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The lionesses & gender-inclusive placemaking


By Ashleigh Mclellan

On Sunday (31st July), over 17 million of us tuned in to watch the final of the UEFA Women’s Euros which saw football finally come home for the first time since 1966. The success of the team has attracted large numbers of new supporters to the game and will no doubt inspire a new generation of future lionesses. However, it has also directed attention to the barriers faced in women’s football including the accessibility of the game.

Make Space for Girls is a charity which has been set up to campaign for parks and public spaces, including football pitches and multi-use games areas (MUGAs), to be designed for girls and young women, not just boys and young men. Earlier this week, we spoke to Make Space for Girls co-founder Susannah Walker to discuss how gender-based inequalities in the built environment could be addressed. 

Interview with Susannah Walker -Make Space For Girls

The UEFA Women’s Euros final saw record audiences tune in to a women’s football match and there was a clear shift in attitude throughout the tournament as sold-out stadiums cheered the England squad to victory. 

How should those working in the built environment respond to and build on this historic moment to make sure momentum isn’t lost?

I think it’s important to note that the FA have done a great job in creating a space where women and girls can learn and play football. It’s clear that they have really turned things around and this is the big positive message that we take away from the UEFA Women’s Euros. 

However, women and girls, outside of organised teams, still find it really difficult to play football whether that’s in the school playground or in the park so it is important that we continue to tackle this.

How do we encourage people of all genders to use football facilities and ensure that they aren’t just designed for boys?

The first thing we need to do is to actually count who is using them because there are so many pitches across the country but there is no gender-disaggregated data on who uses them. Until we know that, we don’t know what we have to fix and we just keep building the same thing. 

The second thing is that we need to start thinking about design because, if you look through the eyes of a teenage girl, pitches and MUGAs are not comfortable places. They have high fences, narrow exits and they’re usually full of teenage boys. We also need to look at how they are used in terms of breaking things down into more smaller areas so they aren’t dominated by one group of boys. Creating lots of different spaces is really important to allow lots of different people to use them. This isn’t just girls, there are plenty of boys who feel that they can’t take part in what’s going on in MUGAs, that it’s not for them and they can’t have spaces. 

The third thing is that we need to look at what’s going on in school playgrounds because so often the layout of a school playground is boys playing football, not letting the girls join in and girls standing around them on the outside. There are lots of schools that are working in really brilliant ways to address this and we really need to get in early as well as fixing things further up the chain.

Beyond football, how can the built environment promote inclusion more widely but particularly in the area of women’s access to sport and leisure facilities?

We need to look at who is using the facilities and gather the data the same situation for MUGAs also applies to skate parks, basketball courts and other outside facilities, we’re not really looking at how they are used.

We also need to look at all the great work that’s been done in Europe. There’s been some particularly interesting examples in Austria and in Sweden. They have done some fantastic research-based work to create inclusive spaces and how to get a much wider range of people, not just women, using them. We need to look to that and start testing things out to see what works in this country. Finally, we need to remember that all of these things are always place-specific, intersectionality has a huge part to play and what works in one place may not work elsewhere. We have been doing some work in Bradford and even within the city, girls have very different experiences and so any work needs to be carried out closer to home and talk to local girls and women.

There seems to be a cycle of designing spaces for the people who typically use them e.g. boys and men, which in turn discourages others outside of that group from using them, how important is it to break this cycle and how can developers ensure that sites are gender-inclusive?

It’s the Caroline Criado Perez idea of the ‘default male’. Nobody does this deliberately and nobody is setting out to create non-inclusive spaces, it’s just through not thinking. Due to the fact that girls and women don’t feel that parks belong to them, they don’t attend consultations because they think it’s not their business. There are a number of things we can do to change this, one is just to think and be aware and take that first step back to consider why we are doing this. The second is to reach out in consultations and try to get non-represented groups and speak to them. It is hard work but it is really worth doing. The third thing is to talk to Make Space for Girls, we are always happy to talk to people about consultation and to give suggestions on where to look for examples of how to do things better.

How do we get women and particularly young girls involved in the design process? 

There is a lot of ways that we can do this. We have had a lot of success working through schools, actually being part of the design and technology curriculum, and also through working through existing youth groups whether that’s a youth club or guides or girls brigade. How you consult is also important. You can’t just go to them and say “what do you want?” because they’ve never had these things so they don’t know what they would need or like. We try to do longer-form consultations where we get them to think about public space and about how it makes them feel and then to work with architects and landscape architects and planners to realise the designs. This is great in the short term because it gets them to think and to realise that public spaces are something they can have a say in.

We also try to work with quite young architects and planners, who go in and talk to the girls which means that they are seeing people who are quite like them and realise that this is something that anyone can be involved in. I think there’s a much longer-term benefit to that.

What is the one key lesson we can learn from the women’s football team?

Things can change. If they can change what is going on in football, we can change what is going on for women in the built environment.

You can also read more about the examples in Europe.

The lionesses & gender-inclusive placemaking