In our last blog we celebrated the research reported at the end of July in Make Space for Us. One of the key recommendations from that research was to involve teenage girls in shaping the parks where they live; to consult and co-create with local teenage girls as part of developing and designing inclusive parks that meet girls’ needs, as well as those of the wider community.
We have been supporting and collaborating with a range of partners to put this recommendation into practice. In this blog, I want to focus on the work that we did in the summer of 2022 in North East London, with Hackney Council and the fantastic staff and young women from Clapton Girls Academy, looking in particular at Millfields Park (which very sadly suffered a grass fire during 2022 heat wave and was looking a little battered).
Over the past three years, parks, planning and consultation officers in Hackney have been working with children and teenagers from across the borough to shape parks, play areas and sports places that are more inclusive for all ages and genders. So with this very positive background we were really excited to partner with Hackney Council and Clapton Girls Academy to run a full day workshop with year 8, 9 and 10 students. We wanted to hear how girls in Hackney feel about parks, to learn more about the work that Hackney has been doing, and compare this insight with what we have been hearing in other parts of the country.
Here are some of the things that we learned:
What the participants like about parks:
- wide open spaces, big trees, shade;
- a place to come and picnic with family;
- a place to enjoy nature; place in the park where they can be on their own but feel safe.
What the participants didn't like about parks:
- the lack of safety; seeing crime and aggressive police tactics in some parks;
- boring benches; areas with no facilities or equipment;
- bare, remote areas that feel less used and unsafe.
And the participants’ specific ideas to improve parks:
- bigger versions of a kids play areas: trampolines, big swings (proper adult size, so all bums can fit);
- stuff to climb and sit on; brighter clearer, more informative signage to make the place look more welcoming;
- places to sit to be sociable; tables and benches; but not just “boring benches”;
- practical infrastructure: e.g. bike racks, large lidded bins (helps prevent fox rummage messes!), drinking fountains;
- thinking about safety for everyone: eg separating the cycles from pedestrians; you can’t just wander on the paths, you have to watch out for the bikes ;more security including lights, cameras, staff.
Unsurprisingly there were many themes in common with the findings from the Make Space for Us research. For example, this found that teenage girls more frequently attached importance to a park looking well looked after than boys (62% of girls saw a park not looking well cared for as a barrier to use; compared to 47% of boys)-chiming with the practical suggestion by the young women in Hackney re bins with lids and clearer more informative signage. The finding in Make Space for Us that parks need to invoke a sense of excitement and fun, adventure and discovery was echoed by the dislike of the bare, remote areas, lack of facilities etc. And of course, swings: Make Space for Us showed that 72% of teenage girls rated grown up swings; and the young women in Hackney we spoke to were also big fans.
But there was one theme that came through from our workshop with young women in Hackney, which wasn’t highlighted in the Make Space for Us report: and this was the value of park spaces as a place to just “be”.
The Make Space for Us report focussed in the use of parks as active spaces to encourage exercise. And it is certainly the case that the young women we engaged with saw the parks in Hackney as places to be active. Bike riding, tennis practice, and playing basketball with friends. Oh and walking- a lot of walking. Basket ball turns out was a particular favourite, although the young women were quick to point out that it was hard for them to get on the courts as most of the basketball courts were dominated by boys and young men. And when it came to imagining what would be in their dream park, activity featured a lot, with zipwires, sports tracks, bike areas, places for adventure and swimming.
But the young women also saw the park as a place to meet, to be sociable; to be with their friends, with their families and (as long as they felt safe) to take time to just “be” on their own. For them, the park didn’t need to be equated with a place of “activity” or exercise. They valued the chance to be in a park space regardless of whether this was giving them the chance to do exercise. The young women really liked the community orchard; the wide open spaces to sit on the grass; the trees to loll around under; the picnic tables to be sociable on. They wanted to be in the park to enjoy being in that space; of being outside ;of being with nature (oh, with the exception of bugs; the young women were quite negative about bugs…I have some sympathy).
This serves as a reminder not to lose sight of the value of park spaces to young women and girls quite independent from their value as a space to exercise and do sport. As Make Space for Us identified: while only 34% of girls enjoyed doing sports and exercise in parks, a whopping 87% of girls enjoy being outdoors. Let us grab that opportunity and design places where girls and young women feel welcome to be outdoors, belonging, feeling safe and well, just “be”.