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Shaping Tomorrow: Activating Spaces, Building Playtime


A pilot project held in the Les Glòries park, Barcelona, could change the way we think of play in our cities - and ASD Publics are at the heart of this transformation.

Blanca Calvo, a 40-year-old architect and researcher at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) working in the Catalan capital, is a member of ASD Publics’ project team, an initiative focused on building public play areas suitable for autistic children. The project received the support of the EIT Community Connect NEB, a programme for the advancement of sustainable and inclusive design initiatives. The ASD Publics team, nested within UOC, applied for the programme alongside other expert partners to support the development of the project. 

The idea came from conversations with my project partners, particularly with a psychologist at IGAIN (the Global Institute of Neurodevelopment Integrated Care) who works with kids with autism. We realised there was a lack of suitable public spaces for these children. So, one day, we decided to do something about it.

Blanca Calvo, member of ASD Publics’ project team

They found the perfect opportunity for testing design solutions in a green space within Glòries Square, a key location in the city, which is no stranger to the reappropriation of public land for the common good.

Blanca emphasises the importance of inclusive and accessible public spaces for all individuals and believes they should cater to everyone’s needs. The project's design reflects this belief, as the ASD Publics team brought together architects and mental health specialists to address the unique needs of autistic children.

There have been very few projects that integrate these different fields. Additionally, the participatory process we developed was something new as well. Since many of the autistic children we worked with are nonverbal, we couldn't rely on traditional methods of gathering information through direct questioning. Instead, we created a participatory design process that engaged the children through play and other interactive methods.

Blanca Calvo, member of ASD Publics’ project team 

This interdisciplinary collaboration, and the unique methodology forged in its furnace, is central to the project’s success. This approach allowed the group to gather valuable insights and involve the children in the design process.

'We wanted to create a space that was not only functional but also beautiful, a space that could be enjoyed by everyone from a range of different abilities,' said Blanca.

Overcoming Challenges: Collaborative Learning and Stakeholder Engagement

The involvement of different stakeholders, including government institutions, professional groups, and autism organisations meant that ASD Publics was able to defer to experts and share responsibility where necessary, something Blanca considers vital when working with vulnerable groups.

It was a learning process for us as well. We discovered that understanding autistic children's experiences is not always straightforward, and their behaviours may not always convey their true feelings or preferences directly. For example, a child repeating the same action may seem like they are enjoying it, but it could be a ritual or a manifestation of other factors. To gain a deeper understanding, we relied on the expertise of therapists and families of the children we worked with, who could provide insights based on their close observation and knowledge of the children.

Blanca Calvo, member of ASD Publics’ project team

This collaboration was a valuable experience for the project team, even though Blanca suggests there were some challenges in aligning perspectives. 'Nonetheless, working together enriched our project and brought a unique perspective to the design process.'


As a result, the group created their temporary pilot play space in Glòries Square using colour, texture, and shape as their basic conceptual building blocks.

'We needed to create an outer perimeter to enclose the design space, ensuring the safety of playing children as well as the peace of mind of their families and guardians,' said Blanca. 'And, since the overall aim of our design ethos is to create the right amount of sensorial stimulation for children, we were also very particular about the type of materials we wanted to use to build the perimeter. For example, there’s evidence to suggest that autistic people can get quite a lot of benefits of being in contact with nature; the calm, the tranquillity, but also all the textures and smells. The materials we chose for the final design turned the play area’s outer boundary, which tends to be a dead space, into another interactive sensory experience for the children to enjoy.'

'We’ve since designed an autism-friendly design handbook so this method can be replicated in other locations,' said Blanca.

Discussing ASD Publics’ work with EIT Community, Ilona Puskás, Community Activation Officer at the EIT Climate-KIC, said, 'The original ASD Publics project and Play AUT the Box, their consequent scale-up activity, are a crucial contributor to the EIT Community NEB portfolio. Beyond providing visibility to neurodiversity in children, the initiative offers sensitive, science-based design interventions, as well as support community building and integration in the face of a complex condition.'

Blanca's advice for those interested in undertaking socially oriented projects is to build a strong and aligned team. 'Having a good idea is important, but finding partners who share the same approach and philosophy is equally vital. The partners should be aligned in their vision and commitment to the project.'

This, she says, can ensure a cohesive and fruitful collaboration that can drive innovation and achieve the desired outcomes. She also highlights the importance of building a strong network of partners and supporters, something being part of the EIT Community NEB provided, alongside credibility and support. 'If you’re looking to build and connect with individuals and organisations who are working towards similar goals, the EIT Community is a great launching point for any start-up organisation.'

With our approach, it's not about cutting-edge technologies but rather using what’s available, learning about the experiences of autistic children in these spaces, and going from there.

Blanca Calvo, member of ASD Publics’ project team

'A strong network is essential to the success of any multi-actor project,' Blanca continues. She elaborated on the importance of the participatory design process, which is a central hallmark of ASD Publics’ work. The team recognised early-on the importance of engaging the children themselves in the design process, as they’re ultimately the ones who’ll be using these spaces. 

'I think the real innovation in our project lies in our methodology,' said Blanca. 'This interdisciplinary collaboration was novel, integrating different fields. Additionally, the participatory process we developed alongside our team of experts in autism and experts in participation with children was also something entirely new.'

Loreto Nácar, a developmental neuroscientist that worked at IGAIN and who specialises in children on the autism spectrum, explained that their innovative participatory methodology grew out of a collaboration with their partners in the ASD Publics project team.

I had to adapt to this methodology and use my expertise to make the experience comfortable for the children, helping them to participate by adapting our materials, supervising sessions, and helping in the event of a crisis. 

Loreto Nácar, a developmental neuroscientist that worked at IGAIN

These approaches, developed over time, serve as a testament to the power of collective action, and how bringing together multiple actors can address the need for suitable public spaces for vulnerable children.