Identifying landscapes of sensory escape

Campo Santa Maria Formosa in Venice, in which some children have successfully decolonized and reoccupied a central part of the square for play.

Whenever I enter busy public places I have difficulty identifying where to place myself in relation to crowds, and how to navigate to the places I want or need to reach. I have been using video – some recorded by me, some streamed online – to identify patterns of movement over public spaces, exposing the intensity of movement and potential sensory refuges.

Some of these images and video were showcased as part of “A Case for Sensory Decolonisation: Autistic Escape” curated by Magda Mostafa as part of the Time Space Existence Collection at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, hosted at the European Cultural Center’s Palazzo Mora.

The selected work represents an intersection between my attempts to explain my own experience of place, and Magda Mostafa’s ASPECTSS™ Design Index, an evidence based set of guidelines for autistic inclusion in the built environment.

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The Power of an Autistic Lens: Visualising Activity in Shared Public Space

A composite image of the entrance to DCU Glasnevin taken from the multi-storey carpark and facing the main entrance to The Mall next to the Helix Theatre. This image is a composite of about 16 minutes of motion in the middle of the day.

I presented a visual essay at the International Union of Archicts (UIA) World Congress of Architects in Copenhagen, 2023. The full paper is available in the proceedings with an open access preprint. If this essay interests you, then you may also be interested in my chapter on “Sensory Issues and Social Inclusion” in the book “Knowing Why: Adult-Diagnosed Autistic People on Life and Autism” published by the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN).

My slides and speaking notes from the session “Design for Inclusivity: Neurodiversity” are below.

I am grateful to Dublin City University and to the Crawford Art Gallery Cork City for their assistance in producing the video material I used to make these images. I am especially grateful to Magda Mostafa for her endless encouragement and the time she spends seeking out and listening to autistic people.

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Picturing Inclusivity in Public Spaces

Lockdown Birds, 2020. A video composite from my window at home of birds flying over Cork City.

All of us have to use public spaces to access education, work, health care, sport and social opportunities. I often feel public places are designed and run in ways that – hopefully unintentionally – are difficult for me to use, yet most people navigate with ease. When I am in the middle of crowded places, I often feel like everyone is rushing in response to an alarm that I have not seen or heard, and I am the only person going the wrong way.
I often feel overloaded by the sensory experience of streets or shops, and not just by the uncontrolled noise, motion and odour of public space, but by the boundless possibilities of all the things I know from past experience might possibly happen, and all the things my over-active imagination conjures up as a possibility that could intrude on the present. Public space is busy, complex, and unpredictable. As a pedestrian in a busy city, I often feel a sense of exclusion, which I had always attributed to my own anxiety and to me being autistic – and not to the design of public space. My pictures attempt to capture the distribution of motion and calm in a public realm, to share my sense of safety when I find somewhere out of the flow, or how to safely join the flow of people and traffic. I make pictures of public places that try to identify how I feel, and what makes a place hostile and excluding, or calming and inclusive.

(This post is derived from a presentation I gave at the AsIAmSame Chance” Conference. I repeated the presentation to the Irish Planning Institute “Building for Everyone – Universal Design and Inclusive Public Spaces” workshop in February 2023, which was mentioned at the Joint Committee on Autism, 16 May 2023)

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Gaia in St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh

Luke Jerram’s illuminated sculpture of the Earth, Gaia, was installed in St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival. It is hard to convey in images how awe-inspiring this perspective on our little home in the universe is. The juxtaposition of the fragile Earth with the alpha and omega (ΑΩ) pennants is especially poignant, our lifetimes just a blink in the lifetime of the planet. The event drew plenty of very positive coverage (in the Irish Examiner and elsewhere) and plenty of viewers.

This post uses some imaging techniques to explore the motion of the sculpture and its viewers within and outside the cathedral.

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Venice Architectural Biennale, 2021

Pandemic Birds – a video composite of jackdaws flying over Cork City at sunrise, from my window at home during lockdown.

Some of my work on perceptions of public space features in the exhibition “Autistic Imaginaries of Architectural Space: The World from an Autistic Lens” curated by architect Magda Mostafa, who co-developed the Autism Friendly University Design Guide with Dublin City University.

You can visit a static gallery of my own contribution or visit a virtual tour of “Time Space Existence” at the Palazzon Bembo, created by the European Centre for Culture.

I am more proud of this collection of work than of anything else I have done. This is a good time for me to reflect on my needs as an autistic (city-dwelling) adult, and on the amazing support I have had over the past (more than) decade from Aspect, the support service for autistic adults in Cork & Kerry.

Visit here:

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Gender and age inequalities in space and housing in Cork City

City centre population by gender and age group
Population by gender and age in the centre of Cork City and in Ireland (overlaid lines).

There are striking differences in the age and gender composition across Cork City, with an abundance of male, young and single people in the city centre. The absence of children, women and older people leads to several intersecting inequalities in access to education, work and housing that are effectively a tax on girls, women, disabled and old people. The increasing focus on single and small apartments – which may seem oppressive or even dangerous to women and disabled people – is transforming the city and the centre into a population of transients. The lack of family, own-front-door and accessible dwellings means that most of life’s transitions – forming a relationship, having a child, unemployment, retirement, disablement or long-term illness – necessitate a move, and the only available and appropriate dwellings are either in poor repair, or increasingly further away from the centre.

The renewal of small parts of Cork City disguises an ongoing decline and dereliction of large swathes of the city, with poor maintenance and high rents increasing the volume of substandard single occupancy dwellings in divided former family dwellings, high levels of neglected vacant property, and indeed physical collapse of older buildings.

Girls, women, disabled and older people experience a double burden of excess journey times to education, work and essential services, as a direct consequence of moving out of a centre and out of a city that increasingly lacks appropriate and secure housing.

A change in decision-making to more adequately include all parts of the community would change the direction of planning. The much-parroted term ‘sustainability’ is a nonsense when the city is unable to sustain its own residents across changes in family structure, sickness and employment.

(Click on the graphs or maps to enlarge them.)

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Mapping shared public space using motion intensity

The junction of Grand Parade and Washington Street, with bollards and lamp-posts obstructing pedestrian desire-lines, which are fluid and can not be contained by the designed crossing layout.

As part of another project, I started created “heatmaps” of the motion intensity into video recordings of everyday events. These are not images of literal heat, but assessments of the amount of visual change across the video field, converted into a coloured scale, where “heat” (from blue to red) is a readily-understood representation. My main motivation was to assess where and to identify what attracts attention, or distracts from attention, and to express how the environment feels from an autistic, attention-deficit (ADD/ADHD) perspective. These heatmaps of the amount and location of visual change became quite informative maps of how people use space, and how design constrains people from using space effectively.

(A minimal, fully-functional code sample is appended to the end of this post. You will need Python, and the OpenCV and Numpy libraries installed.)

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15 minutes from the Lee-to-Sea Greenway

As the prospect grows closer of a continuous cycle and walking route from the Inniscarra Dam to the harbour, this post assesses how many people and schools are within a car-free catchment area around the route. Two boundaries are displayed, a 2 km zone in which most people will be within a 15-minute walk and a 6 km zone in which most people are within a 15-minute cycle ride of the route. The number of post-primary schools and total pupil roll are separately counted.

These figures matter greatly because car park provision will be immediately raised, with the potential to induce additional motorised traffic to and around the route. In reality, large numbers of people, Bed & Breakfast, hostels and restaurants already lie directly on this resource, with large volumes of existing on-street and business parking space.

  • The proposed Lee to Sea route provides 46 km of mixed woodland, lake, river and seaside greenway, with an elevation range of just 45 m;
  • 157,000 people live within 2 km of the route and 229,000 within 6 km of the route – most could walk or cycle from home within 15 minutes;
  • 60 primary schools with 16,922 pupils lie within 2km and 82 primary schools with 24,012 within 6km;
  • 34 secondary schools with a total of 16,072 pupils lie within 2 km of the Lee to Sea route, and further 3 schools (Scoil Mhuire, St Aidan’s Community College and Douglas Community School) with a further 1,711 pupils lie within 6 km of the route;
  • The route directly connects 37 of Cork County’s 85 secondary schools, with one another, and with the city and sea;
  • 19 hotels offering 2,212 rooms lie within 2km of the route.
Within 2kmWithin 6kmIn Cork City + County
At Work65,43997,103179,890
Primary schools6082342
Primary pupils16,92224,01263,574
Secondary schools343784
Secondary pupils16,07217,78342,893
Hotel rooms2,2122,538>3,943

All analysis was performed with open source software using publicly available data, and all software and data sources are provided in the links at the end – also annotated R code used to generate these outputs. The technical description may be a helpful tutorial in using public data and mapping sources. This analysis was proposed by Orla Burke and Pedestrian Cork.

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Car-free Cork in 15 minutes, walking and cycling

Cork City centre is within 15 minutes walk (green) for 22,000 residents, within 30 minutes walk (cyan) for 53,000 residents and 45 minutes walk, or 20 minutes cycling (pink) for 106,000 residents.

Cork City centre is compact, varied and contains all the amenities for most people’s everyday needs. The City centre shops and facilities are within 15 minutes walk (green) for 22,530 residents, within 30 minutes walk (cyan) for 53,481 residents and 45 minutes walk, or 20 minutes cycling (pink) for 106,200 residents.

These residents are, equally, the consumer base of many of the businesses within Cork City centre, and the audience for appeals on footfall and invigorating activity in Cork.

I use the boundaries of Cork City, as defined at the time of the 2016 census, to count and plot how many can (and do!) walk, cycle, use public transport and live without cars or private motorised vehicles in Cork City. Links to the full CSO Small Area Population Statistics (SAPS) are included (and repeated in full at the end), as well as some excellent sources of information about the City, including the Pedestrian Cork Survey 2020.

(See also “Conserving accesible urban space” for a discussion on accessibility and sensory overload in Cork City).

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