How to Build Public Spaces for Teen Girls
Teen girls are neither children nor adults, meaning they have specific needs and behaviors different from both these groups. Unfortunately, like many marginalized groups, these needs and behaviors have not been met or encouraged through our built environment as it has for others. For example, playgrounds are built for children to let off steam and sports courts that foster competition are targeted at men and teen boys.
Accordingly, not building public spaces with the needs of teen girls in mind allows other groups of people, predominantly men who already take up 80% of public spaces, to continue to dominate them. Making teen girls feel ten times less secure in public spaces. Not only does this absence affect their social, physical, and mental development, but it also complicates how they see where they belong in public spaces.
Teen girls need spaces that incorporate their own needs. To understand what these needs are and how they can be met through our built environment, we highlight three European organizations and individuals below to navigate how to build spaces for teen girls, too.
Spaces to Chat, Linger and Socialize
Make Space for Girls, is a UK nonprofit that campaigns for parks and public spaces to be designed for teen girls through research and public engagement. Co-founder, Susannah Walker, reflects on her teen years to direct her research, explaining “at the end of the summer holidays my friend and I ran out of money…there was nowhere to go. So, we’d go and hang out on the swings…it was better than sitting around at home.” Since swings are typically built for smaller bodies and placed in areas for younger children, “if teenagers use them they are seen as invaders.” Susannah says.
The nonprofit found teen girls want to foster interaction, as the group faces barriers in spaces that are already typically built for interaction. That is not having enough money to meet friends at restaurants and cafes (where adults socialize) and the others being seen as invaders in playgrounds (where children socialize). Make Space for Girls is working to address the ‘in-between’ experiences for teens by creating comfortable and accessible spaces for them to chat, linger and socialize.
Lessons from their research show cities need to add seating in areas like parks, recreation courts, and public squares that are arranged in styles other than lines. Seating in a semi-circle, facing one another, and multilevel platforms are successful in fostering the interaction teen girls want.
At this age, it is crucial for teen girls to develop their social ties and skills. Susannah’s work is looking to help teen girls by “trying to give them open-ended-ness, to give them some freedom in the city.”
Spaces to be Active
Swedish architecture firm, White Arkitekter, created the project Flickrum, which co-designs public spaces with teen girls to develop practical and equitable methods. The project began after a municipality wanted to encourage more cycling amongst young women and girls, which encouraged the firm to consult with the targeted group. White Arkitekter found that teen girls did not want to bike in environments that fostered competition, like who could bike the fastest or the longest. Rather, “it’s about slow biking, trying out different things and doing that in a group,” says White Arkitekter member, Rebbecca Rubin.
Teen girls want spaces that are more than just for movement, they also want to be social and creative in their activities. The group expressed to White Arkitekter that to increase their desire for cycling, they’d want a venue to pedal to, where they can make pit stops to talk. Infrastructure that allows them to pedal beside each other for conversations, without feeling like they are “in the way” of fast, recreational cyclists (who are predominantly men). Placing installations and parks along wide and protected bike lanes is one way to meet teen girls’ needs to encourage activity.
This can be building outdoor balancing beams, small to medium roller rinks, skate parks, and climbing walls where they can move their bodies and fail without judgment or catcalls. Additionally, platforms to listen to and dance to music without having to pay for a ticket to a festival or for a dance class. It’s about finding ways to encourage physical activity that balances the arts, sports, and free play, not just about competition.
Designing places for the goal of movement – that is not just about competition – gives teen girls the option to move their bodies in ways that are comfortable, interesting, and convenient for them.
Spaces that feel safe
Artist and urbanist, Carmel Keren, is the researcher behind GUrL, an ongoing practice-based research project as a fellow at ZK/UBerlin, supported by the Arts Council England. Through email exchanges with Carmel, she explained she is using a six-month time period to work directly with teen girls in Berlin to learn about their experiences in the built environment. To reach and engage with this group, she conducts workshops and observations to develop her project material. During her research, the word “safety” came up the most when speaking with teen girls about public spaces. Notably, it became apparent to Carmel that a “sense of safety can’t always be solved through design” (think Leslie Kern’s quote “no amount of lighting will dismantle the patriarchy”).
Teen girls want to feel safe in public spaces beyond having physical interventions, like lighting. They want to occupy spaces and break existing social and cultural norms that men and boys dominate public spaces. Norms like “man-spreading”, crowding women’s personal space on sidewalks and benches, and talking loudly on their mobile devices or to each other. These are a continuation of behaviors that originated from laws that historically segregated women in “male spaces”. In some cultures – these dynamics are still expected and accepted.
Carmel changed her approach to addressing safety in public spaces by not focusing on traditional design (eg, additional lighting) but by “creating meaning experiences which give girls a voice and power to occupy and take over spaces in their city.”
Working intensively with a group of girls from a predominately Muslim first-generation immigrant background, GUrL has been using public interventions to reflect and change power dynamics that currently mold public spaces. To accomplish this, they made themselves more visible in public spaces (something teen girls are often taught to do the opposite of) by walking through streets as a “public DJ”, carrying speakers to play their favorite songs for all to hear. The activity used sound to disrupt who currently dominates public spaces, aiming to give girls the confidence to continue to do so, with or without music. Other activities to take up space included the performative occupation of public spaces that used spoken word, banners, and costumes designed by the girls. The group marched through a park previously described as “boring”, which took on a new meaning with the props they brought that allowed them to be loud about topics that mattered to them.
Around this age is when individuals begin to navigate where they belong in society. If we continue to allow those who historically and typically dominate public spaces, we are telling teen girls how they should act and see themselves in these spaces. Giving access, resources, and encouragement for teen girls to occupy spaces that are meaningful to them can relieve concerns they may have around safety.
Work with Teen Girls for Inclusive Spaces
Teen girls’ needs and behaviors have not been considered in many of our built environments, making them feel less secure in public spaces. To help meet this group’s needs and give them space in our urban design, we need to work with them.
Collaborating with this group brings valuable insights into creating more inclusive spaces that have typically gone ignored. It has identified what can make spaces for socialization more accessible and comfortable, how physical activity can become more attractive and within reach, and reflection on what safety means to this group beyond physical interventions.
The above European-based examples can provide inspiration and direction for implementing similar strategies at home in Canada. From what has been demonstrated, it simply begins by collaborating with teen girls to hear their experiences and understand their needs, one park, bike lane, and public space at a time.
What other ways can we include teen girls in public spaces?
This article was originally published in Women in Urbanism Canada.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Women in Architecture presented by Sky-Frame.
Sky-Frame is characterized by its empathic ability to take on different perspectives and points of view. We are interested in people and their visions, whether in architecture or in a social context. We deeply care about creating living spaces and in doing so we also question the role of women in architecture. From the arts to the sciences, women shape our society. We want to shed more light on this role, increase the visibility of Women in Architecture and empower/encourage them to realize their full potential.
Initiated by Sky-Frame, the “Women in Architecture” documentary is an impulse for inspiration, discussion, and reflection. The film’s release is on 3 November 2022.
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