Counting, part two

So, more about the weekend that we spent standing in the park, counting people. While the last post focused on the app – because we do think it it is going to be very useful – this is about some of the other things which came up as a result.

Standing in the park to count turns out to be a very enlightening experience. The Inhabit Place app definitely helped, because it made us focus very closely on what was going on. But we also noticed things that the app didn’t necessarily measure. So we know, for example, that out of sixty users on the MUGA, only three were female. We only saw one girl skater use the skate park, and even then she stayed around the edges. But a few more girls did use the skatepark as a social space to hang around, and a couple of girls had no wheels but came to use the metal ramps as a slide. So the park worked for them as a sign that teenagers were welcome, even though they didn’t intend to skate or scoot.

But perhaps the most interesting interactions took place on the MUGA. During the afternoon, a group of dads and their kids – aged perhaps 10 or 11 – were having a kickaround on the MUGA when a group of teenage boys arrived, and were a bit peeved that ‘their’ territory was being invaded. At first they looked cross outside the entrance, and then when that didn’t work they bashed their scooters against the fencing and started shouting comments about the Dads’/kids’ footballing skills (clue: they weren’t complimentary). The kids would probably have given up at that point, but the dads stood firm. At which point one of the boys dashed into the MUGA and with a skilful right foot, punted the ball out over the fence. A bit of a stalemate.

Then followed some negotiation. The kids looked as though they would rather have been anywhere else but the dads were not going to be pushed out by the teen boys. Eventually, they all played football together. Only not for long. After ten minutes or so, the teens gave up and sat down together in one of the goals. Having a kick around with another group, meeting new people and making new friends didn’t seem to be the outcome the teenage boys were after: what they’d really wanted was their territory back.

[This is very much a side comment in the context of this blog, but just imagine this if you were a group of teenage girls playing in there when the boys turned up. You’d not hold on to the territory for long. ]

We felt like park anthropologists – but it’s a reminder that what we don’t know isn’t just data, made up of age and sex and gender statistics. What happens in parks, and how they work, or don’t, can’t entirely be expressed in this way. Observation matters too.

Data is important – and sometimes is the best tool for really making people understand the scale of the problem. So we can say that only 5% of the people we observed using the MUGA were women or girls. That’s quite shocking.

And consultation with teenage girls is also essential, not just in terms of finding out what they want, but also because it allows us to hear their stories, about when they feel supported, the places they feel safe – and also about the time they got harassed and had stones thrown at them. Sometimes they’ll even tell us about the rape threats.

But observation gives us another set of information. The girls might not say anything about the MUGA, because it just never occurs to them; perhaps they know that it’s a space the boys control, so why think about it? But standing and watching can show us just how strongly the teenage boys feel that the MUGA belongs to them, which may explain why the girls don’t even notice it’s there. We can’t do without any of these – data, consultation or observation – but we also need all three of them if we want to make sense of what is happening in parks.

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