Girls and Public Parks – the right to equal play.

Inspired by newly formed charity – Make Space for Girls – we want to look at older girls views of Rowntree Park and find out how it is used, or perhaps not used. You can read more about the background to this project below which highlights research and findings of studies in the UK and elsewhere. However, we see it as important not to enter into any research with preconceived views and want to be directed by local girls.

We will be running some workshops and research in Autumn 2021 – you can book on here

We would love to hear from local girls (and boys) who’d like to be involved and help drive the project (if any action is seen as needed following findings). Get in contact hello@rowntreepark.org.uk

Survey for girls aged 10-17 here

Read on…

The right to equal play – Girls and public parks

Parks and open spaces are so important for all our physical and mental health. Although many always knew this, the COVID pandemic has perhaps highlighted just exactly how important access to green space is to so many. Therefore when you realise public park facilities aimed at older children are rarely used by half of the population (girls), then there should be no doubt that there is something not quite right here.

If you were to ask most councils what play and park equipment they provide for older children, the answers tend to be skateparks, BMX tracks, football pitches and mugas.  In truth there aren’t many studies of how public parks and open spaces are used by older children, but what there is highlights that boys tend to dominate sports orientated facilities in public playgrounds (1).

Some councils may state that these facilities are ‘gender neutral’ – however how can this be the case when the boy/girl balance is split like this?  When local councils are deciding how to spend money on parks and similar outdoor leisure facilities they must comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty (2). As it stands, most  councils are not providing equal access to leisure, sports and recreation facilities if the facilities are used predominantly by one sex. By not considering the views of females in their planning, parks and open space facilities are often planned and built for the ‘default male’ citizen. Girls have a right to play and their needs should be met too.

At the start of 2021, I came across the newly formed charity – ‘Make Space for Girls’ whose primary aim is campaigning for public spaces designed with girls in mind. My first thoughts were ‘horrah’! After all, this was an issue I had been thinking about, but they were actually starting to do something by raising awareness of this inequality. I watched and read with interest and started to think about the practicalities of ‘what can I do?’ With a background in leadership roles in secondary schools and specialising in gender sociology, to getting involved in my local park by joining the ‘Friends of Rowntree Park’ a couple of years back I suppose I realised I need to be more than just an observer of the campaign but actually start to help action some change in my local park.  The move from interest to the need for action has been heightened in the last few months by the fact my own daughter has just turned 11 years old.   Change needs to happen.  So I started talking to others. A couple of us from the Friends of Rowntree Park want to take this further. We want to find out more about the views of girls about the park and help them get involved in possibly making some real change happen.  We’d love more people to get involved – as a community we could really make a difference to some young lives.

Already there may be questions coming to your mind, but stick with this and read on! 

“My daughter uses the skate park!”

There are girls who use skate parks. There are also some great female role models in sports like BMX and Skateboarding that challenge the stereotypes. But the question is – why is this such a small percentage? It’s this that we need to seek to readdress. We should look at those that do but also those that don’t – find out more about why and why not, and use this knowledge to help make changes.

“Separate facilities for girls is wrong!”

It may not be that separate facilities in parks are needed for girls. We don’t really know at this stage. But as it stands the facilities are separate already if around half of the teen population aren’t using them. The aim is to get girls equally using parks – that may be looking at the hidden barriers that stop them using facilities such as skateparks and seeking to remedy this and improve things to increase participation. It may be that some additional equipment/areas are more suited to uses by some girls (and boys). It’s not about segregation, it’s about taking in the views of both boys and girls in the planning and design of parks. Any changes that take place will benefit a range of park users including boys, and those who do not identify with a specific gender.

I don’t think we should use the term girls and boys!”

Under the Gender Equality Act 2021, sex is a protected characteristic, not gender. Therefore this is what councils have to adhere to – making sure parks and open spaces provide equality for both sexes.

Then there is the issue of gender identity.  Again this isn’t being dismissed or sidelined BUT at this stage we are looking at the statistics that show boys dominate the facilities in parks provided for older children. There are obviously many other issues – race, culture, disability – all issues that should be explored to make parks and open spaces accessible to all. Indeed how such things affect girls’ usage of parks should be explored too (3).  At this stage, our focus is on what we can do to make our park more welcoming to older girls. There could be so much ‘whataboutery’- but there is a real inequality here in terms of provision for girls and this is what we are focusing on at present.   We’d love others to get involved to represent other groups and make changes too.  What we are trying to do,  and how it’s approached,  may not be perfect, we may get things wrong. But don’t criticise, help instead!  Let’s facilitate change. We could spend all day discussing the ‘buts’ and concerns around offending people and groups, but we are trying to make changes. If we aren’t doing things right, help us, guide us, and get involved!

“Surely providing a skate park can’t be seen as discrimination?”

Interesting one this. Most studies on gender issues in parks are focused on skate parks. Skateboarding seems to be an overwhelmingly male pursuit.  I’ve just finished reading ‘Invisible Women’ by Caroline Perez. A similar question was raised by a town official in a town in Sweden who after one official had stated that at least ‘snow clearing was something the gender people’ could not interfere in.  However this led them to look into this and they found that there were issues! They found that when snow fell it was the roads that were cleared first. This mainly benefited male workers who travelled by car to the workplace. It was realised that the policy disadvantaged many women who actually were more likely to walk or use public transport.  They found men’s travel patterns were pretty simple – to and from work, whereas women’s were more complex  and included multiple journeys that covered unpaid work such as childcare drop offs, visiting elderly relatives, supermarket visits etc – all mainly via footpaths. The women were making multiple journeys yet their needs were not considered!  The policy hadn’t intended to discriminate, but by default by not considering the views and travel of women it had (4).

The same goes for skateparks.  A British study based in Nottingham stated 90% of skatepark users are male, Australian studies point to around 95% of skatepark users being male (5). More recent 2019 study in the US shows that it was 76.1% (6). This may reflect positive change is happening but the inequality is still there. Studies point to the fact some female skaters have voiced that they pick times to visit the skatepark when they know large crowds of males won’t be around. In fact, they have stated on their own that some individual males seem to be supportive, but when boys are in groups, the girls feel intimidated. It’s actually argued that the fact skate parks can attract people from out of the local area makes this even more intimidating to girls. So what can you do? Hold girl only skate sessions? Maybe, but is the message to girls that they can only use a park if they use it the way boys do? Sport England’s State ‘don’t expect women to change to fit sport and exercise’. Don’t try to fix the girls, fix the facilities. (7)

So, why aren’t some girls using these public spaces? 

In the younger age groups, the use of parks seems to be fairly equal, especially when parents are around. But it’s when children start to use facilities alone or become more aware of the world and what’s happening around them that girls tend to use parks (or areas of them) less. 

As parents of young girls, we tell them they can do what they want, be who they want to be- after all, gender is a social construct. My own husband avidly took our young daughter to the skate park, bike tracks and rock climbing.  No barriers.  But as our daughter got older we saw her reluctance to participate in sport in the public sphere increasing. 

Research has shown that from the age of 8 there are less girls using public parks. Also that girls were 10 times more likely to feel insecure in these places. This is partly because of social norms, but also because parks are not designed or equipped to cater for girls (8).

Studies of play show how boys tend to dominate the space after this age and some girls withdraw and are less active when boys are present.  A number of reasons for this have been suggested such as boys dominating the space with games, that girls experience dismissive behaviour or taunting.   Girls are often found at the sides, marginalised.  Then there is the issue of safety. A fairly recent Girlguiding study in showed that over 40% of girls aged between 11 and 21 feel unsafe when they go outside, and a third are worried to do things outside on their own (9). It’s not just girls who feel the spaces are unsafe, parents are also concerned about girls going to such public spaces alone. Basically, just when girls should be developing independence, they find themselves unwelcome in public parks as there are no facilities geared to them and they may not feel safe. However that is not just to say girls feeling safe is just about facilities – of course there is more to this such as educating males.

There are numerous sociological studies that focus on education and show how often boys can dominate the space not just in the classroom but also in the playground. Thompson makes the point that ‘territorialisation’ occurs when people think of a space belonging to a certain group (10). It may not just be the users themselves, but others as well. This can perhaps be seen in skateparks where boys and young adults spend time practicing their skills and hanging with friends. It may not be the boys themselves who are working to keep out other users, but more that the perception is that the skatepark is mainly used by males. ‘Territorialism’ teaches boys to see the public space as theirs and shows girls their right to access certain public spaces is dependent on boys allowing this. This is reinforced when leisure facilities used mainly by boys continue to be built (11).

The effects on health

The lack of park facilities for girls, and the barriers excluding them from current provision do not just raise issues about equality and public space but also the effects on physical, and mental health. From age 10, activity levels drop significantly in girls, until by 13-15, only 8% of girls are meeting activity guidelines(12). We all know that regular exercise helps physical health but also positively impacts mental health.  The sports world have led the way with interventions to get women into sport, but we also need measures to encourage girls to be more active in public spaces.

“Maybe we should help the girls change?”

Are girls excluding themselves by choosing not to use facilities in parks?  Some may assert we need to fix the girls, not the facilities. I’d disagree. In the book ‘Invisible Women’ Perez noted that Google realised their employees who were women were less likely to go for promotion and wanted to fix this. But the way they did it was wrong. They got senior women to host workshops to ‘encourage women to nominate themselves’ – basically to be more like men. But why should it be accepted that male traits in the business place are the right ones and women should emulate these? Women’s different skills were overlooked, perhaps it was men’s rate of putting themselves forward for promotion and overestimating abilities was too high but Google didn’t hold workshops to fix this (13).

There is a lot to fix in society. Gender socialisation starts from birth, and although there have been advancements in the last 20 or so years there is much still ingrained and even the most gender neutral intended family will struggle to keep their child from outside influences on their child.  Studies from the 1970s to the present day have shown how teenage girls retreat to the private sphere, often bedrooms, where they feel safe (14). When teaching Sociology to 16-18 year girls I had some interesting discussions with them. Until being asked questions regarding gender identity and how it’s influenced their life so far they hadn’t even stopped to think about it. It hadn’t crossed their mind that gender had affected and shaped their lives. Many of them reflected on their school subject choices (mainly languages, humanities and care based subjects), the fact they’d stopped playing competitive sport  around age 12, stopped putting their hand up in class due to fear ‘lads banter’ and ridicule, and why they now didn’t walk past building sites unaccompanied. Opening up the discussions with one another, I saw their realisation on how their life had been shaped subconsciously. I saw the shock and frustration on some of their faces, anger in others.

So yes, let’s keep working on societal change but at the same time let’s also fix the facilities – let’s find ways to encourage girls to use parks and open spaces. This may include design approaches that haven’t yet been thought of yet. In Vienna, park designers created spaces for girls and the use of the park by girls increased. However, it has also been argued that creating resources girls wanted created spaces where interactions between boys and girls were less likely but didn’t address route issues of power dynamics between boys and girls.  More profound changes are also needed (15).   The ideal is not to segregate park users but find ways to have equal usage of spaces.  We can start by asking questions – how girls feel about the park, what they use and what they don’t and why, what they’d like to see in their park but also ideally look at design solutions that meet their needs – these may be things they cannot name yet as they don’t know they could exist!  There is research out there on girls’ use of parks, there is also a  lot more to be done. What it shows so far is that – girls often feel unsafe, they feel excluded by taunting, and tend to only use some spaces when groups of boys aren’t around (16).  In summary, girls are discriminated against by the design and use of most public parks.  They face a mix of direct and indirect discrimination; direct being males dominating the space and taunting girls, whereas indirect is more the local authorities may not be intending to discriminate –  but it IS discrimination if provision disadvantages one sex. 

So what is the solution?

So what can we do? ‘Make Space for Girls’ has some great resources compiling findings and actions taken by councils across the world and what has been learnt from the process of consulting with local girls and designers so far.  The first action should be to talk to young people. Find out their views including what the barriers are to using the park and discuss possible solutions.  There may not be a ‘one size fits all’ solution, but so far those who have done research and engaged girls have found the following solutions are often welcomed:

  • Better lighting
  • Wide pathways around the park
  • More seating areas, preferably with seats which face each other;
  • More swings or additional swings in areas away from young children’s play parks 
  • Wider entrances in and out of areas
  • Breaking down play areas into smaller spaces 
  • Good, safe toilet provision. 

It is also possible to design skateparks and MUGAs in such a way as to make them more accessible for girls. Again this often included not creating one large open space which a single group can dominate, but split into sections. Also  a variety of entrances to feel it’s easy to enter and exit were also seen as important (17).

Should girl-only events take place? I really don’t fully know my views on this one. In some ways, things such as ‘girl only’ skate sessions shouldn’t be needed, but maybe they are. Maybe a safe space for girls to develop confidence and skills in a safe space can only be beneficial. Is the message to girls that they can only use a park if they use it the way boys do? Maybe it’s about exploring a range of options and solutions. 

So where next? We need to find a way to engage local girls in discussions and find out their views.  This may or may not lead to change, at this stage we do not know.  To understand what is wanted and what may help is a start, but then there are more steps – including making change happen. That includes engaging other stakeholders including funders, the council, designers and more. Change may not have to be massive, even little changes can help and be the start. So either we can do nothing or at least try to do something.  I’d go for the latter – who is with me?

We fought for equal pay – now let’s fight for equal play!

A Gaines.

Thank You to the research compilation by ‘Make Space for Girls –  which can be found here.

References:

  1. Floyd et al. 2011 and Bocarro et al. 2015.
  2. Cited from ‘Make Space for Girls’ – Summary of research findings December 2020: The Equality Act deals with most aspects of gender related discrimination through the lens of biological sex, rather than gender, and hence we are required to use the binary terms woman/man/girl boy when dealing with the legal framework, rather than the social and more fluid concept of gender.
  3.  Cited ‘‘Make Space for Girls’ – Summary of research findings December 2020’
  4.  ‘Invisible Women – Caroline Perez, Chapter 1.
  5. Skate parks as a context for adolescent development, Graham L. Bradley, Journal of Adolescent research, 2010.
  6.  Grandview Research 2019 (US and India)
  7.  Sports England – Go Where Women Are, Sport England Report, (Cited: ‘Make Space for Girls’ – Summary of research findings December 2020’)
  8. Stockholm University 2012/ White Arkitekter. Flickrum – Places for girls. 2018 https://whitearkitekter.com/project/places-for-girls/
  9.  Girls Attitudes Survey 2019, Girlguiding.
  10.  Thompson, 2005, P64
  11.  J Collins –  https://thegirlsplayproject.com
  12.  Puberty and Sport: An Invisible Stage, Women in Sport, (cited ‘Make Space for Girls’ – Summary of research findings December 2020’
  13. C Perez Invisible Women – P108-9
  14.  McRobbie & Garber, Bedroom culture. Also Lincoln, S. (2004) ‘Teenage Girls’ Bedroom Culture: Codes versus Zones.
  15.  Read more here – https://behavioralscientist.org/how-better-urban-planning-can-improve-gender-equality/
  16.  Girls only use when quiet – They don’t like girls hanging around there’: conflicts over recreational space in rural Northamptonshire, Faith Tucker and Hugh Matthews; Area, 2001
  17.  Make Space for Girls – Summary of Research findings Dec 2020

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: