The territories of skate parks

We’re really pleased to share this guest post by Jacquelyn Collins, who works as an Activation Advisor for Auckland Council in New Zealand and has a strong research interest in girls being active in public. You can find out more about this research on her website.

I feel like I may have already used the term ‘territorialisation’ a few times in blog posts and Facebook comments, so I thought it would be useful to explain what I mean by it, and why it’s relevant to my research about gender and play.

I learned this term after reading Sarah Thomson’s 2005 paper Territorialising the primary school playground: deconstructing the geography of playtime. I’ve summarised her definition of territorialisation in my image above, but here’s a further explanation:

“One of the first acts of territorialisation occurs when people make judgements about a space and perceive it as significant. In other words, think of it as other than neutral. If this is the case, it then becomes a designated or classified area, cleared and maintained for certain activities, where novel conditions might exist and where certain individuals have free or restricted access.”

Thomson, 2005, p.64

Thomson makes the point that territorialisation occurs when people think of a space as belonging to a certain group. I think this implies that the attitudes about who has free access to a space are defined more broadly than just by the users themselves. So, it’s not just a case of those users thinking that the space belongs to them – it’s when everybody else thinks it as well, perhaps even without realising it.

The obvious example of interest to me is skate parks, which I contend are territorialised spaces: they’re thought of as spaces where boys and young men practise their skills and spend time with their friends. I am not arguing that the boys themselves actively work to keep out other users – although there are certainly many instances when they do, as this excellent article about Auckland female skateboarder Amber Clyde illustrates – but more that society at large thinks of skate parks as places primarily used by males. This is even acknowledged in some councils’ play strategies, often in the context of recognising a lack of corresponding leisure facilities dominated by girls.

Eleven years before Thomson’s paper was published Barrie Thorne discussed similar concepts in his 1994 book Gender Play. He wrote:

“Boys’ control of space can be seen as a pattern of claimed entitlement, perhaps linked to patterns well documented among adults of the same culture. For example, there is ample evidence, reviewed and analysed by Nancy Henley, that adult men take up more personal and public space than adult women.”

Thorne, 1994, p.83

Here, Thorne draws a explicit link between boys’ early experience of unchallenged access to play space, and adult men’s later dominance of public spaces in general. As part of my dissertation I reviewed several international studies of school playgrounds (too many to list here, but I can supply the details to anybody who is interested), and it was clear that the way that boys use school play spaces – typically in ball sports that take up a lot of territory – dominates the overall use of the spaces. It was also noteworthy that few researchers identified instances where teachers had attempted to curtail boys’ dominance of school playgrounds. I think this harks back to the ideas I’ve discussed before about boys supposedly ‘needing’ more space to run around (as opposed to passive, inactive girls?). 

Seamus Dunn and Valerie Morgan’s 1987 study Nursery and Infant School Play Patterns: Sex-Related Differences mentions that teachers at their study school hadn’t noticed that boys were playing in a disruptive and dominating way until the researchers themselves highlighted it – and apparently the teachers didn’t accept that this was something over which they might have any influence, because they felt that boys were more boisterous by nature. This was within the context of a study of young children in a school context, demonstrating that gendered attitudes about boys’ and girls’ play are reinforced from an early age. If this is a widespread attitude at schools, it is unsurprising that boys may develop an assumption that they have every right to take up space. If nobody tells them that they should make way for others, why would boys worry about this issue?

Other studies of public playgrounds also imply that territorialisation extends beyond skate parks and school playgrounds. In 1993 Gertrud Pfister noted from her observation of two Berlin playgrounds that girls’ games were played in one place or in a small amount of space, but:

“…typically boys’ activities, on the other hand, involve conquering space, either alone or with an object, and accomplishing an aim”

Pfister, 1993, p.164

More recent studies of public playgrounds also reinforce the sense that boys dominate sports-oriented facilities (relevant studies include Floyd et al. 2011 and Bocarro et al. 2015).

Territorialisation is a problem for two reasons:

  1. It teaches boys to regard public space as their space.
  2. It teaches girls that their right to use public space may be contingent on men making it available for them.

From a spatial perspective we reinforce territorialisation when we continue to build leisure facilities that are only used by boys. What message does this send to girls? Public money is spent on spaces in which they don’t feel welcome – spaces where they may be actively dissuaded from enjoying themselves. At present we don’t make any effort to provide equivalent spaces for girls, which is a point that Sargisson and McLean also make in their 2013 study of New Zealand playgrounds.

The way that boys use skate parks also illustrates territorialisation. My study showed that the few girls who visited skate parks at my study sites would typically do so for a short period only, during which time they’d actually practise their skills. By contrast, boys tended to occupy skate parks for extended periods. Typically one or two boys would skate while the others ‘hung out’. Skate parks are social spaces for boys, but girls do not have access to equivalent public social spaces territorialised by them.

So what can we do about this? I think we need to try some different things. Amber Clyde’s Girls Skate NZ work helps girls to feel confident in skate parks by teaching them to skate there. For my upcoming Masters study I want to contrast the gender balance of use in the skate parks Amber uses with other skate parks where girls’-only classes aren’t held. I also want to test a specific intervention – girls’-only activation events (‘takeover days’ that celebrate female skateboarding at skate parks that typically see a low level of use by girls and women) – to see if asserting girls’ right to use these spaces leads to improved gender balance of their use in the future. I want to see how we can actively challenge and subvert the existing use of skate parks, ensuring that girls who wish to use them can feel confident to do so.

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