Young girls and femmes in the city: visible yet forgotten

Cities can easily forget about or fail to serve certain groups of people; one of those is young people. Young girls and femmes, in particular, learn to navigate the city in a unique way. What can we do to make city spaces that work for this demographic as well as for everyone else?

This is a minor update of a Talk Wellington post by Grace Clark.

At Talk Wellington we often try to give some insight into how our towns work for overlooked groups of people. We’ve talked about making cities better for children, various adults, and older folks.

But what happens when you’re stuck between?

When you’re a teenager or a young person you live in this confusing state where people treat you as an adult and a child and yet neither all at once. You have more responsibilities and assumed abilities than children. However, you have fewer rights and less access and independence than adults.

There are fewer spaces for you, less to go to and do, yet you’re discouraged from hanging around, “loitering,” making the whole system feel rigged against you. Public space is often created for and by the dominant culture. This means that the presence of non-dominant groups (here, teenagers and young people) being vocal, expressing themselves and taking up space is seen as an active act of defiance.

“Public space therefore is not produced as an open space, a space where teenagers are freely able to participate in street life or define their own ways of interacting and using space, but is a highly regulated – or closed – space where young people are expected to show deference to adults and adults’ definitions of appropriate behaviour, levels of voices, and so on – to use the traditional saying: ‘Children should be seen and not heard’.”

Gill Valentine

This relationship translates to a lack of safety, a lack of places to be and belong, and your needs being far from met. And all of this is exacerbated for girls and femmes.

In some upcoming posts, we’ll be exploring what it’s like for young people in the city and what its systems communicate. We’ll be starting by examining what spaces could exist for young girls and why they’re so important in the city.

Causal spaces

There are relatively few recreational places for young girls to try new things without fear of judgement. Image credit: WowSkates AU

If you’re a young girl, femme (feminine presenting person) or are perceived as such, it can be easy to get a bit stuck. As it is for many young people, hanging out in the city is an important activity.

Unless you’re hanging around the suburbs or someone’s home, town is the place to be. It’s often the most convenient place for people to meet up with their peers. It’s, of course, where all the stores, events and activities are meant to be; the city is your cultural hub. It’s where young people should feel they can relax, explore and seek new experiences.

But currently, once you’re there, what can actually you do? Towns tend to cater more to male-dominated spaces. Evidence suggests that up until the age of seven, boys and girls make equal use of public facilities such as playgrounds. However, from eight-years-old onwards, 80% of their users are boys. Additionally, girls feel ten times more insecure in public places.

Even when towns plan for their youth they can neglect spaces that serve young girls and femmes. Skate parks and basketball courts for instance are often not gender exclusive, but they are spaces that tend to be dominated by young boys and the male gaze.

Activities and spaces for youth need to be a few things. They have to be accessible and affordable, allow people to stay for longer periods of time and provide a level of independence and safety. Ideally, there should also be places that are covered or inside.

My friends and I used to meet and hang out around Reading Courtenay and the Central Library. These places were ideal as they were central and so accessible from all over Wellington by public transport. Plus they were free to enter, it was acceptable to stay for hours without being moved on, and you weren’t dependent on the weather.

When the weather turns, as it often does in Wellington, where can you go? Image credit: Muhammad Ruqi Yaddin

When there are fewer of these kinds of spaces, there’s little to do but wander the streets and loiter. If you have little disposable income, like most young people, you’re less likely to be spending that time in cafes or at exhibitions, movies, attractions etc.

So you walk up and down the main streets, window shopping, maybe trying some things on, and then you go home because it’s not like you can buy much if anything. You’re left to wander in someone else’s world, a world you can scarcely participate in. If there are no spaces or activities for you it can feel like the only option is to pretend, to LARP (live action role play) consumerism until you can live it.

And it’s not like you can always easily just hang around the city. Young people hanging around as a group may get shooed off or dispersed for ‘loitering.’ In particular, if you’re a young person of colour, the potential for police involvement to move you along isn’t unrealistic.

And as a young girl or femme, harassment isn’t uncommon in city spaces. So many people have multiple stories of catcalling, being approached when you least expect it, followed, touched, or experiencing interactions anywhere on the spectrum from absurdly strange to truly frightening. The potential for and reality of this can make the city feel even less welcoming.

Malls are a great place to meet, stay, shelter, and take part in culture but are still primarily consumerist spaces. Image credit: Dieter de Vroomen

Making space

With all that, we end up with this deadly combination. Young people have fewer accessible places to be. And if you’re a young femme what spaces there are may not feel like they’re made for you.

You can get sexually harassed wearing and doing literally anything on the street; I’ve sometimes wondered if I get harassed more when I dress more femininely, but then I think of a TikTok when a more masc woman was harassed getting petrol dressed in a beanie and hoodie.

And you can’t hang around places because you might get kicked out. So you walk around stores but you can’t participate because you don’t have money. It doesn’t help that there are few recreation opportunities in Wellington city, it’s mostly retail and businesses.

What can you do? Sit in a park, have a picnic? Maybe, but with the amount of poor weather Wellington has, you’re likely to be rained out.

We need more spaces that have all this in mind and cater specifically to young girls. But what do they want?

Subjectively, I loved places where my friends could sit and talk while doing an activity. Cerberus Games or Caffeinated Dragon allow you sit and play board games for as long as you want. Cerberus was particularly important to us as it was practically free, located near Cuba St and its bus stops, and their boardgame library was in a back room. This meant you could for hours without being disturbed or kicked out.

Playgrounds are a great place to sit and talk or test yourself physically but are often child-exclusive. Image credit: Official

Places like ice skating or roller rinks also let you stay and hang out even if you’re not skating. There isn’t a time limit and there’s no pressure to be doing anything in particular.

Activities like mini golf, movies, escape rooms etc. will each attract their own types of people. But these places are more expensive and you’re expected to complete the specific activity in a time frame and then move on. By the end you’ve only killed an hour or two and you’re back to wandering the street.

We can and should still have spaces like skate parks. They’re free, they’re fun, they’re no pressure. But we can diversify. Could we have spaces for dance, outdoor exploration, cycling, rollerskating, ice skating, gaming etc.?

And swings! Swings are huge. The amount of solid conversations and gossip I experienced on swings: unrivalled. But when you’re a teenager you aren’t welcomed at a regular playground; both socially and physically as its made for smaller bodies.

When Boston hosted an installation of twenty hoop swings that lit up at night, it was a huge success. The playscape, titled Swing Time aimed to create a space for one or two people to swing on a hoop and have a conversation. Each swing was made to be large enough for adolescents. And sure enough, many people, including young girls, came to sit and play with this installation.

Swing Time was a huge success with young girls and people of all ages. Image credit: John Horner

The point is we can get creative with the spaces we make. We just have to start by making sure they are accessible, feel safe, partially covered or sheltered, and encourage creativity, socialising, activity and independence. We need spaces where young girls and femmes can try things and fail without judgement or the intrusion of catcalling and the male gaze.

The Swedish Flickrum or Girls’ Room project asked girls to create models of spaces by and for their own demographic. The research found that the girls had a preference for spaces that were sensorily interesting (aesthetics, texture, a strong presence of art and colour, tactility, the ability to make an imprint etc.). They also liked spaces that felt like “entering a big hug,” places for sitting face-to-face while protected from the weather, and places that integrated information with the public design (e.g. art installations, viewing screens and mood lighting).

Here in Aotearoa, Revision are a charity that helps young people “to audit places and spaces that are or will be used by young people” -– to ensure that they’re actually youth friendly. (They also help planners, managers, architects and designers use Youth Relevant Design to create youth-friendly places and spaces.)

Beyond destinations, a youth-friendly city needs easy, reliable, safe and frequent transit. If there’s an amazing activity or area you want to go to but it’s further away and you don’t have a car you’re probably relying on a bus or train to get you there. This is particularly important for young girls and femmes who experience “standard” public transport as a much more dangerous space than other people.

If there aren’t easy, reliable ways across our towns it doesn’t matter what we create because only a few people will be able to come. Likewise, transit running into the night lets young people stay out longer and still have a reliable, safe way to get home. Your night either gets cut short, gets more expensive or a lot more unsafe if your last bus is at 10 pm.

When there isn’t a night service for public transport you may end up walking home alone or springing for an expensive uber. Image credit: Anubhav Saxena

We also can’t rely on parents to always drop off and pick up their kids, particularly with independent movement being so important in adolescence.

There is also something to be said for really integrating these spaces into our towns, not sectioning them off. Separating too many of these spaces only reinforces the sense that young people are not welcome in city centres. This only pushes our young people further from view, further into periphery making them more likely to be forgotten and marginalised.

Even with all this we still need to dismantle the culture that forgets, dismisses or neglects to listen to young girls and femmes. Here, while it may be start, there’s only so much design can do.

“no amount of lighting will dismantle the patriarchy”

Leslie Kern

Being heard

The key way to figure out what young girls and femmes want is to ask and listen to them.

Young people, especially young girls, are often excluded from city planning. This means spaces are less likely to be built for them. And when they are, they tend to be an adult’s idea of what a young person these days wants.

We’re excluding key members, vulnerable members of our society. This is a group that is underserved and consciously overlooked. Young people are often considered alien, disruptive and low priority. We need feminist design led by young voices that takes in all the history, realities and needs we’ve discussed today.

If we want to forge towns that work for everyone, we need to make a dedicated effort to make spaces for young people. Besides, more affordable, safe and fun activities or spaces around the city will only benefit wider groups. Creating spaces for young girls and femmes means making our towns feel fairer, safer, more vibrant… and a lot more fun.

Further reading

5 comments on “Young girls and femmes in the city: visible yet forgotten”

  • Fantastic blog! I’ve worked in youth engagement in public spaces for almost 20 years and SWINGS! Honestly young people love swings and multiple ones they can sit in either next to each other or facing each other. Also thanks for the shout out for ReVision Youth Friendly Places and Spaces.

    • TW editor Isabella says:

      Editor Isabella here.
      Thanks! Grace does a great job.


      we’d love to see more about ReVision’s mahi…

  • naiya says:

    interesting post. i can’t help but point out the confusing use of the word “femme” in your article. It is a queer term and i cannot figure out whether you’re using it as such or it you’re using it to describe people who are femme “presenting”, in which that labelling would be incorrect.

    • TW Editor Isabella says:

      Kia ora. You may have missed the hyperlink in the paragraph “If you’re a young girl, femme (feminine presenting person) or are perceived as such, it can be easy to get a bit stuck. As it is for many young people, hanging out in the city is an important activity.”?

  • Leah says:

    Love this blog post. It’s an issue I grapple with a lot as a mum of a ten year old who is shifting into this zone of not having spaces for her to hang out with her friends or us as her parents. I think it’ll really hit from next year in intermediate and beyond. Thanks Grace and Isabella for giving a voice to our teens and young people.

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