I was recently approached by two Danish teenage girls – Mira and Camille – who wanted to do a project about ‘urban worlds’ in Copenhagen, and it immediately sparkled my curiosity – why the interest in that topic? How did they themselves experience the urban worlds of the city? Do they have an urban world where they feel at home? Reflecting on these questions I started thinking more generally about the notion of democratic public spaces.
In recent years there has been an ongoing debate about girls in public spaces in Copenhagen. There seems to be a tendency towards girls using the newly redesigned public spaces far less than boys. Why is that? Can – and should – we do something about it? In the name of ‘the healthy city’ many of the new public spaces focus on ‘active spaces’ and it often results in trajectories and skate parks. Very few girls are active in these spaces, and if present they are to a large extent ‘reduced to passive spectators’.
A number of municipalities in the Copenhagen area have taken up the challenge of how to incorporate the girls’ perspective into planning. Some of the insights gained from this initiative (which were also echoed in my conversation with Mira and Camille) seem to indicate that many young girls simply spend time at home and not in the public space. Why is that? Are there hidden barriers that we’re unaware of? What types of public spaces could possibly attract young girls to be more ‘active’?
The presence of both men and women in public spaces are good indications of spaces with a high level of sense of security, and for this reason we at Gehl Architects also do gender mappings as part of our PSPL’s. But perhaps we need to sharpen our understanding of how – not only men and women but also boys and girls use and perceive the public spaces differently? Surely ‘girls’ are by no means a homogenous group and it may not – despite all good intentions – be possible to create ‘public spaces for all’ as is often stated in vision documents, but an increased awareness of the issues at stake seems to be an important place to start.
Vienna has since the early 1990’s worked consciously and strategically with the implementation of a gender mainstreaming program – an initiative which has led to an increased focus on the many different needs related to public spaces (Read more here) . Some would (rightly) argue that it would be a shame to start creating spaces for either men or women, but to see ‘defining needs as a continuous process’ doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.