Landscape Architecture Graduate Katie Finnigan Focuses on Neuro-Inclusive Public Spaces

May 9, 2023

Kathryn (Katie) Finnigan thought she’d focus primarily on climate change when she arrived at CU Denver to earn a master of landscape architecture, but she noticed a gap in her chosen field that also needed attention. “Equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility principles should be incorporated into our practice,” she said. “I took this opportunity to dig into a project that could help move the field forward in addressing these social issues.” 

Finnigan is interested in closing the gap between the field of landscape architecture and addressing invisible disabilities when developing public spaces. She is inspired to connect marginalized groups with the outdoors, to embrace inclusive designs that work for all people, and to influence positive trends in environmental considerations. Her work surrounding equity in outdoor and public spaces for neurodiverse populations has led to notable recognitions throughout her academic career at CU Denver, including becoming a Landscape Architecture Foundation’s (LAF) National Olmsted Scholar, the most prestigious award for landscape architecture students in North America, and an LAF Fellow for Innovation and Leadership. 

This summer, Finnigan will complete her thesis: Neuro-Inclusive Spaces: Designing Sensorially Supportive Landscapes. “It’s a community-engaged qualitative study,’” she said about her thesis. “It’s designed to learn more about how landscape architects, designers, and planners can create sensorily supportive outdoor environments for neurodivergent populations. It’s really focused on collaboration with neurodivergent community members.” 

A large portion of the research involved local mentorship and directly interviewing and surveying neurodivergent community members nationwide. Through the interviews, Finnigan learned more about accessibility and inclusivity issues that impact people’s everyday lives. She says that some of the stories shared are heartbreaking, but are also inspiring because there are small measures that can be taken to make large impacts. “I don’t consider study participants subjects, they’ve been collaborators,” Finnigan said. “I’ve asked them ‘What do you think would help? How can we design spaces to better accommodate this experience that you’re having?’ There’s been a lot of really good ideas shared that I’m excited to disseminate,” Finnigan said. 

Finnigan also spoke to parents who want more options for their children, whether that’s an inclusive park for kids or a place to plan a birthday party for an adult with sensory needs. This effort will continue when Finnigan joins the LAF Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership in June. Each year, LAF selects two to three Olmsted Scholars to participate in the year-long fellowship alongside mid-career and senior-level Fellows.  

During the fellowship, Finnigan plans to create a neuro-inclusive design kit for use in planning public and outdoor spaces, something that will give designers and planners terminology, tools, and suggestions for planning sensory-inclusive spaces. “When it’s finished, I’d like to share it with different regional governments and municipalities,” Finnigan said. “If they’re looking to advance their equity, diversity, and inclusion plans, they need to consider including neurodiverse communities. Because every community is neurodiverse.” 

Paving unique paths, like this, is at the heart of academic study. At CU Denver, Finnigan has found ways to put academic knowledge into practical solutions that she hopes can translate into a future career. “As city planners, designers, and landscape architects, we can find solutions to social issues along with environmental issues and not only embrace, but initiate, positive societal change,” Finnigan said.