Girls and public parks – how you can make a difference?

Following on from my article ‘The right to equal play’ that focuses on girls and public parks, I wanted to share with you some information that may be of interest to anyone else who feels inspired to start looking at how they can make a difference to older girls in their own park but doesn’t know where to start, or what they could do.

Girls and public parks

A brief bit of background – the right to equal play

You can read my original article here about why I thought it was important to start researching older girls’ views on my local park, Rowntree Park in York. And why it’s important that councils, planners, designers and the like need to get the views of older girls when planning or adding to parks (also check out Make Space for Girls).

A brief summary ….council’s choice of facilities for older children tends to be skateparks, MUGAs, and BMX tracks which are often planned with the ‘default male citizen’ in mind. They become dominated by males. We need to raise awareness that councils should be getting the views of older girls when planning new parks or additional features. Research shows that after the age of 8 girls tend to use public parks less, and that girls are 10 times more likely to feel insecure in such places. This is partly because of social norms, but also because parks are not designed or equipped to encourage girls to use parks.  Therefore if we look at what changes we could make to the design of parks, or the facilities on offer, then it is a step toward encouraging more equal use of public parks.  There is of course a lot more to it than just facilities, but it is the facilities we can practically focus on whilst at the same time continuing to push for societal changes.

Raising awareness amongst councillors and designers that the views of girls should be taken into consideration when planning or redesigning parks is key. However, how do you do this? How can you go about making a difference?  There is no one way, but below I share with you how I’m approaching things and any advice I can share from what I know. I’m no expert, but it’s a journey that may be useful to others thinking about setting out and asking themselves ‘what can I do?’.

What can you do?

This depends on your starting point. If you are part of the council then this is less of a challenge to start making a difference. However if you are just an interested party then there are various ways you could go about seeing if change can happen. 

Friends of Parks –   I’m a volunteer with a ‘Friends of Park’ group and therefore over the last couple of years I have found out more about what the council does and doesn’t do in our park and what us as volunteers can do.  If you want changes in a local park, find out if there is a ‘Friends of Park’ group and drop them a line. Don’t expect them to know the answers, many are just small groups of people but they’d probably welcome someone passionate to get involved in a project like this and would support you where they can. For example, Friends groups have links to the council and know who to chat with.

My own ‘Friends of Park’ group has grown over the last few years and two years ago we became a charity. Even before this time we’d started to look at what funding was out there to improve our park – we’ve had funding for gardening projects, mental health and wellbeing sessions and much more. As part of this friends group, I will be looking to seek funding via grants and/or business sponsorship for some practical changes as a result of the feedback from older girls. Whether a not for profit group or charity, Friends groups will be able to access some funding you may not be able to as an individual.

Local councillors – find out who your ward councillors are and ask for advice and support into looking into this area. They may have people they can connect you with and/or can find out information for you. They may want to get involved themselves. However, don’t expect them to lead it all as they have many causes to represent.

Contact your council park department– if you do this, do it in a supportive way!  Point out this issues and come up with solutions or ideas on how the council could tackle and look into this.  It’s likely this isn’t an issue they even thought of, so if the information is presented well then you’ll get cogs turning.

What have I done so far?

Online Survey

As a member of a ‘Friends of Park’ group I set up an online survey to get the views of girls aged 10-17.  Using Google forms this is simple and straightforward. This survey was anonymous but emails could be left if they wanted to be involved at a future date.  The survey had to be concise and then the aim is to follow up on more specific areas (such as our skatepark). We used a mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches in the questionnaire. If you have the help of a professional researcher with a clear methodological approach, even better. However, if not you can see the kind of things we asked in our survey here – we mixed checkboxes with scales and also areas to expand on answers. In addition, the survey will be used alongside focus groups and case studies. The research would not be representative of all girls in the UK or even our city, but will give us a good idea on girls in our area who use our park.

How to get the online survey out there

Our Friends group has over 800 households as members so we shared the survey via our monthly newsletter, I also shared via social media. I also contacted local secondary schools and asked them to include in their weekly newsletter to parents – you can find school office emails on the school’s websites easily.  I wrote the paragraph of information and asked them to include, so all they had to do was cut and paste to the newsletter. The easier you make things, the more likely people will share them I have found. An ideal would be actually a local school(s) who want to get on board with the project and actually via their PSCHE lesson, or similar, actually get the girls to do the survey and even better run a session. It really depends if a local school is inspired by the project – great chance for their pupils to make a difference.

I also went on the local radio to talk about this. On this occasion they contacted me after being tagged on social media. Previously I have written press releases to get coverage for other park issues and these are often picked up on. Again, no expert on press releases, but I’ll share one that I’m writing when able. The top take away tip is- make it easy for people. Write things for them and they’ll share!

Workshops and Focus Groups

I set up a workshop to encourage older girls to come and share their views on the park. It’s pretty hard to get people involved in this sort of session just by opting in to be fair. I used social media and posters in the park. It was more parents’ interest that was galvanised, and that meant this focus group was mainly aged 10-13.   As the workshop was small and focused around certain ages the next step is working out how to engage others. I’m trying to reach out to local schools and teachers to see if they’d be willing to run brief sessions using the resources I created. Also I’ll be contacting local clubs and groups, all at the same time I’m using social media to try and raise awareness.  It all takes time, and I have to fit this between my full time job and family.

In our skatepark there are some 20-30 year old women who mainly roller skate, many started in lockdown. I know they are role models to some younger girls who feel safer when they are in the skatepark.  Therefore I’ve reached out to them via Instagram to explain more about what I’m trying to and asking if they have ideas/suggestions and want to get involved – the response has been positive, so fingers crossed!  It may also be that I just set up a stall one afternoon in the park and suggest people pop by and share views! I’m going to keep thinking and welcome suggestions.

Where next?

One we have more data then it’s working out what to do with it.  By raising awareness of this cause, I’m hoping girls will get involved in the whole process. That is discussing the summary of feedback and suggesting what changes we could make. From the focus group we’ve already had some suggestions and the survey indicated what features girls want to see in parks.  I’ll aim to compile some of this and see what others think and if they agree. 

Designing parks, re designing or simple additions and changes

In some places, such research may help with new designs of parks or skateparks, but in our park, there will be no major  redesign of the public space. Our council struggles to fund our park as it is – there is no staff based in our large park or any planting that takes place, just basic maintenance. Any new features added over the last few years and events and activities that run are organised by the Friends of Rowntree Park.  Places where new parks or redesigned parks that involve the view of girls are fantastic and inspirational, but for us it’s aiming for some small changes that we feel could still make a difference.

In a way, as a ‘normal’ person – not in the council or with massive funders easy to access- small changes are achievable.  So far, feedback shows that our girls want the following in the park:  Equipment like swings, especially larger swings like basket or tyres, and climbing frames but away from the play park aimed for small children. They also want round picnic benches nearby.  They want this area to be in an open area, not hidden away, but somewhere they feel they can hang, relax, exercise and chat without feeling they are using equipment aimed at smaller children and feeling ‘guilty’ when they are on it. 

So we can set about researching the costs of such equipment and link in with the council and get their views and feedback – they will be in the ones hopefully fitting it and will need to agree to overall maintenance. I know that our council prefers low maintenance due to costs (roundabouts tend to need repairs often, so they’d be out for example)  and we also need to think carefully as we are a park that floods most winters, so the equipment choices need to take this into account. Also as we are a park with no staff based there, we take this into consideration too. Once we have an idea of equipment and prices and the council in general agreement regarding fitting (we may need to pay for this), then we will set about finding out what funding may be out there. It would be great if designer could offer up options that we’ve not even considered, there is so much potential for redesigning facilities and parks.

Skateparks – how can they be made to be more ‘girl friendly’ and inclusive?

With our skatepark I’m still doing some more research into views but so far there are some suggestions of things we could do. Our skate park is quite small and although outdoors it is in an enclosed wire cage.  It was noted only one gate to it was open, so already we have made sure the council open both gates daily – the knowledge there are two exits make the skatepark feel less intimidating feedback has stated. 

We also have hedges around the cage that blocks the view into the rest of the park, and the view into the skate park. We are considering getting these taken back so the space is opened up. Girls have commented on feeling intimidated as the space is separate and also there are places where older boys drinking have been congregating. If we can get the ‘cage’ taken down then we win a metre width of grassy bank. It’s not much but may be space for some benches. Again, a complaint of our skatepark is that people congregate at the top of the ramps as there is nowhere else to sit and that’s intimidating for others to go up and also they feel they are constantly watched.  Getting some extra space a the side and benches may help avoid this.

Basically, what I’m saying is that small changes will hopefully make a difference to our skate park but we wouldn’t have known such things without getting the views of local girls. We are also looking into girl only skate sessions and ways to involve both male and female skaters who already use the skate park – helping create community. It’s also felt that some girls would feel less intimidated using the space if they’d mastered some basic skills -they’d feel more confident using the space. As it stands, they feel like some of the skilled older boys/men (15-30 approx) dominate and run them off areas when they try to learn, and this stops them wanting to use the space. More to be done and still thinking…

Finding funding

There are lots of smaller grants out there and currently many mention social isolation and mental health and wellbeing.  I feel that girls and public park improvements fit here well. There is also sports funding, as there is a good link with physical and mental health. There will be others too, local ward funding may be worth investigating.  Through piecemeal funding I think we could start to get some equipment. It may be that we even look at business sponsors for equipment or round benches.

Again, being linked to a ‘Friends of Park’ group I’ve got some experience of writing funding applications. However if you don’t, it’s likely that in your area there are groups and organisations who can support this. In York, we have the CVS who offer workshops and guidance and this has helped us in the past. You may be able to get a professional bid writer on board as a volunteer – you don’t know until you ask!

Involving girls through out

My ideal is to involve the older girls throughout. From their initial thoughts and suggestions, to choosing equipment and locations, to helping raise awareness and helping find funding. By supporting them they will be more equipped in the future to know they can create change.

How can local people help?

I have had a few people get in touch and ask how they can help and also received some great messages of support.  So far I have suggested things like looking into what funding/grants are out there, help designing research, help with communications/press releases to raise awareness  and the like. I’ve also had some chats with people interested in running some girls skills skate sessions. I love how the project is evolving but I do need help and welcome it.

Summary

I’d love to hear from anyone else looking into a similar area and exchanging ideas and supporting one another.  Make Space for Girls has been a great source of inspiration and support.

Further information

I will aim to add more information as and when able on the following:

  • Details of the focus group session
  • Information on our main findings from the survey and focus group
  • Press release example
  • Ideas on grants and funding

Rowntree Park is a large memorial park in York, around 20 minutes walk from the city centre. It includes lakes, play parks, a skate park a basketball court, woodland areas and a ampitheatre, amongst other features. There is also a cafe and tennis courts but these are maintained by other groups than the Friends or the council.

Abigail Gaines – October 2021

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