Inclusive Planning & Empathetic Design

by Alyson Goff

For campuses across the country, the year 2020 led to a seismic shift in resiliency and adaptability, particularly around the built environment and operational models. The year also brought about a renewed call for a more just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive society. Campuses being microcosms of the larger American society can lead in planning and designing a more inclusive environment through empathetic, user-centered design.

Through her research, Amara H. Pérez1 brings to light the harmful impact of traditional approaches to campus planning and design on racially marginalized communities. In her article published in the Society for College and University Planning’s Planning for Higher Education, Pérez uses critical race theory (CRT) as a framework for planning and design approaches to community engagement. Simply put, true inclusive engagement requires asking the right questions, not simply bringing more diverse users to the table. Pérez introduces the concept of socio-spatial inquiry to provide a path forward for institutions to create meaningful and equitable community engagement. A level playing field is not simply a gap between what exists and what is desired. The language of inclusion matters beyond functional need but must include acknowledging all space is racialized, gendered, and classed as Pérez states. Socio-spatial inquiry must also include cultural, experiential, and relational need. (To learn more about Pérez’s work, visit Portland Community College’s Space Matters project website.)

In 2015, Boston University’s School of Public Health announced an 11-point plan2 to create a more diverse community that was inclusive, fair, and equitable. A key tenant of the plan was the language of inclusion, specifically around pronouns. The concept of inclusive language can be extended to how we plan and design spaces. These spaces can include all-gender restrooms, mother’s rooms, prayer/meditation spaces, and affinity spaces. Beyond accounting for them in a space program, planners, designers, and architects should seek to understand functionality, location, and locally used nomenclature. 

Inclusive planning and design incorporate neurodiversity, which includes Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Dyslexia. An estimated 17 percent of the population have been diagnosed with a neurodivergent condition, which is believed to be an underrepresentation.3 Per Work Design Magazine, the challenges neurodivergent individuals face are distractions, sensory stimulation, and wayfinding. The various space typologies on university campus need to provide diversity in space choice for all space users (students, faculty, staff, visitors, etc.). Neurodivergent individuals have difficult in processing the physical environment, which is compounded by the prevalence of technology in spaces. Neurodiversity Hub4 is a worldwide initiative that has complied a variety of resources to assist not only neurodivergent individuals to be successful but also universities, employers, and designers to create more neurodiverse-friendly spaces. For example, space interiors should consider acoustics, lighting, storage (safety and control), zoning (routine and structure) and color. 

A component of design thinking, empathetic design seeks to understand the role of the space and the flow of activity that will take place in that space. To accomplish more inclusive engagement, planners, designers, and architects must be better informed to rethink the engagement process and inquiry. We cannot place that burden solely on users of the space and physical environments we create. (For more information on empathetic design, visit the Interaction Design Foundation.) 



1’Colorblind-Spots’ in Campus Design: Planners and Architects Can Offer Solutions That Center on Social Justice. Planning for Higher Education, Society for College and University Planning. V49N1 October-December 2020.

2Boston University. Diversity and Inclusion at SPH (announcement). 20 December 2015. Retrieved 1 December 2020.

3Work Design Magazine. Designing For Neurodiversity And Inclusion. December 2019. Retrieved 1 December 2020.

4Neurodiversity Hub. Retrieved 1 December 2020.

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