Urban Design Can Change The Lives Of People With Autism

It’s a tall order, but Elizabeth Decker has designed a toolkit to make cities more inclusive.

Urban Design Can Change The Lives Of People With Autism
[Image: Empty benches in park via Shutterstock]

Cities are not the friendliest of places for people with autism. Landscape architecture student Elizabeth Decker aims to change that. For her master’s research at Kansas State University, Decker developed a toolkit to help urban planners design more inclusive communities for adults with autism and other disorders. The project was inspired by her 19-year-old brother, Marc, who has autism.


In short, urban environments have a slew of problems that make them inhospitable to people with autism. There are issues with sensory overload, limited mass transit accessible for people with neurological disabilities, affordable housing shortages, few job opportunities, and “no green spaces designed for those with autism or other differences,” Decker writes.

A network of autism-related services proposed for downtown Nashville, Tennessee.Courtesy of Elizabeth Decker

“We need to look into how we can design cities and urban environments that would better suit people with autism,” she tells Co.Design, especially considering the growing numbers of people the disorder affects. Approximately 1 in 68 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism, according to the CDC, and this number has increased dramatically since the late 1960s.

To craft her toolkit, Decker interviewed adults with autism spectrum disorders and reviewed medical and sociological research and design theory. Then she applied the inclusive design principles that came out of that research to Nashville, a city with accessible public transportation, downtown residential services, and growing employment opportunities. Finally, she identified the basic needs that individuals with autism would require: vocational training, life skills, mental and physical health support, employment, public transportation, and affordable housing.

It’s no small task she has set for herself. These services would need to be clustered together in order to be accessible. And while many larger cities may have such services, it’s unlikely that they’d be set up conveniently enough that a caregiver’s help would not be necessary. An inclusive city, Decker says, would connect networks of services. So (affordable) housing would be close to the workplace, which of course would be easier to implement if the city also had good (well, terrific) access to public transportation. Parks–respite from overwhelming sensory stimulation–are also vital.

It’s worth noting that while Decker’s plan aims to improve the lives of people with autism, many of the principles she advocates for are good for everyone. You can’t go wrong with affordable housing, public transportation, and plenty of green space.

Check out the urban design toolkit here.

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.