Public spaces in urban environments are planned as age-inclusive areas that are meant to meet the needs of people of all ages. But in reality, our public spaces are not representative examples of equitable architecture that accommodates users across the demographic spectrum. For instance, do our public spaces make room for teenage girls?

Teenagers need space to play, interact, socialise, exercise and generally let off steam. However, various studies on the usage of public facilities such as playgrounds, skating rinks and public parks reveal that an overwhelming percentage of users are male.

“Public spaces aren’t used equally amongst girls and boys,” says Swedish architecture firm, White Arkitekter, which initiated the Flickrum project to design and create more equitable places that accommodate girls.

“Until the age of seven, boys and girls use public facilities such as playgrounds equally but from the age of eight this changes. Statistics shows that from this age, 80 percent of the users are boys, while girls feel ten times more insecure in public places.”

Sharing her teenage experience, Susannah Walker, Co-Founder of British charity Make Space for Girls, recalls: “At the end of the summer holidays my friend and I ran out of money. We were both seventeen and we had nothing to do and there was nowhere to go. So we’d go and hang out on the swings in the early evening and chat as the light slowly faded into dusk.”

“We were lucky because the rest of the park was empty, so no one chased us off, or told us to go somewhere else, and where would that have been anyway if they had?”

Indeed, where would teenage girls go to spend their free time, hang with friends, play in a non-competitive environment, chat, connect and relax – in a safe and inexpensive way?

“When it comes to parks, the needs of young people are seen as homogenous,” observes Walker.

For instance, a city council planning document in the UK provides for multi-use games areas (MUGAs), skate parks, basketball courts, youth shelters, informal kickabout areas, and BMX tracks for use by ‘young people’.

Research reveals that most of the users of these facilities are boys and young men, and girls and young women feel unwelcome in these places. The reasons are many, explains Walker. Boys tend to dominate single large spaces while girls are more comfortable in broken-up spaces. In seating design, boys prefer to watch the action, while girls like to face each other. Then there’s the question of safety.

Results from a 2020 Girl Guides UK survey revealed a few uncomfortable truths about girls’ access to play and sport: Roughly 62 percent of the respondents aged 11-21 years indicate they didn’t have an outdoor sport or facility that they felt safe to use. What would encourage them to go out? Safer places, less catcalling, and more things to do, they responded.

Most importantly, no one asks the young female demographic what they want in a public space. Swings, for instance. Girls really like swings, says Walker but swings in park design are always placed with the equipment for children. “If teenagers use them, they are seen as invaders, taking up room where kids should be playing, being intimidating just by being there.”

Swing Time

Swing Time is an interactive playscape in Boston, USA composed of 20 illuminated ring-shaped swings. The swings are designed in three different sizes so that the community can engage, exercise, and play as individuals or in groups. Credit: Swing Time, Boston | Höweler + Yoon Architecture | Photographer: John Horner

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.

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 and the Public Sector Equality Duty requires councils and providers of park spaces to think about how to encourage girls to use public facilities. To promote more equitable design in public spaces, Walker suggests improving existing spaces to make them more welcoming for girls; getting inputs from girls about what they expect in a public space; and conducting an equalities assessment before designing a public facility.

White Arkitekter believes there is a lack of knowledge about how to plan and design public places in ways that correspond to the needs and preferences of teen girls.

Working in collaboration with the Stockholm-based theatre company UngaTur, teenage girls from the youth council of Skarpnäck municipality, and local authority learning facilitators, the architects at White Arkitekter initiated an art project where the teenage participants constructed 1:50 models to represent a public space – by and for girls. The design revealed their preference for public places with strong character concerning colour and form, places for sitting together face-to-face, protected from weather and wind, to see without necessarily being seen, and a sense of intimacy without being constrictive.

“The absence of girls in the urban planning process creates a knowledge gap, resulting in public spaces that exclude. To create cities that are inclusive and socially sustainable, this fundamental issue must change,” the firm says.

A truly inclusive public space must cater to the needs of users of all ages including teen girls. Public spaces are not just about physical activity; they are also environments that foster creativity and social interaction, and assure safety. Public space design strategies must, therefore, focus on integrating features that encourage teenage girls to visit, participate, socialize and have shared experiences with their peers – without feeling unwelcome or vulnerable.


Image credit: Flickrum | White Arkitekter