Teenage girls are in a tricky situation. They’ve well and truly outgrown the play equipment and the public parks earmarked for their age group – skateparks and sports and recreation fields – are undeniably over-representatively taken up by boys, metaphorically and literally man-spreading. The lack of suitable and appealing outdoor public spaces for girls is not a new phenomenon, but it is one that we are determined to address in our work as landscape architects.
Research tells us that girls use spaces to chat, socialise, linger and connect. Girls schools are leading the way in creating outdoor areas with multi-level and multi-purpose agora-style gardens with extensive seating infrastructure that’s multipurpose that girls willingly use (although, of course, they don’t really have a lot of choice in this context) and offer a design approach to follow to apply to public, community spaces for our girls to gravitate to.
So what’s stopping girls from accessing communal spaces?
Well, for a start, so many public spaces were designed against the needs of boys and men as per this epic book that Debbie, our founding Director absolutely loved. According to Swedish research, boys over 8 years of age use parks four times as much as girls. Four times! Obviously, and depressingly, safety continues to be a concern for girls. Of course CPTED can work towards addressing this, but it’s not just physical safety that makes girls feel reluctant to use a space.
All of us in the Orterra design studio can recall our teenage years looking for somewhere to ‘hang’, a word that makes our teenagers cringe in mortification. At local playgrounds, there was often really nowhere for us to sit other than the swings which didn’t fit our non-toddler frames and which caused side-eye from parents, leaving us feeling like interlopers taking up space.
On this – there is research to suggest that swings are the ideal equipment for teenage girls, particularly front facing or hammock-style that allow for vestibular stimulation and emotional connection. Without our ‘own’ equipment we found unoccupied picnic tables or sat on the grass. If the weather wasn’t great we’d head for a local shopping centre or the golden arches where even if we didn’t have money to spend (and nine times out of ten we didn’t) at least we were protected from the elements undercover and felt safe. Sadly, in the ten, twenty and thirty years since members of our team have left adolescence (ouch!) very little seems to have changed for our girls.
What do they have to say?
We’re blessed here at Orterra to have access to very cool humans, including the teenage daughters of members of our team. We recently did a quick, casual survey of a group of the girls and their friends about where they like to hang out away from the (apparently intrusive – how very dare they!) gaze of their parents. They all believed that the local skatepark, while council-described as ‘inclusive’ was a recipe for harassment. The girls wanted to be able to use parks in a way that balances creativity and arts, movement and connection. They loved the idea of picnics where they could all contribute food, but without running the risk of toddlers or pre-schoolers running through the middle of their spread (this happens!) and without having to deal with the consternation of the parents of said toddlers asking them to turn down their music. They also mentioned the lack of opportunity for movement that was non-competitive.
So, adequate seating that allows them to chat and connect, perhaps get crafty, share food, listen to music without having to pay for a ticket to a music festival. It doesn’t feel like too much to ask, does it?
Make Space For Girls
Swing Time, a public space installation in Boston in 2014 prompted the launch of a UK-based charity, Make Space for Girls. Make Space for Girls has curated research from across the globe about how spaces can be reimagined for teenage girls. The existing infrastructure, while not expressly anti-girl (and of course, also ascribes to notions of masculinity and femininity that should have been put to bed decades upon decades ago) aren’t pro-girl.
We believe that our work as landscape architects has an incredibly important part to play in creating public spaces for teenage girls that embrace an alignment between public health research, planning policy and urban design. For more information about the theoretical underpinnings of our work, please reach out. We love chatting everything and anything urban landscape design!