What makes a city livable? Urban planners talk about public spaces, pedestrian access, good transit, parks and more. But they almost never talk about public toilets. And that, says Lezlie Lowe, is a problem. As she puts it, “Public bathrooms are private spaces that reveal public truths.”
Public toilets usually come up in debates about urban planning, if at all, when talking about homelessness. But it’s not just homeless people who need places to go to the bathroom. Lowe makes the case that providing public toilets is a diversity issue, an old-age issue, a disability issue, a parents’ issue, a feminist issue, a public-health issue and an economic-development issue.
So why are they rarely talked about? Lowe contends that people don’t like talking about bathroom functions and the difficulties they may have with finding and using bathrooms. If a mother with young children doesn’t go to certain parks because she doesn’t want to risk a potty disaster, if an elder who needs to go unpredictably doesn’t ride the train because there are no bathrooms at the stations, if someone with Crohn’s disease goes to the shopping mall rather than downtown because the bathrooms are more predictable, normally nobody hears about it. “They [public toilets] spell out how unwillingly we share public space, how we would rather pretend we never defecate or urinate (or, for that matter, menstruate).” There is a struggle for “potty parity” between men and women because women take about 50 percent longer to pee than men do (one of the sources of those long lines at women’s restrooms), and have special bathroom needs around menstruation that even feminist groups have been slow to advocate for.
Lowe describes how modern public bathrooms, ever since they started being built in the Victorian era, have been arenas of struggle. “When people argue over public bathrooms ... they’re usually fighting about the right of certain social groups to occupy public space.” She quotes Barbara Penner, another public toilet advocate: “ ‘Toilets ... are a powerful way of signaling status, inclusion, and of maintaining social order and certain cultural values.’”
"'Toilets ... are a powerful way of signaling status, inclusion, and of maintaining social order and certain cultural values.’”
In Victorian London, the struggle was over whether women had any right to public toilets at all, similar to the ones that were already being provided for men. The opposition argued women’s bathrooms would lead to “moral debasement” of “ladies” allowed to mix with lower class women. In the southern United States, the struggle was over racial discrimination in public toilet facilities. In the 1990s, the struggle was about making bathrooms accessible to people in wheelchairs and to those who have difficulty getting on and off toilets. Nowadays, the struggles are over access for transgender people.
There’s also struggle over access for the poor. Available toilets are often hidden behind “Customers Only” signs that are enforced only against certain demographic groups: “There are washrooms hidden and assumed — toilets that exist as part of the secret city. If you find them, you find them. If you don’t, you don’t. If you have nerve, confidence and you look kempt, you get in. If you think you don’t belong, if you’re too shy to ask or if you’re disheveled, you’re out of luck. I fall into the former category. The potty privileged.”
Available toilets are often hidden behind “Customers Only” signs that are enforced only against certain demographic groups.
Lowe lays out the basics of potty oppression, as well as the dilemmas. She speaks approvingly of experiments with making public toilets “nice” rather than utilitarian, citing findings that a pleasant atmosphere goes a long way toward discouraging vandalism. She reports on the successful use of bathroom attendants in several urban downtowns, with the result of keeping public toilets clean and attractive for everyone, as well as creating jobs for unskilled workers.
She also discusses, and then quickly dismisses, proposals to require all ground-floor bathrooms in downtown office and commercial buildings to be open to the public, with signage to help people find them. The advantage of such a requirement is that it would use already-existing toilet facilities and provide a concentration of public toilets that would more closely approximate the demand. But she argues that, questions of cleanliness and vandalism aside, such toilets would be subject to the same informal discrimination that already occurs in restaurants and bars — people who look “unacceptable” would be discouraged from access. She believes it would be better for governments to take on the systematic provision of public bathrooms to meet public needs.
Not only does “No Place to Go” expose an area of public policy not often talked about, it’s a fun read. Lowe has a seemingly endless supply of bathroom puns (chapter titles include “Game of Thrones” and “Void Where Prohibited”) and brings in interesting trivia, from the outdoor public latrines of the Romans, where pooping was a social event, to the “fatbergs,” which are large masses of solid waste that grow in sewage systems — one under the city of London was 200 yards long!
This is a book that should be read by policymakers in every city — including the Seattle Parks Department, whose Denny Regrade headquarters adjacent to bathroomless Denny Park has no public restrooms.
Seattle used to have public restrooms. What happened?
Director's Corner: Seattle fails to provide enough bathrooms for people experiencing homelessness
Read the full April 3 - 9 issue.
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