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Girls' room: teenage girls and public space

Jackie Bourke

One Good Idea

Girls report feeling less comfortable and less safe than boys in shared spaces, even those developed with teenagers in mind. Including teenage girls in the design process can lead to more inclusive public spaces.

Charleville Mall reimagined with seating and lighting to meet the needs of teenage girls. Image by Paola Fuentes de Leon

Asked why they don’t hang out in parks, girls say there is nothing there for them.

Hanging out with peers in the urban public realm is an important part of many teenagers’ everyday lives. But there is growing awareness that teenage girls can feel unsafe and are frequently subject to sexual harassment in public space [1]. Evidence shows that many outdoor spaces designed for teenagers do not meet the needs of girls [2]. Designers and researchers are seeking to address this by co-designing public space with teenage girls [3].

Make Space for Girls is a UK-based organisation campaigning for public spaces to be designed with teenage girls in mind. Currently, they say, spaces designed for teenagers – including skateparks, multi-use games areas (MUGAs) and even public parks – are dominated by boys [4]. Asked why they don’t hang out in parks, girls say there is nothing there for them [5]. Make Space for Girls has facilitated a number of co-design initiatives with teenage girls in order to better understand why they feel excluded. Through these initiatives, girls have developed interesting ideas including face-to-face seating designed for chatting, swings teenagers can hang out on, more toilets, and ‘walking loops’ or pathways which girls can wander along together and feel safe.

Multi-use games areas are designed for teenagers, but evidence shows boys are more likely to use them than girls. Image by Jackie Bourke

These kinds of initiatives are not unique to the UK. Her City is a joint UN Habitat/Global Utmaning initiative which ‘supports urban development from a girl’s perspective’. To facilitate urban planners and designers, Her City has created a toolbox [6] which sets out a detailed process for working with teenage girls. This toolbox includes nine stages, from recruiting participants to designing ideas and ultimately, implementing change. In Weimar, Germany, for example, implementation of the Her City programme has raised awareness of gender-sensitive planning. Girls’ proposals for Weimar include the addition of signage across the city with information on female pioneers [7].

There have also been moves towards co-designing public space with girls in Ireland. Sarah Flynn is the founder of A Level Playing Field, a not-for-profit interested in ‘what makes a girl-friendly city’. She has worked with teenage girls aged 12-16 to reimagine Charleville Mall in Dublin 1.

Charleville Mall, Dublin 1. Image by Jackie Bourke

The project unfolded across a series of workshops. Initially the group explored ideas around why public space should be designed better for girls. According to Flynn, one difficulty is that the challenges girls contend with are normalised: ‘growing up it’s just your reality, you don’t think, “I feel unsafe”’, she says, ‘it’s just a norm’. During the early phase of the project the girls thought about their everyday experiences in public space, identifying, sorting, and mapping spaces into categories such as: ‘where I feel happy’, ‘where I avoid’, and ‘where I see lots of other girls’. From there, they discussed why they avoided or liked certain areas. Several themes emerged, including safety, feelings of exclusion, and the need for more playful spaces. Flynn says, ‘people don’t realise teenagers want a playful space to hang out and so they end up having no space of their own. The girls want to meet friends outdoors but say they have nowhere to go’.

Having identified specific problems, the girls developed sketch ideas for the improvement of public space. Working with Paola Fuentes de Leon, a planner based in Belfast, the group began visualising their proposals. ‘There were lots of sketches,’ says Flynn, ‘lots of written ideas and rough work. Then Paola took everything and created renders of the proposals using CAD and photoshop’.

Teenage girls reimagine Charleville Mall as a safe, social, and playful space. Image credit Paola Fuentes de Leon

The girls’ proposals to improve Charleville Mall include increased lighting, seating for hanging out and chatting on, and playful interventions such as trampolines embedded in the paving. Renders of the girls’ ideas suggest an inviting, vibrant, and safe-looking space.

It’s almost forty years since the seminal publication Making Space: Women and the Man-Made Environment argued that design processes should include women and under-represented groups [8]. Make Space for Girls and A Level Playing Field have shown the potential for co-design with teenage girls to create more inclusive public spaces. Susannah Walker and Imogen Clark, founders of Make Space for Girls, are unequivocal about the need for change: ‘Boys have dominated the landscape for too long and it’s time we made spaces that work for girls’ [9].

According to the founders of Make Space for Girls, ‘Boys have dominated the landscape for too long and it’s time we made spaces that work for girls’.

One Good Idea is a series of articles which focuses on the simple, concise discussion of a complex spatial issue. Each piece is presented as a starting point towards a topic that the author believes should be part of broader public discourse. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact

One Good Idea is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.


 1.     Bourke, J., Lalor, K. and Cuffe, C., Report of Scoping Study for Dublin City Council Safe City Programme, Challenging Sexual Harassment and Other Forms of Sexual Violence in Public Space, Dublin, Dublin Institute of Technology, 2015, 22 March 2023).

2.     Make Space for Girls, Are Girls Being Designed Out of Public Space, [website], (accessed 22 March 2023).

3.     Make Space for Girls, Our Work, [website], (accessed 22 March 2023).

4.     Clarke, I., and Walker, S., ‘Make Space for Girls: the research background 2023’, Make Space for Girls, 2023,, (accessed 22 March 2023).

5.     Ibid.

6.     UN-Habitat and Global Utmaning,Her City: A guide for cities to sustainable and inclusive urban planning and design together with girls, 2021,,(accessed 22 March 2023).

7.     Her City, Weimar, [website], (accessed 28 March 2023).

8.     Matrix, Making Space: Women and the Man-Made Environment, London, Verso, 1984.

9.     Clarke, I., and Walker, S., ‘Make Space for Girls: the research background 2023’, Make Space for Girls, 2023,, (accessed 22 March 2023).


Jackie Bourke

Dr Jackie Bourke is an urban geographer. Her research interests include the everyday experience of public space, child-friendly cities, and feminist geographies. She recently edited the Dublin City Council Play Strategy and she is currently researching walking art practices and psychogeography, funded by The Arts Council of Ireland. More of her work (with Dorothy Smith) is available at

Related articles

Roaming right

Claudia Dalby
One Good Idea
Claudia Dalby
Eimear Arthur

Driving Ireland’s looping system of isolated rural roads, you'll spot a common sight: walkers decked out in hi-vis, singly or in groups, tracking the footpath-less edge, keeping out of your way and waving gratefully as you pass. Rural roads are the most dangerous in Ireland: the site of 71% of road fatalities in 2020, according to the Road Safety Authority (RSA) [1]. In that year, forty-four pedestrians were killed on Irish roads (the RSA didn’t differentiate between rural and urban deaths), more than passengers (thirty-four) and cyclists (eight) combined.


Pedestrians are vulnerable on rural roads, which may have limited visibility and lack proper footpaths. Image credit: Claudia Dalby

People may choose to walk because they can’t drive, because it is the cheapest option, or simply for walking’s sake. If those living rurally haven’t access to private land, a footpath, or a designated public route, their only option is the roadside, with limited visibility around bends, speed limits up to 80km/h or 100km/h, and the fear of distracted drivers.


But there could be options beyond the roadside. In Scotland, people have a "right to responsible access" [2], meaning the public can access most private land and inland water for recreation and other purposes, including walking. Sweden, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria have similar statutory rights of responsible access to all land, regardless of ownership. They don’t have to call ahead, or worry that they’ll be reprimanded for walking through someone’s property.


In England, where open access to 8% of private land is legislated, there is a growing campaign to move closer to the Scottish model. The Right to Roam campaign proposes that while ownership of the land may allow landowners to "take rent, mine, and make money from the land", it should not permit them to exclude the public [3]. Some farmers, in response, argue that the public doesn’t know how to use the countryside, and could impact agricultural production [4]. Farmers in support of the Right to Roam suggest it should be accompanied by a public education programme.


Access in Ireland is at the discretion of landowners [5], and may be withdrawn at any time, even when access has been agreed with the state, and even to sites on which public money has been spent [6]. 78% of land in Ireland is private, while 8% is public (the remaining 14% is unmapped, likely residential). Most of the private land is farmland [7]. A 2009 study of farmers’ attitudes towards allowing walkers to access their land found that 51% were opposed to any such scheme [8]. Those opposing public access usually had limited experience of walkers passing through their land and were concerned about interference with farming activity. Farmers who were familiar with walkers were more willing to engage with the scheme, and more willing to do so for free. In general, it was found that farmers were more supportive of creating public access if paid about €0.27 per metre of walkway, if full public liability insurance indemnification were provided, maintenance costs covered, and no permanent right of way established.      

Creating a legal right of responsible access in Ireland would open up the countryside to walkers. Image credit: Claudia Dalby

The question of liability is an important one. Under Irish legislation, landowners are considered responsible for those on their land, meaning concerns around public liability are justified, though recent changes to the duty of care have given more weight to personal responsibility [9].

The government’s National Outdoor Recreation Strategy acknowledges that access to the countryside rests on the goodwill of landowners [10]. The strategy vaguely aims to develop permissive access and "encourage innovative solutions". Creating a legal right of responsible access in Ireland would open up the countryside, allowing us to hop over fences and explore the land around us. Of course, for that to work, certain responsible behaviours would need to be normalised. Dogs should not be brought near to livestock, and walkers must respect the land, leaving no trace [11].

There’s a strong environmental case for making land more accessible to all. Studies have found that connection to nature increases people’s willingness to protect the environment [12]. 84% of people surveyed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2020 thought walking in nature benefitted their mental health [13]. More places to walk safely in the countryside could foster a rural walking culture. Health benefits of walking in nature include stress reduction, cognitive development, and lowered likelihood of cardiovascular disease [14].


This map of walking locations in Ireland shows clear gaps in public access to land. Depending on where you live, the nearest public walking route might be a drive away, and an alternative one even further. These designated routes allow you to get out, to move your body and breathe the air, but what about your curiosity, your sense of adventure, your wish to follow your nose or the call of a bird? Those desires cannot be met by the same stretch of land every time, or by planning a round-country day trip to a faraway route. With the right to roam, people could explore nature and build custodianship with the land. Why should this require a pleasant interaction with a landowner beforehand?

One Good Idea

Much of the Irish countryside is in private ownership, meaning rural populations without access to designated walking routes are relegated to ditches and roadsides. Legislating for responsible public access to private land could offer safety, health, and ecological benefits.


How we build now?

Michael Pike
One Good Idea
Michael Pike
Eimear Arthur

"Architecture has no meaning unless in relation to nature". 

— Alvaro Siza [1]


We used to build in quite sensible ways.


Before industrialisation in Western Europe, we mainly built relatively simple structures of load-bearing walls using materials sourced in the locality. These materials – stone, brick, earth, timber, lime, plant fibre – required very little energy to produce. The walls were generally formed of one or two materials and the craft skills required were passed from one generation to the next. These vernacular buildings responded to local climatic conditions, making careful use of volume, the sizes and positions of apertures, cross ventilation, the thermal mass of the wall materials, thermal buffers to the most hostile orientations, and rooms of differing temperatures, to moderate the climate and achieve a relatively comfortable indoor environment without requiring significant additional heating or cooling. The buildings worked with nature and made the most of the natural conditions.


The industrialisation of construction over the last two centuries has created a change, from buildings as assemblies of materials based on craft practices to buildings as sums of subsystems, elements, and specialised layers of proprietary products. This change from materials to products greatly increased the embodied energy of building, as the standardisation of products requires significantly more complex manufacturing. Bricks, once produced locally from terracotta and fired at low temperatures, now require homogenised clay, must be fired at very high temperatures to meet industrial standards, and are transported large distances from centralised production facilities. Wood is now subjected to shredding, gluing, and shaping under pressure to homogenise its properties in the required formats [2]. We have also developed an ever-increasing number of industrial materials – steel, aluminium, PVC, concrete – that need vast quantities of energy to produce.


Social housing units at 39 Salvador Espriu, Palma, Mallorca, promoted by IBAVI. Authors: Carles Oliver, Xim Moyá, Antonio Martín, Alfonso Reina, (architects at IBAVI) Miguel Nevado (structure). Photographer: Milena Villalba 2023

In parallel with these changes in construction, we have created a situation where buildings are increasingly isolated from the natural environment, relying on technology to achieve comfort, instead of working with the local climate and conditions, as buildings did historically. In this era of the hermetically sealed building, the architecture discipline has surrendered responsibility for the design of the internal environments to engineers and other specialists. Key architectural issues affecting the well-being of inhabitants, such as air-quality, temperature, and humidity, are delegated to specialists and handled by technology. These issues, which should be central topics of the architectural project, are treated as merely problems to be solved. The construction industry and design professionals have become obsessed with the idea that we can completely isolate the insides of our buildings from the natural environment, like habitable thermos flasks. Yet, as Kiel Moe describes in his book Insulating Modernism, Isolated and Non-isolated Thermodynamics in Architecture, this isolation is illusionary and denies the physical reality of the building and the way it acts in the world: "literal isolation is thermodynamically impossible to achieve in the context of buildings" [3].


Based on this flawed thinking we have developed policies and regulations aimed at ever greater levels of insulation and airtightness, pursuing the holy grail of zero-energy buildings. Passivhaus is perhaps the most extreme version of this, creating buildings so airtight that they rely on expensive and complex technologies to provide ventilation.


The goal of these policies is energy conservation above all else, drowning out any more balanced discussion about how carbon emissions can be reduced to combat climate change. A new industry of simulation and certification has been created to drive a massive technological upgrade of buildings, but the promised successes will never be realised in real life. We have rushed to encase all our housing in thick layers of polyurethane and other oil industry by-products without consideration of the destructive impact of this practice. We don’t consider that having the bulk of our energy generated via renewable sources will reduce the need to insulate [4]. We are caught in a mindset that believes that more and more industrialised production and technology will solve any cost, quality, or time problem in the construction industry while helping to resolve a climate crisis that is the direct result of industrialisation and technological growth.


In recent years an increasing number of architects have begun to realise that we are making buildings too complex to design, too expensive to build, and too difficult to operate. Worse still, we are slowly becoming aware that the indoor environments we are creating, the settings for an increasing proportion of our lives, are not healthy. We realise that buildings are not empty shells, that they are filled with air, in the physical sense, and that this air is the main source of nourishment for the human body.


Social housing units in Santa Eugenia, Mallorca, promoted by IBAVI. Authors: Carles Oliver, Xim Moyá (architects at IBAVI). Photographer: Milena Villalba 2023

Alarmed by these realisations, some architects are returning to first principles. They are beginning to study how vernacular architecture managed to create buildings that intrinsically required very little energy to heat in winter and that did not overheat in summer. A change of mindset is emerging, from the modernist isolation of the building and reliance on technology to a new sensibility about simpler, more robust forms of construction that engage in a dialogue with the natural environment.  


One example of this new mindset is the work of the IBAVI in the Balearic Islands. This government housing agency has developed a whole series of really interesting social housing projects that rediscover vernacular materials and construction techniques such as the use of the local Mares stone, and a seagrass called Posidonia as insulation. In their projects, thick stone walls and vaults are deployed to stabilise the indoor environment without needing any applied technology.  


These architects have been leading a rediscovery of how the fundamental spatial elements of architecture – walls, roofs, floors, ceilings, and apertures – can generate an environmental performance in which the building is not isolated from its surroundings, but instead takes advantage of the innate opportunities they offer to achieve comfort without the need for complex technologies. There is also a growing realisation that buildings inherently require a great accumulation of matter and energy to exist and persist, that they can never be zero-energy, and that a building’s success in ecological terms is characterised by its capacity to exchange and harvest energy from the natural environment. This emerging school of thought has the potential to establish a more coherent agenda for architecture and to reestablish its relevance and importance to contemporary society.

One Good Idea

The construction industry's response to industrialisation and the climate crisis has been to create increasingly complex sealed building systems which are extremely resource-intensive to produce. A growing cohort of architects proposes a different way of working that embraces vernacular wisdom and the natural environment.


Space healers

Eimear Arthur
One Good Idea
Eimear Arthur
Eimear Arthur

Picture the last hospital you were in – there are reasons it looked like that. At any moment, a healthcare setting is balancing the needs and priorities of patients, clinicians, management, and administrative and support staff. Efficiency, servicing, privacy, infection control, comfort, safety, and cost add further complexity. Design guides, evidence-based solutions, and building regulations are guide rails for the architectural process. But established processes often engender established solutions.

Now, picture an oncology day ward. A row of treatment chairs and drip stands separated by curtains, buzzing overhead lights, nursing staff filling notes on their knees. But what if those treatment chairs were more comfortable, more functional? What if jump seats [1] created useful spaces within a corridor, taking advantage of city views while maintaining required clear widths? What if instead of tired divider curtains, privacy came in the form of beautiful, artist-designed screens?

This is the kind of 'fresh perspective' design students offer, says Cathal Mac Dhaibhéid, doctor and 2022-23 Innovation Fellow with HSE Spark Innovation. HSE Spark is a frontline, staff-led initiative to improve healthcare using design principles and innovation methodologies [2], which has run many successful partnerships with students of design. Mac Dhaibhéid cites the example of Interaction Design Master’s students who whittled a 'fifty or sixty' page nursing admission form to just twelve pages, through a series of user interviews and prototyping. 'These students look at problems through a design lens', says Mac Dhaibhéid, 'and they’re not jaded by working in the public health system'.

Inspired by artist Sasha Sykes, Isobel Walsh proposed flower-embedded resin privacy screens. Image courtesy: Isobel Walsh

But up until the recent ‘Healing Spaces’ elective – delivered with TU Dublin School of Architecture, Building and Environment (SABE), the Mater Transformation Team, and the Mater Hospital’s Oncology Day Ward and Inpatient Unit – HSE Spark hadn’t collaborated with architecture students. Like many good ideas, Mac Dhaibhéid’s engagement with schools of architecture was borne of frustration. Galvanised by the spaces he encountered in medical practice – some illogically laid out, some poorly functioning, some merely uninspiring – and Christine Nickl-Weller and Hans Nickl’s 2013 book, Healing Architecture [3], he became increasingly interested in the therapeutic potential of space, and the missed opportunity that is unimaginative design. He says, 'You have all these advances in how cancer is treated, but where it’s treated hasn’t really changed'.

For Emma Geoghegan, architect and Head of Architecture at SABE, Mac Dhaibhéid’s proposal to collaborate was too good to miss. There are established postgraduate programmes in healthcare architecture, but a focused module on healthcare spaces is absent from most undergraduate architecture syllabuses. Geoghegan notes that this is a 'gap', saying the design of healthcare environments is 'not just about typology, it’s about how you engage with people'. User engagement is key to the profession of architecture, and though many final-year architecture students have worked in practice, few have much experience of engaging with end users – this task generally falling to more senior team members.

In designing and delivering ‘Healing Spaces’, it made geographical and ideological sense for Geoghegan and Mac Dhaibhéid to work with the Mater Hospital. The hospital is within TU Dublin's direct community, and 'Community Engaged Research and Learning' is a stated aim of the university [4]. Critically, the Mater is, according to Mac Dhaibhéid, 'fertile ground for doing things a bit differently', as evidenced by the existence of Mater Transformation, an embedded unit within the hospital that’s dedicated to working with frontline staff to co-design and deliver change [5].

Regularly collaborating with both HSE Spark and the National College of Art and Design, Mater Transformation has extensive experience of running collaborative problem-solving processes. ‘What we’ve done is set up structures that can bring people together,’ says Aileen Igoe, Mater Transformation’s Lean and Systems Thinking Lead. These structures were critical to tackling potentially sensitive issues related to working in a functional hospital, such as GDPR and access, says Geoghegan. 'Things that might normally be challenging, we were able to resolve very quickly' [6].

Healing Spaces 'definitely felt like something special', Igoe says. Students were tasked with the redesign of the Mater Hospital’s Oncology Day Ward and Inpatient Unit, which sits within a building that’s less than ten years old, and is, as Igoe – who studied architecture – points out, generally well designed and considered. But the service has expanded, and healthcare architecture is often constrained by budgets, timelines, and HBN (Health Building Notes) standards [7]. Whereas by listening very carefully to staff needs, and through them, the needs of the patients [8], the SABE students gained a 'nuanced understanding of service' that allowed them to achieve 'the attention to detail that you might see in a domestic extension'.

Geoghegan, Mac Dhaibhéid, and Igoe all stress that the project’s success would not have been possible without the enthusiasm and openness of the Mater’s 'fantastic' clinical staff. Alongside oncology staff consultation, the SABE students received expert advice from Jennifer Whinnett, Senior Healthcare Planner at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust; Ailish Drake, an architect and landscape designer at Drake|Hourigan Architects with extensive user engagement experience; and Clare White, Director at O’Connell Mahon Architects.

Nine students – eight studying architecture and one studying interior design – [9] worked collaboratively, each tackling different issues to develop a cohesive solution. Daniel Herbst considered how spatial efficiency could be maximised to create more staff workstations. Alannah Hayes redesigned the bridge corridor to incorporate glare-free recessed lighting and jump seats with views of the city. Balancing the therapeutic value of nature, against the maintenance and infection control issues that planting brings [10], Isobel Walsh proposed commissioning Irish artist Sasha Sykes [11] to make operable resin privacy screens, embedded with flowers. The breadth of the students’ thinking surprised and impressed Mac Dhaibhéid: 'The final presentation was incredible'.

Alannah Hayes reimagined an under-exploited bridge corridor. Image courtesy: Alannah Hayes

It’s likely that Healing Spaces will have a life beyond the module’s twelve-week duration, both in terms of the students’ actual proposals and in fostering future collaborations. Geoghegan says that within a few days of the students’ final presentation, Tracy Fitzpatrick, the Mater’s Directorate Nurse Manager for cancer, had sourced quotes for different aspects of the proposals: 'That really impressed me'. This being Mater Transformation’s first time working with architecture students, they don’t have established pathways for delivering architectural projects, but Igoe’s undaunted: 'We’ve manged it with NCAD in other design disciplines, and there’s various funds we can apply to'. She stresses that they’d like to keep the SABE students involved in some way, as the designs are theirs. Of working with Mater Transformation, Geoghegan says, 'It feels like a natural partnership for SABE. My hope is that we will continue to run an elective like this and build on it'.

As for the module’s first run, the SABE students have shown that, with focused, informed imagination, a healthcare environment can be both clinical and beautiful. An oncology ward environment can stimulate and comfort patients who may be there for extended periods, distressed, fatigued, or bored, awaiting or receiving treatment. There is so much energy and innovative thought in architecture schools, often applied in the abstract. Healing Spaces allowed students to channel their energy and creativity towards 'something really useful"', says Geoghegan.

One Good Idea

Taking architectural education beyond the speculative can transform real-world environments – and healthcare settings are ideal beneficiaries of student creativity and innovation.



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