Pale Shelter

Teenage shelters could be brilliant but so often are not.

April 20, 2022
February 22, 2023
Susannah Walker
Good Ideas
Design professionals
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In talking about our work, we quite often find ourselves referring to the ‘holy trinity’ of teen provision. This is of course the skate park, the multi-use games area, and the BMX track; all listed as ‘good provision for teenagers’ in play strategies, open space designs and guidelines, and thus installed in parks and public spaces up and down the country.

But there is one other item which sometimes gets included in this list as well, and that’s the teen shelter. In theory this is a gender-neutral, much more inclusive piece of kit and so ought to be a good thing

But what kind of image do the words ‘teen shelter’ bring up in your mind? Something like this?

Grim metal teenage shelter surrounded by grass and puddles

Or perhaps this?

Another grim metal teenage shelter in parched grase

Not all teen shelters are as unloved, but these are nonetheless archetypal. The vandal proof space which has yet somehow been vandalised standing all alone in the middle of a windswept grassy space like the crash site of an extremely low-tech spaceship. They are not objects which like teenagers, or indeed human beings very much at all.

Another grim shelter in park

The first problem is this existential loneliness. There’s always only ever one shelter. Yet a key principle for designing more inclusively in a way that will work for teenage girls is to break areas down into a number of different spaces, so that one group can’t dominate. Which is exactly what these shelters don’t do. They create one, defensible space which will, inevitably, get claimed by the most dominant group. And I’ll give you a clue, that’s not often teenage girls.

So let’s not just to have the one shelter, stuck out there like a gooseberry; let’s have lots of different spaces in a park where teens can sit and hang out, in a group or on their own.

But there’s another way of improving this too, which we’ve seen used in a few parks in Europe recently. And that’s to think about shelter, rather than ‘a shelter’. What this means is instead of the shelter being a separate facility, why not integrate it into the rest of the park?

Here’s a really good example of what this might mean, built in a suburb of Stockholm.

Orange shelters with seating in vibrant park

There are two shelters here; one over the picnic benches and one over the wooden area which might be seating and might sometimes be a stage or something to climb.

Same orange shelters seen from above

This works for so many reasons: the space is in the main body of the park, and there’s more than one, so it’s less likely to get taken over by one group. People can play and be active while under the shelter (an issue in Stockholm and also here – our parks are out of use for so much of the year, but it doesn’t have to be this way). And it looks so much more appealing.

Here’s another example, from a school yard in Norway which is used by the community out of school hours

Large white shelter over park picnic benches

This idea can be taken further. Why not have swings with shelters over them? It’s not like they don’t exist already.

Swings set under metal shelter with view of river

In more than one place.

Swings under shelter in city square

Or of course you can flip this idea on its head and create youth shelters which can also be climbed on and used as equipment as well as just for cover. The shelters built by Parklife in Spa Fields are often cited as good examples of these.

Curved metal structures which are shelter and seating

But it turns out that there are quite a few others out there too. This one was built by Superblue in Hertfordshire in 2010, and designed to be a stage as well as a shelter.

Wooden shelter with benches

Although I am a little uncertain as to whether it has survived until now.

This one, near Tamworth in Staffordshire looks as tough as old boots though, and brilliant for climbing on.

Concrete abstract shelter with girls playing on it

It’s designed by Sjolander da Cruz, who also created this at a skate park in Wolverhampton.

Shelter with brick seating underneath with teenage boys sitting on it

Better is already out there. We just need to get it built.

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