Field work (in the car park)

Lockdown has been an good time to watch how girls have been using public space. A month or so ago I found it particularly interesting. Not only was it the Easter holidays, and good weather, but the COVID regulations meant that girls could only meet their friends outside. We asked about this on Twitter and they were apparently roller blading (lots), creating TikTok dance routines in the basketball courts, hanging out on nets at the top of climbing frames and generally occupying space outdoors which is great.

In the centre of the town where I live (medium sized, population of 25,000), I was fascinated to see that the girls had taken over a little-used part of the central car park and made their own park. I walked past one sunny day and there were three groups of girls there. One set were rollerblading, and were clearly settled in for the duration, because they’d brought several bottles of water, snacks and a speaker. The other two groups were skateboarding.

Brilliant, I thought, they’ve made a space for girls. And then I looked at the space they had chosen. There are a couple of corners of this car park which they could have chosen, but they’d decided not to go for the most hidden one. Instead they’d planted themselves next to a major pedestrian route which runs along the river into, and out of, the town centre. They were seen, and this appears to be very important for teenage girls.

That idea may seem counter-intuitive. Often the research portrays teenage girls as easily embarrassed, not wanting other people to see them doing sport. This is true; they may not want to be seen by friends, relatives, teenage boys or pretty much anyone they know. Other people are a whole different story.

There’s a few different names for this, like intervisibility or passive surveillance, neither of which sound particularly appealing. What it boils down to is that being seen feels safe. It feels pretty unlikely that anything bad is going to happen to you if there are people going back and forth all the time while you are there. Human beings, just passing by, are much better than surveillance cameras or alarm systems because they can stop trouble happening in the first place.

Teenage girls know this. That’s why they’d chosen this part of the car parks and it’s why, in urban areas, they like going to the mall. There you find plenty of other people, and security guards, and everything you do is observed, and this feels right to them.

Planners, however, are less intuitive. Their instinctive reaction is to chuck facilities for teenagers into a far corner of a park, or a spare bit of urban space unconnected to anywhere else. Teenagers mean noise and nuisance and complaints from other people so it’s best to keep them out of the way. But this then means that the facilities are far less likely to be used by teenage girls, because they won’t feel safe there. They want to be at the heart of things, seen, noticed and safe.

So it’s not just that our car park was flat and good for skateboarding, there were more people going past than where the actual skate park is. It simply felt better to them.

But there’s another reason the girls were down here too. I spoke to one of the sets of girl skateboarders. They were Year 12, so sixth formers, probably seventeen, well able to look after themselves. But when I asked why they didn’t use the skate park, they told me:

We’re not good enough to skate on there. The boys heckle us, so we come down here instead.

But that’s a subject so big that it will need a whole other blog…

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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