Autism-friendly cities: making a world of difference

At this time of year, high streets and shops across the country are bustling, decked out with lights and colourful decorations, and of course, the familiar Christmas tunes.

For many, this is part and parcel of the exciting run up to Christmas.  However, for autistic people, the added crowds, lights and noise can turn an already challenging experience into a sensory nightmare.

Indeed, although more than 1 in 100 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, many still struggle to access local shops and services.  Places that many neurotypical people may take for granted – shops, theatres, cinemas, cafes and restaurants, hairdressers, libraries and museums, public toilets, and public transport – can be particularly challenging environments for autistic people.

Unpredictable and unfamiliar noises, lights, smells, crowds, queues, and other events can be overwhelming, and may cause sensory distress – ultimately leading to a meltdown.  Meltdowns may present as crying, screaming, kicking, biting or lashing out.  A lack of understanding and awareness of autism among the public – including unfriendly looks, judgements and comments – can further enhance the distress experienced.

In 2015, a YouGov poll found that 99.5% of people in the UK had heard of autism. However, there remains a lack of public understanding about how it may present, and the associated challenges autistic people face.  This is perhaps best illustrated by the recent case of a young woman with Asperger’s being forcibly removed from a cinema for ‘laughing too loudly’.  Unfortunately, this experience is not unique.  Research has found that as many as 28% of people have been asked to leave a public space because of behaviour associated with autism.

Indeed, many autistic people and their families have changed their own behaviour to reduce the chance of experiencing intolerance from the public.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that social isolation is a common issue – 79% of autistic people and 70% of parents feel socially isolated.  Almost half (44%) sometimes don’t go out because they’re worried about how people will react.

Increasing public understanding

The recent Too Much Information (TMI) campaign, delivered by the National Autistic Society (NAS), aims to increase public understanding of the five core features of autism.

Those five core features are:

  • anxiety in social situations
  • anxiety with unexpected changes
  • sensory overload
  • meltdowns
  • processing time

Creating an autism friendly city

One response has been the drive towards the creation of ‘autism-friendly’ cities.

According to Autism Together and Autism Adventures, an autism-friendly city is one in which autistic people can ‘use public transport, shop for food and clothes, take part in sports and leisure activities, visit cultural and tourist institutions and eat in restaurants.’

The NAS have established an ‘Autism Friendly Award’, which aims to help businesses make the small changes that make the most difference to autistic people.  Their Autism Friendly Awards toolkit sets out a helpful five-point checklist:

  • customer information: providing appropriate information to help support autistic people and their families’ visitor or customer experience
  • staff understanding of autism: developing staff understanding
  • physical environment: making appropriate and reasonable adjustments within the limits of the physical environment
  • customer experience: a willingness to be flexible and providing a clear way for autistic people and their families to provide feedback
  • promoting understanding: committing to helping increase wider public understanding of autism

Examples of good practice

In Glasgow, the council have been working to make the city centre autism-friendly.  The plans have focused initially upon shopping centres, transport hubs, museums, cinemas and key operational staff across the city centre.

The Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT), Scotland’s oldest independent cinema, recently became the first cinema in the UK to achieve an Autism Friendly Award for their work with children and adults.  This includes monthly screenings for autistic adults and children, with the volume slightly lowered, stair lights remaining switched on, house lights dimmed and a chill out zone provided. Trained ‘autism facilitators’ also answer questions at the end of each film.

Other organisations have followed the GFT’s lead. Glasgow Science Centre, for example, has recently introduced autism friendly hours.

In the North East, Aberdeen has also announced its intention to work towards autism-friendly status.

As well as raising awareness and making key shopping locations more accessible for autistic people, Aberdeen also plans to introduce autism-friendly libraries, including pop up sensory sessions designed for autistic children.

Research has shown as many as 40% of people with autism never visit a library – however, 90% have said they would be more likely to visit their local library if some changes were made.

Such adjustments include staff training, increased tolerance of noise and understanding from the public.  Dimensions have released free online training and top tips for libraries looking to become autism-friendly. It notes that while many people with autism need a quiet environment, they may make noise themselves – for example, by talking to themselves or others, becoming excitable or moving around. They highlight the importance of making clear to the public that the library is autism-friendly, which includes a tolerance of certain levels of noise.

Other cities that have been working towards autism-friendly status include: Bristol –  whose airport has won an Autism Friendly Award; Liverpool – where autism champions are being supported to recognise and respond to autism; and Newcastle in Northern Ireland – which has been named as Northern Ireland’s first autism-friendly town. It is anticipated that being autism-friendly will help boost the local economy and tourism.

Other ways to make cities autism-friendly

As well as organisations themselves making adjustments and promoting autism understanding among staff and customers, there are a few other ways in which cities can be made more autism-friendly.

Making public transport more accessible is a key challenge.  More than half of autistic people avoid public transport due to fears of disruption.  There are many things that can be done to help make public transport less distressing for autistic people.

From an architecture and design perspective, there are also many other things that can help to make urban buildings and spaces more accessible, in regard to ventilation, acoustics, heating, lighting, layout and outdoor spaces.

From a town planning perspective – there is currently a lack of research and guidance on the design of places for autistic people per se, however, there may be some transferability of lessons from work on the creation of dementia-friendly and child-friendly spaces.

For example, the provision of clear signage and removal of street clutter may be beneficial for autistic people.  Edinburgh City Council has recently banned on-street advertising structures in order to make streets more accessible for people with disabilities.

There have also been concerns raised that shared spaces – including the removal of road signs, traffic crossings and delineation between roads/walkways – may negatively impact upon autistic people, who may struggle with the uncertainty such schemes deliberately create.  This is an area where more research and guidance is needed.

The way forward

Creating a city that is autism-friendly requires a multi-faceted approach that includes both raising public awareness and understanding, and creating towns and places that allow for the specific challenges that are faced by autistic people and their families.

Many steps that can be taken are low cost and easy to implement – and support is available from a range of national and local autism organisations, such as the NAS.

Even just reacting with kindness and compassion when witnessing a possible autistic meltdown – perhaps offering some solution such as a quiet space – is significant.  The sum of these small changes can make a world of difference to autistic people and their families.

I wouldn’t change my son for the world but I will change the world for my son.” Julie Simpson, Founder of Autism Adventures


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Helping people with dementia to live well through good urban design

Earlier this year, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) published their first practice note on how good planning can play a stronger role in the creation of better environments for people living with dementia.

It summarises good practice guidance from Oxford Brookes University, the Alzheimer’s Society and the Scottish Government, among others.

Living with dementia

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, there are currently around 850,000 people living with some form of dementia in the UK.  Although the risk of developing dementia increases with age, it is not just a disease of the elderly.  There are currently around 40,000 people with dementia in the UK under the age of 65.

The vast majority of cases of dementia cannot be cured. However, there is a lot that can be done to enable someone with dementia to live well with the condition. Many people with dementia can continue lead active, healthy lives for years after diagnosis.  Even most elderly people with mild to moderate dementia can continue to live in their own homes.

The importance of good urban design

Evidence has shown that well-planned, enabling environments can have a substantial impact on the quality of life of someone living with dementia and their ability to retain their independence for longer.

For example, being within easy walking distance of shops and other local amenities can help people with dementia to remain physically active and encourages social interaction.

Having access to green space and nature also has particular benefits, including better mood, memory and communication and improved concentration.

Key characteristics of a dementia-friendly environment

Drawing on the principles set out in ‘Neighbourhoods for Life’, the RTPI advises that urban environments should be:

  • Familiar – functions of places and buildings made obvious, any changes are small scale and incremental;
  • Legible – a hierarchy of street types, which are short and fairly narrow. Clear signage;
  • Distinctive – including a variety of landmarks and a variety of practical features, e.g. trees and street furniture;
  • Accessible – access to amenities such as shops, doctor’s, post offices and banks within easy, safe and comfortable walking distances (5-10 minutes). Obvious, easy to use entrances that conform to disabled access regulations;
  • Comfortable – open space is well defined with public toilets, seating, shelter and good lighting. Background and traffic noise minimised through planting and fencing. Minimal street clutter;
  • Safe – wide, flat and non-slip footpaths, avoid creating dark shadows or bright glare.

Dementia-friendly communities

In addition to specific guidance on how to improve the urban environment, the RTPI practice note also highlights the crucial role of planners in the creation of ‘Dementia Friendly Communities’.

This is a recognition process, which publicly acknowledges communities for their work towards becoming dementia friendly.  It aims to involve the entire community, from local authorities and health boards to local shops, in the creation of communities that support the needs of people with dementia.

There are 10 key areas of focus.  Those particularly relevant to planning include:

  • shaping communities around the needs and aspirations of people with dementia;
  • the provision of accessible community activities;
  • supporting people to live in their own home for longer;
  • the provision of consistent and reliable transport options; and
  • ensuring the physical environment is accessible and easy to navigate.

There are currently over 200 communities across the UK working towards recognition as dementia-friendly.  Dementia Friendly East Lothian and the Dementia Friendly Kirriemuir Project are two such examples.

Local government policy

By 2025, it is estimated that the number of people diagnosed with dementia will rise to over one million.  Significant under diagnosis means that the number of people who experience dementia may be even higher.

However, the RTPI report that at present few local authorities have made explicit reference to dementia in their adopted local plans.

Worcestershire County Council and Plymouth City Council are notable exceptions:

  • Plymouth have set out their ambition to become a ‘dementia friendly city’ in its current local plan; and
  • Worcestershire are currently developing a draft Planning for Health Supplementary Planning Document that covers age-friendly environments and dementia.

A beneficial environment for all

While these are important first steps towards the greater recognition of the role of planning in supporting people with dementia, it is imperative that planning explicitly for dementia becomes the rule, rather than the exception.

Not only will this benefit people with dementia and reduce healthcare costs, it may also benefit the wider community, including young families, people with disabilities, and older people.

As the RTPI rightly state, “environments that are easy for people to access, understand, use and enjoy are beneficial to everyone, not just older people with dementia.”


Not dead, evolving – high streets of the future

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Image Grand Arcade, Leeds, Gunnar Larsson via GNU Free Documentaion License

This week, individuals from local councils, town teams, business improvement districts (BIDs) and industry bodies will come together to share and learn from high street revitalisation success stories as part of the Future High Street Summit. The Summit, set up by retail expert and high street campaigner Clare Rayner in 2014, refutes claims that the ‘high street is dead’. It argues that far from being dead, it is instead ‘evolving’.

Looking at recent headlines, one would be forgiven for believing the high street was in terminal decline. For example, it was recently reported that in a study of multiple retailers across 500 towns, the net loss of stores in 2014 was nearly three times greater than in 2013 (987 compared to 371).

According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the main challenges facing the high street include:

  • pressures on prices exerted by online retailers and large grocery stores;
  • increased costs, including business rates, rents, and the introduction of the minimum wage;
  • the ease and cost of starting an online business compared to a business on the high street;
  • the digital delivery of some products (music, books etc) removing the demand for high street music shops.
  • access and parking restrictions/costs in town centres
  • the growth in ‘out of town’ retail parks and large supermarkets
  • the lack of diversity, i.e. ‘Clone town’ syndrome

Showrooming’ – when shoppers look at products in store, then buy the product online from a different supplier – has also been identified as another potential threat to high street stores.

So given these challenges, does the high street really have a future?

According to Mary Portas it does.  In her recent reflections on the progress made since her 2011 review of how government, local authorities and businesses could better promote the development of more prosperous and diverse high streets, she argues against predictions of the high street’s demise.

She cites research by Deloitte, which found that 38% of people still visit their high street almost daily, and that that a significant proportion of people continue to use their local high street, particularly to top up on groceries (59%), buy health and beauty, and pharmacy products (55%), and buy shoes and clothes (50%). She also notes that a significant number of people reported visiting the high street to use the library (44%).

Indeed, even the statistics show some cause for positivity. The Local Data Company, which publishes a ‘End of Year Vacancy Report’ in February each year, recently reported a downward trend in shop vacancy rates, from 14.5% in February 2012, to 13.4% in May 2014 – the lowest rate since 2010.

Commenting on these figures, Clare Rayner, organiser of the Future High Street Summit, notes:

“Figures from LDC/bira show that high street vacancy rates have dropped a little; but the national averages mask the detail, which interestingly shows that there has been a net gain in independents and a loss in multiples. To me it’s clear that smaller businesses and independent retailers are the ones who are keeping our high streets alive – so it is essential they get the support they need from the relevant authorities and place managers.”

So what can high streets do to support independent retailers?

In Rotherham, Mary notes that mystery shoppers have been used to help local businesses improve their standards, by providing advice on quality, store layout and pricing. Local shop owners have been offered social media training, and there has been a ‘shop local’ campaign, showcasing the range of independent shops available. A ‘pop up high street’ has also been run at various locations, including council offices, retail parks, hospitals and local events, and town centre parking charges have been frozen.

BoxPark is another great example of support for small independent shops. It is a ‘pop up shopping mall’ in Shoreditch, London, created entirely from containers, and houses a variety of different independent retailers, artists and craftspeople.

In his book, ‘How to save our town centres: a radical agenda for the future of high streets’, Julian Dobson highlights Handpicked Hall, in Leeds, as a key example of good practice. Set up in October 2012 in a vacant department store, it opened up the space to a host of local producers, including “craftspeople, artists, food makers, fashion designers, a woman who wanted to open a vintage tea salon and even a man selling carnivorous plants. People that wouldn’t fit within a traditional market and couldn’t afford to kit out a shop of their own… None could have borne the cost of trading in a traditional high street shop.” (Dobson, 2015:109).

Unfortunately, Handpicked Hall closed in 2014, however, the majority of the retailers within it moved into the Grand Arcade. According to local business owner, Claire Riley, co-owner of Our Handmade Collective, “Taking the empty units within the Arcade has actually turned a forgotten and empty shopping arcade around, and we’re now proud to call the Grand Arcade the Home of the Independents.”

As well as support for local independent retailers, the high street also needs to evolve to address the challenge of e-commerce. According to Mark Hudson, retail leader at PWC, “The future can be seen by watching the ‘digital natives’ at work and play – those who have grown up with online shopping, mobile phones and ubiquitous broadband have a very different relationship with traditional high streets than the previous generations. Rather than try to recreate the past, the high street needs to evolve to be relevant to the future.”

In Ashford, they have sought to address this challenge by using technology to promote the town centre. They aim to develop a ‘digital high street’, which will take the format of an innovative website and app that will guide visitors through the town, providing special offers, and ‘click and collect’ features for all the businesses.

Of course, the high street has an importance far beyond retail. It also has a wider role providing services and meeting places, including libraries, health centres, tourist information centres, bus and rail stations, education centres, post offices, workspaces and meeting rooms.

Recent examples of such high street services include the relocation of Dorking library to the high street, the provision of creative craft classes in Leeds, meeting space for mothers and their children in Bristol, workspace for artists in London and short term respite services for children with disabilities in Bristol, Cheltenham and Swindon.

As Julian Dobson notes: “A high street, and wider town centre within which it sits, is far more than simply a collection of parcels of individually or publicly owned land, shops and highways. It is the heart that keeps a place alive.” (Dobson, 2015:256).

Sharing and learning from good practice, through events such as the Future High Streets Summit and the Great British High Street competition, is a key way of ensuring that the high street remains very much alive and relevant for the foreseeable future.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on regenerating high streets, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading

Propping up the market? (temporary retailing), IN Estates Gazette, No 1505 7 Feb 2015 (A53773)

Digital High Street Advisory Board (2015) Digital high street 2020 report (B41351)

Dobson, J (2015) How to save our town centres: a radical agenda for the future of high streets. London: Policy Press. (B41359)

PricewaterhouseCoopers (2014) The changing face of retail: where did all the shops go? (B37238 )

Resurrecting the high street (regenerating town centres), IN Local Government Executive, 16 Oct 2014 (A52351)

Town Teams, Portas Pilots and the future of the high street, IN Journal of Urban Regeneration and Renewal, Vol 7 No 3 Spring 2014 (A49469)

Institute for Retail Studies (2014) Town centre and high street reviews (The Retail Planning Knowledge Base briefing paper) (B38740)

Wrigley, N and Lambiri, D (2014) High street performance and evolution: a brief guide to the evidence (B38664)

Mayor of London (2014) Learning from London’s high streets: a collection of essays, case studies, learning and inspiration (B38523)

Future High Streets Forum (2014) Good leadership: great high streets (B37725)

IDOX (2014) Town centres in Scotland: changing policy and practice (In focus) (B37581)