Spatial equality is a healthy idea

Girls’ health and activity levels are a major concern, but how can we expect them to be active when there is nowhere for them to go? In his book ‘The Miracle Pill’, Peter Walker unpacks how simple movement can have a life-changing health impact. The problem is that the design of our public spaces make this particularly difficult for girls.

If the overall global statistics for physical activity are fairly depressing, this is all the more the case for children and adolescents. In turn, it is even worse for girls. In England, which collects notably detailed figures, only 18% of children and young people reach the minimum hour of exertion each day seen as necessary to develop healthy cardiovascular systems and lay down vital bone density, But within this, 20% of boys manage it, against just 14% for girls. This is a gender gap which both widens as children become adolescents, and is seemingly getting worse. And it is reflected in most countries around the world.

The traditional explanations tend to be cultural – while younger girls will happily leap, sprint, skip and bounce their way across playgrounds, as they get older, self consciousness sets in. It’s undeniable this can happen. A fascinating report from 2000 by the now-defunct Health Education Authority interviewed girls aged five to fifteen on their attitudes to exertion. ‘I feel as if I don’t want to stop,’ one six-year-old girl says about her joy in running around. But then a 15-year-old says she and her friends stopped playing netball as they thought it was ‘babyish’.

But there is much, much more to it. As well as the culture in which women and girls exist, arguably even more important, and yet barely studied, is their built physical environment. Setting out to write a book about the decline of everyday physical activity, I already knew some examples of how towns and cities tend to make such activity harder for women, for example a lack of obviously safe cycling infrastructure.

But it goes much further. One of the most fascinating people I talked to was Eva Kail, a city planner in Vienna who for nearly 30 years has led its ​Frauenburo​, or Women’s Office, with a brief to uncover, and then design around, the various way different groups of people navigate through the city.

In the early 1990s, a study led by Kail found that two-thirds of car use, which dominated the planning budget at the time, was done by men. The same proportion of walking trips involved women, but with hardly any consideration for pedestrian welfare. This has since changed, at least in Vienna, if not most other cities.

Kail is particularly outspoken about the way many places design play and recreation areas, without thought and by default, largely for boys. She is scathing about the ubiquity of single, fenced-in “cage” pitches for football or basketball, noting that these end up being “the law of the jungle”, with boys invariably taking over. As an alternative, she has helped develop W-shaped areas, with a series of separate, smaller spaces, so different groups can play at the same time. Some changes can be even more subtle, such as open entrances, rather than a gate which has to be opened.

Asked how cities can keep girls active, she told me:​ ​It’s very simple. You just have to talk to them, to watch them, and ask what they would like to do.”
Kail also takes a dim view of skate parks, the supposedly gender-neutral choice in so many UK towns and cities: “Skate parks are very hip now, and they take up a lot of public space, but again it’s a very male interest, and a very hard sport. Girls can be so modest sometimes, and it would be great if they could be given more space and more independence.”

The Miracle Pill is available now in all good bookshops.

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