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Tear down the fences, replace them with benches

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

‘Why would I want to get into a cage with just one way in and out’, as a young female respondent to a recent survey in Oxfordshire put it.

The typical multi-use games area in the U.K. could also be described as a teenage cage – located in an unlit, unwatched corner of a field. Designed more to keep ‘anti-social’ teenagers at arms-length than to provide an inter-generational, space for activity for all.

This isn’t only an issue for women and girls, a cage makes it easy for a space to be dominated by just one group -- AFC Ajax recently compared their campaign in Europe to the struggles of kids been kicked off the playing field when “bigger boys came”.

Norrebro United's Backyard Football delivers neighbourhood football sessions to for 5-to-7-year-olds and their parents in ‘multi-use games areas’ (MUGAs) found in communities on Denmark’s ‘ghetto list’. When they started the municipality parks and recreation team were uncomfortable with “the idea of a ‘association team with membership using the courts because then the court wasn’t available for everyone”, Backyard Football’s founder Aske Tybirk Kvist told me. Even if you facilitate a caring and open space with defined principles for being a participant, they call that exclusionary. But if you don’t have these sessions then the big boys, the strongest will dominate and the 5-year-olds will never play.”

The difference is while the municipality were concerned about equality of access, Norrebro United’s Backyard Football promotes equity of access. The club is now Denmark’s largest girls football club.

The next step for Norrebro is to build their court from scratch and in doing so, they'll be deploying feminist-design principles – removing the fences, sinking the pitch and creating social seating and terracing to create a more open, safe space.

A small sunken football astro turf pitch, in a residential square, surrounded by banking and planting, but with an accessible slope
In the Netherlands and Denmark you are more – though not universally – likely to see pitches surrounded by benches, or terraced seating rather than fences.

You'll this approach integrated into many designs supported by the Danish Foundation for Sports and Culture Facilities. It’s also an adaptation of the theory of legitimate peripheral participation which discusses how newcomers to an activity or community become members of that community initially by participating in simple and low-risk tasks. In sports facilities this translates to creating space for socialising on the sidelines, meeting and waiting for friends, watching practice or a game rather than opening the sports hall doors and being thrown straight on to the court.

I think less fences and more benches aligns well to the Active Urbanist triad of ACCESSIBILITY, FLEXIBILITY and SOCIABILITY, what do you think?

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C Fox
C Fox

Idea is nice in theory as it looks far more attractive, but in reality, kids are more likely to be injured by falling on the steps rather than up against a fence. Would work better is the steps were behind the goals only.

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