Urban Green Spaces for Adolescents: Insights from London – Sara Tofiq

Reflecting on our latest literature review we undertook for Natural England, exploring what features increase use and enjoyment of urban green spaces in cities, we found that it is fundamental for the needs of diverse groups to be met. Quite often, however, the specific needs of young people are overlooked. During our Rewilding Barking & Dagenham walk, we met PhD student Sara Tofiq, who is carrying out unique research at UCL PEARL looking into the evolving needs and preferences of different adolescent groups in London. In this short article, guest author Sara shares her unique insights:

Urban green spaces can play a pivotal role in shaping the experiences of adolescents as they navigate the transitional period from childhood to adulthood. However, a comprehensive understanding of their needs is often overlooked in traditional urban design. In my research, I found that the conventional way to describe adolescence was as a broad group compressed together from the ages of 11 to 19 years. This meant that the diverse transitions that occur during this phase are largely ignored. The nuances of age, gender, and individual preferences need to be considered if the aim is to create inclusive public spaces that also resonate with adolescents. In this short article, I highlight some of the key findings from some focus groups that I conducted with local secondary schools in London, serving as a point to consider before implementing further changes to local green spaces.

Findings and recommendations: 

  1. Age group differences
    • Adolescence spans a wide range of years, and treating it as a homogenous period neglects the distinct needs of various age groups (e.g. 11-12 years, 13-14 years, 15-16 years and 17-18 years) 
    • Gender differences within age groups demand sensitivity, acknowledging that younger and older girls for example may seek different experiences within green spaces, and similarly with younger boys and older boys.  
  2. Themes of neglect and safety 
    • Adolescents expressed feelings of general incompatibility with current green spaces due to reoccurring themes of neglect and safety concerns. 
    • The perception of safety is influenced by the organisation and structure of green spaces, emphasising the need for thoughtful design. 
  1. Usage purposes differ between genders 
    • Girls primarily use green spaces for relaxation, while boys engage in more recreational activities, reflecting distinct needs.
    • Designers should consider these variations and tailor spaces to accommodate diverse preferences. 
  1. Quality vs functionality
    • Girls prioritise the aesthetic quality of green spaces, emphasising nature and appearance, while boys focus on functionality. 
    • A balanced approach that considers both aesthetics and functionality can enhance inclusivity. 
  1. Safety and organisation
    • Poor visibility, cleanliness issues, and neglect impact safety perceptions among adolescents. 
    • Proper organisation, visibility and regular maintenance are critical for fostering a sense of safety. 
  1. Independence and age group dynamics 
    • Older adolescents value green spaces to achieve independence, either alone or with friends
    • Awareness of age specific fears, such as younger adolescents’ concerns about older peers and dog owners is essential. 
Tranquil City’s Rewilding Barking & Dagenham Walk – Last year August, we visited Goresbrook Park and discussed how this local green space can be improved to meet the needs of all age demographics.

Conclusion and Future Endeavours:

In conclusion, adolescents have traditionally been overlooked in the context of green spaces, but it is a priority to integrate them into public areas. The first step would be to recognize their diverse needs within these spaces and how they can contribute to wellbeing and development, considering factors such as age, gender, and individual preferences. These findings and recommendations can act as valuable guidance for designers and local authorities in realising this objective. 

For further inquiries about the research or to contribute to this dialogue, please feel free to reach out to the researcher, Sara Toriq at Sara.tofiq.14@ucl.ac.uk 

Sara Tofiq is a PhD student at University College London and works at the Person Environment Activity Research Lab (PEARL) based in Barking and Dagenham. She has a Master’s in public health and is interested in studying neighbourhood design and how to make the places where people live better for them. Her PhD explores how young people interact and perceive their local green spaces and how we can better design them to accommodate young people’s needs. This includes aspects of safety, physical activity, restoration and more.