The word ‘girl’

Sometimes it seems that even the idea of girls and young women is missing from parks and planning. They are not only absent from the big strategic documents about how we build our public realms, there are some really specific places where girls never seem to turn up. And where they probably ought to be mentioned.

Today’s fun example is council play strategies. Once again we have been applying the search function to a whole range of these documents and the word ‘girl’ turns up even less frequently than the word ‘equality’. Mostly, it’s not there at all, not anywhere. It did appear in one, only because the Department of Health had highlighted that low activity levels in girls aged 11-18 were a priority. The strategy noted this, then blithely carried on as if this fact had no relevance to the facilities and ideas they were discussing.

To be fair, a few documents do notice other things about girls. That girls of Asian heritage are under-represented in play areas was mentioned in two documents, although neither of them put forward any ideas for changing this. Lambeth Council did score several uses of the word ‘girl’ because they split all their consultation data by sex. Gold star though goes to Aylesbury Vale, who noticed that girls, simply by dint of being girls, face barriers to play.

One word which did appear more often than ‘girl’ was ‘skate park’. Play strategies may not know what girls are but they are certain what teenagers like and what should be provided for them. And that’s our old friends, the skate park, the Multi Use Games Area, the basketball pitch and BMX track. And we know that (whether or not girls want to skate or play ball) girls don’t get much of a look-in on any of these.

Here’s the play strategy from one large town/small city as an example. I’ll let them be anonymous because I always like to leave room for redemption, and who knows maybe they’ll email us and ask for advice one day.

The council who wrote this are very pleased because they have realised that teenagers have different play needs to younger children. So pleased that they have revised their entire play strategy to take this revelation into account.

And this is the result:

For the purposes of this assessment, provision for young people is taken to include the following types of provision: 

– multi-use games areas (MUGAs);
– skateparks;
– basketball courts;
– youth shelters;
– informal kickabout areas; and
– BMX tracks. 

At least the girls can stay dry in the shelters while they watch the boys use everything else.

Bear in mind, this is – genuinely – a good play strategy because it does acknowledge that teenagers need places to play. Others just lump the skate parks and MUGAs in with the swings and roundabouts. It’s enough to make a sensible person lay their head down on the desk in despair.

I wish there was a lovely neat conclusion here about how things could easily be made more equal. But there isn’t. We have laws about this, but we’ve had them for decades and they don’t seem to be having any impact when it comes to park provision. Most councils, however inclusive and well-meaning don’t even know that this is a problem.

But I do have a suggestion about how me might begin. Perhaps everyone who read this blog could go and find their local play strategy and play the word search game with it. No girls in there? Why not tell the council there is something missing. Send them our research document. We’re more than happy to talk to them too. And perhaps, slowly, we can chip away at what else is missing if we start with the words.

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