimes, when autistic children try to handle their emotions, they become angry or frustrated, which is poorly understood by those around them. We are thus faced by the challenge of raising public awareness. Which is why the guide deals with aspects that go beyond urban design.

How do we detect people's needs and who is responsible for listening and then taking action to meet their demands?

Another innovative feature of the UOC project is that it included a process to design a co-creation method. It is not just a design guide, but also outlines a method for working and co-creating with children and their families. The most interesting aspect of this method is that it does not propose a space for participation in the conventional adult format, but places considerable emphasis on observing children at play and gathering information based on body language and the way in which they relate to a space. However, these findings were fleshed out with more formal interviews with adults, family members and professionals. The guide reflects all the general needs of autistic children, and the result is a guide to co-creating these spaces. 

Does the design of inclusive play areas have any connection with the rights of children and requiring local councils to do something?

The guide is very useful for designing public spaces, in the street, for example, or for cases like school playgrounds. It gives design guidelines that are perfectly valid for playgrounds or indoor facilities. Its key recommendations can be exported easily to other spaces. And they can be applied in villages as well as cities. As far as children's rights are concerned, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is the most widely ratified international human rights agreement, clearly establishes their right to play. As Spain has ratified the Convention, all government bodies, at whatever level, must ensure that this right is respected. The SDGs themselves are a framework for its defence, by promoting the idea of cities that are better to live in.