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Designing for Neurodiversity in NYC

For three days in September, New York City's Josie Robertson Plaza outside Lincoln Center was home to a unique urban furniture collection called "Softy." Created by Bryony Roberts of Bryony Roberts Studio, the installation was made up of dozens of soft cushions that visitors could push together to form a giant beanbag or move to a quieter area of the plaza. The installation was part of the Big Umbrella Festival, which organizes free activities for young people with autism and other developmental disabilities and their families.

While "Softy" only lasted a few days, it demonstrated how public spaces can be activated and inclusive. Roberts has been focused on designing public spaces that are welcoming to neurodiverse individuals, who have developmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, and Dyslexia. It is estimated that one in eight people in the world is neurodiverse, but due to the difficulty in diagnosing these conditions, the actual number is likely higher. However, few public spaces are designed to accommodate the different ways in which neurodiverse individuals think, communicate, or interact with the built environment.

To address this issue, Roberts is working on a project called "Neurodiverse City" in collaboration with Verona Carpenter Architects and WIP Collaborative. The goal of the project is to create inclusive public spaces that support everyone, regardless of their physical, neurological, or emotional state. The team will begin by examining existing public spaces in the city, including playgrounds, pocket parks, and streetscapes, with the aim of developing design guidelines and policy recommendations by 2024. They will then work with city agencies to implement these policies in both new and existing public spaces.

In the meantime, Roberts is focusing on smaller projects that can have a big impact. These include "Outside The Lines," a ribbon and netting installation in Atlanta, and Restorative Ground, an all-ages playground in Manhattan designed with WIP Collaborative. Each project is designed with neurodiversity in mind, but all of them look different, as the experience of neurodiversity is highly individualized.

Overall, the goal of "Neurodiverse City" is to create public spaces that are welcoming and accessible to everyone, including those with developmental disabilities. By examining existing spaces and creating design guidelines, the project aims to make a lasting impact on the way cities are designed and experienced.


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