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‘We just want some space to hang out’: designing public areas with teenage girls in mind

Campaign calls for more safe and sheltered areas for outdoor sociability for youths

Most Irish towns and suburban areas now have well equipped playgrounds for young children to spend time in with their families and friends. And while there is also an increasing number of teen-focused outdoor spaces and adventure play areas, there is growing concern that many teenage girls don’t feel comfortable in these spaces.

“If you think of the skate parks that have been built, they are mostly used by boys. Some girls use them but most use them as a place to hang out with their mates but that’s a lot of money for one gender,” says Dr Carol Barron, associate professor in the school of nursing, psychotherapy and community Health at Dublin City University (DCU).

Through her research into the experiences of teenagers in outdoor spaces, Bannon has found that teenagers often say that they don’t feel welcome in playgrounds and other public spaces. Groups of teenagers are often accused of taking over playground space, loitering or being rowdy. Often signs state that the facilities are for children under the age of 12. But teenage girls, in particular, often don’t feel comfortable in spaces designed for activities rather than sociability.

“These feelings of exclusion have been found internationally to challenge teenagers’ sense of belonging and connectedness, which is associated with low self-esteem, high levels of anxiety and depression,” says Barron. “Teenagers have told me that they want a space where they won’t be looked at as dangerous or rude for wanting to just sit on a swing and be with friends.”


With limited access to money and a desire to socialise outside of home, most teenage girls have no choice but to hang out in public areas – even if they don’t always feel welcome.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of a Child (UNCRC) states every child has a right to play and recreation, yet it has also raised concerns about a decreasing tolerance towards the presence of teenagers in public spaces.

We discovered that girls are more likely to use facilities located on the periphery of the spaces where they are less overlooked

Internationally, there is a design movement campaigning for parks and public spaces to be more inclusive to teenage girls. The UK non-profit organisation, Make Space for Girls, has found through research that teenage girls want comfortable and accessible spaces where they can linger and chat.

Creating such a safe, sheltered space for outdoor conversation requires local authorities to install seats that are semi-circular or facing each other and/or multi-level platforms where teenage girls can interact more informally. Such spaces give opportunities for listening to and dancing to music without having to pay for a ticket to a gig or festival. Access to free wifi is another feature all teenagers appreciate.

Artist and urban designer Carmel Keren worked with teenage girls in Berlin in 2022 to look at how urban spaces could be more inclusive. Her Gendered Urban Landscapes (GUrL) research discovered that encouraging girls to reclaim public space is as important as providing physical infrastructure.

As part of GUrL, Keren worked specifically with Muslim teenagers in Berlin to develop their sense of belonging in the urban environment.

Muf, an architecture and art practice in London, has consulted children and young people on designs for open spaces in Hackney and Newham. Their project introduced play in all sorts of spaces. These include hammocks, lounge chairs and swings along a new “play street” that connects homes with a nearby park. It also includes playful bridges that incorporate slides and balancing ropes into landscaped channels planted with trees and capturing rainwater.

Rosens Rodda Matta in Malmo, Sweden, the Einsiedlerpark in Vienna, Austria, the Placa d’en Baro in Barcelona, Spain and the Super Garten in Copenhagen, Denmark are examples of outdoor spaces that have been designed by and for teenage girls.

Some local authorities in Ireland have begun consulting with teenagers about public spaces. In their 2019 Teenspace survey of about 500 teenagers, South Dublin County Council discovered that more than 90 per cent of teenagers requested spaces for hanging out and for play and recreation while only 5 per cent asked for more sports facilities.

The teenagers said they wanted places to sit and chat with access to play facilities (eg swings, climbing and zip lines). Free wifi, shelter, a place to play music, toilets and water fonts were other suggestions. In response, the council incorporated equipment for outdoor workout zones (calisthenics), speaker posts to play music and informal seating into “teen spaces” across parks including Collinstown Park, Clondalkin, Griffeen Valley Park, Lucan and Tandy’s Lane Park, Adamstown.

“We discovered that girls are more likely to use facilities located on the periphery of the spaces where they are less overlooked. And, when we moved the basketball courts from the centre of the teenspace in Griffeen Valley Park, we observed an instant increase in the numbers of girls using them,” says Laurence Colleran, senior executive parks superintendent at South Dublin County Council.

Dublin City Council also included a youth space in its upgrade of Ringsend Park following consultations with young people from the area. The space includes street workout area, trampolines and informal seating in an area of the park that is safe and visible from other parts of the park.

In a recent study Barron interviewed more than 500 young people in Celbridge about what outdoor spaces would suit their needs. During the Covid-19 lockdown, the local authority converted some parking spaces in the Co Kildare town into two distinct parklets. “As soon as they were bolted down, five or six teenage girls used these spaces – one starting dancing and the other filming so that was positive right from the start,” says Sharon O’Gara, architect with Kildare County Council.

However, in Barron’s research teenagers spoke about how they mainly hang out in children’s playgrounds and in the trolley bays outside a large supermarket because they have nowhere else to go.

“In our research for Kildare County Council in Celbridge, we found that outdoor seating was suggested as the most important aspect of an outdoor youth facility, followed by shelter,” says Barron. The teenagers also said they would prefer multiple outdoor youth facilities rather than one big one.

Barron adds that common themes in making outdoor spaces more welcoming for teenage girls include offering a range of smaller spaces, social seating, exercise bars and swings, improving safety with better lighting and good sightlines. “Making sure paths have no dead ends and putting facilities in well-frequented areas are also key. Carefully designed, more playful and more inclusive spaces work for all teenagers,” she says.

Simon Wallace, the senior parks and landscaping officer at Kildare County Council, says the next stage is to involve teenagers in design ideas. “We need to see their ideas for hangout points and identify the appropriate spaces which will inform us on what we need to do going forwards.” All agree that asking teenagers what they want and where they want it will result in better-designed and safer outdoor spaces.

What makes an inclusive space?

1) A space with equal amounts of space for ball games and play equipment and includes sociable equipment such as basket swings and ball/wall meeting areas in the play zones.

2) A space with chill-out zones where teenage girls can hang out and chat. Seats in semicircles or facing each other and informal sociable spaces with railway sleepers or timber boxes. Free wifi.

3) Small defined sheltered spaces rather than one big area. It’s important that these areas are clearly visible to passersby, well lit and with unhindered entry and exit points. While teenage girls want privacy, they also want to feel safe.

4) Spaces for creative play such as a raised covered platform where teenagers can play music, chat and dance all year round. This space should also be visible and close to other activities in the park or street plaza.

5) Teenage boys and girls should be consulted before the space is built and their views taken on board.

What teenage girls in Co Kildare say about being outdoors

“Adults made space for the younger kids but every time teenagers are in a space, they get kicked out or demonised.”

“Teenagers do loiter because they have nothing else to do. They loiter in harmless ways, like just hanging out… and people don’t like it.”

“Even if we’re not, like, trouble-making, adults will still be giving us dirty looks when we are, like, on the swings. We are just trying to have fun really and we’re not bothering anyone.”

“We want just some space to hang out, with places to sit, somewhere near the shops or an inexpensive food stall, with bins, free wifi, play games, surrounded by nature, just a generally calm place for friends to hang out.”

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