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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


Website by Good as Gold.