Public spaces aren’t equal places. That is, some people don’t feel safe or welcome in particular places. It seems this is the case for teenage girls. According to some Swedish research, public spaces aren’t used equally by girls and boys. So creating safe public spaces for girls is a challenge for urban and landscape designers.
Until the age of seven, boys and girls use public facilities, such playgrounds, on an equal basis to boys. According to a 2020 Girl Guides UK survey, 62 percent of girls aged 11-21 years said they didn’t have an outdoor sport or facility they felt safe to use. What would encourage them to go out? Safer places, less catcalling and more things to do they said.
Girls like to use swings but they are placed with the equipment for young children. If teenagers use them they are seen as invaders – not welcome. Branko Miletic in Architecture and Design magazine says,
“Come to think of it, teenagers are seen as invaders in most public spaces: they are too old for playgrounds, don’t have the money for malls or cafes, and also run the risk of harassment in public facilities overrun by boys and men. But they also yearn for physical activity and movement, connecting with friends, having fun conversations, walking and biking, and indulging in sports and games at their own pace, without being judged or commented upon in a public space.”
Multi-use areas such as skate parks, basketball courts and kickabout areas are designed for ‘young people’. However, boys and young men tendt to dominate these areas. Boys tend to dominate single large spaces while girls are more comfortable in broken-up spaces. In terms of seating, boys want to watch the action while girls like to face each other to talk.
Ask the girls
The answer, of course is to involve girls in the design process. Ask them what they want in a public space. A local authority in Sweden together with architects constructed a model designed with girls. The design revealed a preference for places with colour, sitting face to face, protected from weather, and to see without necessarily being seen.
Public spaces must cater for all ages. It’s not just about physical activity, it about social interaction and feeling safe. It would be interesting to do a similar study with older people so we can create intergenerational spaces too.
The title of the article in Architecture and Design is, Designing safe public spaces for teenage girls.