Interview with Susannah Walker, Co-founder and trustee of Make Space for Girls, a charity set up in 2021 to campaign for parks and public spaces to be designed with teenage girls in mind.
What made you set up Make Space for Girls?
I can tell you – it was Caroline Criado-Perez’s book Invisible Women. It’s got a few pages about parks in. I thought, ‘Oh my god. I’m a feminist. I’ve got a teenage daughter. I’ve never seen this before’. I looked around at the parks in my local area. We have a BMX track, dominated by boys. A skatepark, dominated by boys. A multi-use games area, dominated by boys. And I thought, ‘She’s right.’ So I contacted the council, who didn’t really get it. And I got so cross, I spoke to Imogen (Clark – Co-founder of the charity) who is a lawyer, and she said that public bodies have a responsibility to think about equality. So we thought, maybe this is the basis for a charity. That was the beginning of it. I think we arrived at a time when people were really willing to listen. Because of Sarah Everard, because of MeToo, people understood that the environment holds problems for women and girls.
It’s not hard to see the social value in what you want to do. What do you understand it to mean?
The key thing about being in public space is that it is being part of the community. If public space tells teenage girls they are not welcome, I can’t get behind that idea. It’s a core issue about belonging. And I think this is why developers understand what we are trying to do, and want to be involved, because it’s a double-social value issue. It’s social value to create the spaces that welcome everybody, but also literal value, if we can create spaces that everyone can use, where everyone feels safe. For families, small children, teenagers. That is a much bigger definition of social value.
What is the problem with existing parks?
When we design spaces for teenagers, they’re actually mostly for boys. We need to look at the design issues, but most importantly, talk to teenage girls about what they want from a shared public space. A lot of it is just not seeing the problem. It’s not malice or discrimination, it’s just people not seeing the issue. For example, if you build a multi-use games area and it has a three-metre high fence round it with one narrow entrance, that is never going to feel like a safe space for teenage girls. You can build them differently; break up spaces into different areas, which is key. If you have one big space, it will be dominated by one group, and that is almost never teenage girls. The more spaces, the more inclusive. And it’s not just girls – lots of boys, lots of the LQBTQ+ community, don’t feel safe using those spaces. We need equipment that tells teenage girls they are welcome in parks. Skateparks and MUGAs tell teenage boys they are welcome – we need to do the same for every teenager.
Are councils listening now?
It’s gone faster than we imagined. Lots of people want to do it better, including developers and architects, and that’s really important. We are learning too – a lot of the issues lie in the guidance, so it’s also really important to work with the organisations that are creating the guidance, to make it more inclusive.