Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Complete Streets? Try 'Incomplete Streets'.

Despite making a case for Complete Streets, the Toronto Official Plan does not talk about the city’s need for public toilets anywhere within its 167 pages.  One hundred and sixty seven pages about the socioeconomic significance of city streets and how Toronto needs to be designed to make walking and cycling more obvious choices and how city streets need to be seen as beautiful and vibrant places in order to attract people, and not one reference to public toilets.  Where are the pedestrians and bicyclists and tourists supposed to go when they have to go?  Does the creation of Complete Streets imply the creation of more Tim Hortons and Starbucks and McDonalds to handle the increased amount of bladders on the streets of Toronto? 

The closest reference to public toilets is a point about how a Complete Streets approach will provide space for “street elements” such as “street furniture” (Toronto Official Plan, 2015, p.3-3), except that the city has scrapped its plans to install 20 public toilets by 2019 (only two public toilets ever were installed), so public toilets aren’t included in the reference to street furniture.  Perhaps when the Plan states that Complete Streets will consider “the needs and priorities of the various users and uses within the right-of-way,” what it actually means is that Complete Streets are to function as exclusive streets: “various users” = users who can afford to pay for a cup of coffee and use the toilet at Starbucks. 

Without providing adequate and accessible public toilets, Complete Streets should more accurately be called Incomplete Streets. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Community Toilet Scheme for North American Cities?

I would love to see a program like the UK’s Community Toilet Scheme (CTS) surface in North America.  The idea of the CTS is to improve the provision of toilet facilities available to the public.  In short, a city forms a partnership with local businesses whereby businesses offer members of the public free access to their facilities in return for financial compensation from the city. 

Crohn’s and Colitis Canada has developed the ‘Go Here Washroom Access Initiative’ (http://www.kintera.org/site/c.4nJIJXPrEbKSE/b.9268541/k.851B/About_GoHere.htm).  This program increases washroom access for people living with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, or other medical conditions related to incontinence. 

As critical as it is for people with medical conditions to have access to toilet facilities, everyone should be able to access a public toilet when needed.  So, this is a project that I would like to work on.  I would like to implement a CTS-like program in cities throughout North America, starting with Toronto. 

No, the CTS program isn’t perfect.  For instance, businesses retain the right to refuse admission in certain circumstances and not all businesses will offer accessible facilities.  And the CTS scheme doesn’t solve the problem of lack of public toilets in cities; cities still need to step up to the plate and find innovative and inclusive solutions to public toilet provision, particularly for homeless people. 

Despite its limitations, the CTS scheme does have its merits, not least of which is the actual increase in availability of places to go.  So, where to begin . . . .

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Public toilet exhibition: Just a fanciful notion?

In early 20th century Toronto, as in other large industrial cities of the time, public toilets were provided in order to curb excretion on city streets and hence contain the spread of disease.  However, city officials also regarded public toilets as central to the strategy of urban modernization and the creation of “beautiful hygienic cities” (Greed, n.d., p.4).  Indeed, the public toilet debuted at the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park, London in 1851, where the latest cultural and industrial innovations from around the globe were put on show for a discerning audience.

Today, public toilets no longer are valued as one of the successes of urbanism.  Instead, they are, at best, regarded as costly and generally redundant conveniences, taking up space that could be used for a more noble purpose than accommodating the needs of the body.  At worst, public toilets are regarded as dirty and often disgusting spaces, and produce compound practical difficulties and social dilemmas for planners, designers, and city officials.

More critically, public toilets that are badly designed, inadequately maintained, and poorly located habitually result in, for example, older people, people with disabilities, women—with or without babies and young children, transgender people, and homeless people being unable to access public toilets. 

How do we reinvigorate the image of public toilets?  How do we, once again, appreciate the social and practical importance of public toilets and help reduce the stigma and embarrassment surrounding public toilets?  I think it would be awesome if there could be a travelling outdoor art exhibit spotlighting the public toilet.  Creators of all sorts could showcase their model public toilets and people could vote on best accessible public toilet design.  People could offer suggestions for design elements they would like to see in public toilets.  Ideas could be generated about how to keep public toilets clean and safe.  There could be a display on public toilets through history and a display on the world’s best public toilets today.  One-of-a-kind ‘public toilet’ artwork could be for sale.  The exhibit could feature a mix of the functional and the whimsical. 

Perhaps this exhibit would be more idealistic than realistic, but it would reach a very large audience and, critically, help get a much needed conversation started.

A travelling public art exhibit on the public toilet.  It’s just an idea I’m throwing out there, but I think it’s not such a bad one.  What do you think?

Greed, C. (n.d.). Taking stock: An overview of toilet provision and standards. Retrieved from http://kb.keepbritaintidy.org/toilets/publications/stock.pdf.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

'Exclusion by design': A slippery ride

Before a city installs a public toilet, this is the question it should ask itself: How can we design our toilet to be as inclusive as possible—to allow anyone who needs to use the toilet to be able to use the toilet. 
Instead, what cities tend to ask themselves is: How can we design our toilet to exclude populations a, b, and c and also to control what populations x, y, and z do in there.  Most cities provide exclusionary toilets (when they provide them at all).  And they provide exclusionary toilets because they think this is the way to eliminate unwanted behaviours, everything from people flushing their socks down the toilet to people just not flushing the toilet. 
What is an “exclusionary” toilet?  I would argue that any public toilet whose design does not allow for easy access and operation of the unit by all people—any public toilet whose design does not allow anyone who needs to go to be able to go—is an exclusionary toilet. 
All Automated Public Toilets (APTs), by design, are exclusionary, particularly the newer models of APTs on the market.  These toilets (could) come equipped with all manner of exclusionary tactic, from the explicit (e.g. floors with weight sensors that will not allow the door to close if more than one adult person likely is in the unit and doors that automatically open after a set amount of time) to the implicit (e.g. restricted hours of operation (closed overnight), fee for use, and located usually only in tourist areas). 
APTs are designed to prevent undesirable behaviours (e.g. vandalism, sex, drug use) from occurring in the toilet.  And APTs cost a lot of money.  Purchasing and installing an APT can cost cities up to $1 million, depending on supplier, design, and a city’s existing infrastructure.  Yet, despite this hefty expense, APTs do not prevent people from doing more than just numbers one and two.  Even the most sophisticated and costly APT cannot overrule human behaviour, human need, and human want.  And I’m glad, because no machine ever should have authority over one of the body’s most basic requirements, regardless of the alleged advantages. 
But, beyond this, if you exclude one, you risk excluding all.  If you try to prevent people from having sex, you likely exclude someone who requires a personal aide from using the toilet.  If you try to prevent someone from taking a nap in the toilet, you likely exclude someone with Crohn’s disease from being able to use the toilet undisturbed.  If you try to prevent someone from using too much toilet paper or too much soap, or from taking too long to dry their hands, you likely exclude someone whose first language isn’t English, or who is not able to read, or an elderly person, or someone with vision loss, or . . . .  If you exclude one, your facility is not inclusive. 
‘Exclusion by design’ makes for a slippery ride.  It sets in motion the idea that human dignity should be accorded to only certain people: that only certain ‘ideal’ people are worthy of having human rights in the toilet.  While I don’t believe that a public toilet necessarily should be used as a location for people to do their laundry, take a shower, take drugs, or have sex, the reality is that you cannot design away these behaviours from a public toilet.  Cities need to accept that ‘unwelcome behaviours’ will happen in any public toilet and they need to find a productive way to address this.  Cities need to approach public toilet provision with intention. 
So, what do I suggest in terms of public toilet design?  First, I want to say that no public toilet can meet the needs of all people.  People with profound and multiple physical disabilities likely won’t be able to use a standard public toilet, even one designed to be ADA compatible.  This is why I think it is so important that all cities install at least one Changing Places toilet (http://www.changing-places.org/).  It is unconscionable that so many disabled people and their families are subject to ‘the bladder’s leash’, planning their “daily spatial routines around the provision of toilets, avoiding locations where there is no provision, and consequently having a constrained daily home range and constrained patterns of spatial behaviour” (Kitchin and Law, 2001, p.295).  Lack of accessible public toilets can be understood as a denial of the rights of disabled people to participate in social life with dignity.
I like this quote by Molotch (as cited in Molotch and Norén, 2010, pp.9-10)
At the extreme, officials often close down the facility altogether rather than put up with the bad acts—thus depriving everyone of access.  Those utterly without alternatives then excrete in public spaces—yielding visual and olfactory ugliness, among other consequences.  Such patterns of prohibition, exclusion, adaptation, and befoulment raise more general issues of how to respond to disliked behaviors.  It brings home the problem of social control: What price are we willing to pay to limit activities about which we might disapprove?  How much does potential offense of the few color our imagination, politics, and resource expenditure?  To what extent does a society design operations and governing procedures out of fear of the miscreants, versus adding satisfaction to collective needs?
Public toilet provision is about human dignity and human rights.  Kitchin and Law (2001) explain that “public toilets must be able to be used in private and in a way that minimises the potential for embarrassment” (p.290).  I think this is exactly correct.  No one needs to know what you’re doing in a public toilet and how long you’re doing it for.  I really like PHLUSH’s public restroom design principles: http://www.phlush.org/public-restroom-planning/public-restroom-design-principles/.  These principles are comprehensive and thoughtful, and they address the concerns and fears (and disgust) many people have about public toilets while offering a plan for how to make public toilets inclusive spaces, including the creation of all-gender single-stall toilet units. 
For many people, lack of accessible public toilets means being “placed in a situation where you are unable to relieve yourself” without violating the cultural and social practices that “surround the act” (Kitchin and Law, 2001, p.290).  By creating a well-informed public toilet provision strategy that incorporates design principles such as those suggested by PHLUSH, cities will go a long way towards establishing comfortable, safe, accessible, and inclusive public toilets. 

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

A Strategy for 'Potty Parity'

Selfridges was the first ever store in Britain to provide a women’s lavatory.  What a boon these conveniences must have been to women who previously were forced to (discreetly) relieve themselves in the open.  Given the relative abundance of public toilets for women today, it might be difficult to believe that in the 1900s women had to urinate publicly, but they did indeed: the inner linings of Victorian dresses often were stained by urine, suggesting that women used these garments to “cloak the practice of urinating while standing outside in public” (Cavanagh, 2010, p.38).  The ability to access a public convenience must have given women—at least those who could afford to pass through the doors of Selfridges—a considerable sense of liberation and respect: at last someone acknowledged their need for bodily relief (even if the intent likely had a mercenary motive).  But, the social subordination of women in the early 1900s—interpreted here as the absence of public toilets for women—is not an anachronistic relic of a traditional society.  No, even in today’s ‘modern’ society, where it would be inconceivable that public toilets for women are nonexistent, gender parity in the public restroom is missing; women often need to stand in an everlasting line and ‘hold it’ while their male counterparts readily breeze in and out of the loo.  But, what, exactly, constitutes gender parity in the restroom?  More precisely, what are the metrics of ‘potty parity’?  Certainly not an equal amount of toilet stalls for men and women (for numerous reasons women have a greater need than men for public toilets).  This model is outmoded and clearly does not work.  And, critically, if a metric for measuring ‘potty parity’ did exist, (how) would it be implemented?  I think that, like other elements of public toilet provision, a metric for potty parity would develop organically out of a dedicated and deliberate public toilet provision strategy.  I believe that the development of a public toilet strategy that incorporates feedback from collaborative planning exercises is critical to the establishment of an effective and sustainable public toilet program.  And I believe that by considering variables such as age, disability, gender, public health, and homelessness, as well as elements such as location, design, and cost, planners, architects, and urban designers would uncover a metric (or metrics) for measuring gender parity in the public restroom.  Indeed, by ensuring the provision of accessible, clean, and sufficient public toilets, the creation of a public toilet strategy would go a long way towards enabling all people to participate in urban life, and thus towards creating a healthier, more liveable, and more equitable city. 

Cavanagh, S.L. (2010). Queering bathrooms: Gender, sexuality, and the hygienic imagination. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Change Your Attitude

One of the most common reasons/excuses cities give for why they don’t install (more) public toilets is that they’re expensive, often prohibitively so.  Yes, public toilets can be expensive (purchase price ranges from the high five figures to the low six figures, depending on the supplier and the level of sophistication of the toilet unit, plus the cost of infrastructure hookup), but I believe cost is the least important reason why cities don’t provide more public toilets.  While the financial cost of providing a public toilet is not insignificant, it doesn’t have to break the bank, either.  In some cases (New York City and Toronto), cities don’t pay a cent for public toilet provision because their toilets are included as part of a deal with advertising companies whereby the companies provide a variety of street furniture (public toilets included) in return for the right to advertise on the furniture (in Toronto, this arrangement, which was supposed to net the city 20 public toilets, yielded two public toilets.  Plans for further public toilets recently were scrapped).  Let’s face it, cities don’t provide public toilets because they’re not seen as important amenities—their worth is not recognized.  Public toilets are seen as psychologically, philosophically, and politically undesirable because of the potential trouble they will bring.  Cost is just a canard, an expedient myth.  The ironic thing is that the more a city spends on public toilet provision, by selecting ultra-sophisticated fortresses of steel in order to ‘design out’ bad behaviour, the more problems the toilets cause and the more expensive they become.  Trying to control human behaviour with technology and design is an expensive and, ultimately, futile endeavour (just ask Seattle).  Cities need to accept that public toilets are going to be used hard, and they need to figure out a way to work with this reality rather than trying to squelch it.  First, it’s impossible—you can’t monitor and control humanity’s every move in a public toilet and people always will outsmart technology and ‘environmental’ design.  Second, trying to monitor and control humanity’s every move in a public toilet is what ends up costing a small fortune.  Cities need to get over their public toilet phobia.  As corny as it sounds, public toilets don’t need to be feared, they need to be accepted.  Once they’re accepted in all their complex glory, then a strategy can be formulated for how to provide them, how to maintain and service them, and how to keep them in operation.  I’m not saying that design isn’t an important feature of a public toilet.  In fact, I would say it’s one of the most important features.  The key idea is that public toilets need to be designed in order to be as accommodating as possible, rather than designed to be as punitive or restrictive as possible.  This about-face in mindset will go a long way in slaying the fears and suspicions that plague public toilet provision. 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Close Call

I love to walk.  I can walk for hours on end—half searching for quirky architectural gems, half to clear my mind.  Walking brings me peace.  Until I need to pee.  I usually find the nearest McDonalds or Starbucks and slink in and scramble out as swiftly as possible.  But one time, while I was abroad in London for my Master’s degree, I could find no McDonalds, no Starbucks, and nowhere else to go either.  I kept walking and walking, growing ever more desperate.  And then I found a community college.  I figured—perfect!  They’ll have a washroom I can use.  They did indeed have a washroom, but it was for students only—students of that community college, not students of other educational institutions (of this the security guard was quite clear).  So, I begged.  I begged and begged and promised that I would run in and out as quickly as possible and not make a mess and not do anything in there that I shouldn’t and please let me use the washroom because my bladder is about to burst and I can’t keep it in.  I almost was in tears.  The security guard finally and thankfully took pity on me and let me through the gate, telling me to hurry up because he really wasn’t supposed to let me in.  I sped in and out, thanking him profusely, but that was a terrible experience.  You know, people who smell alright and look alright and don’t have a cartful of belongings and don’t mutter to themselves generally do have a trouble-free time finding an “away from home” toilet to use when they need one.  I never had an experience like this before.  I’ve even been able to walk into a hotel and use its washroom.  It’s relatively easy for housed people to take it for granted that they will find a public toilet to use when they need one.  And it’s easy for housed people not to appreciate that finding a public toilet to use often is impossible for homeless people, and can lead them to urinate and defecate in alleys and other quasi-public spaces.  Indeed, undesirable behaviours associated with homeless people, including vandalism, drug use, and sexual activity, repeatedly have been named as leading reasons for the closure of existing public toilets and the reluctance of cities to provide additional public toilets.  But if housed people can walk into public institutions, malls, food service establishments, and even hospitality establishments to use the restrooms, then why should cities provide public toilets?  Should cities provide public toilets primarily for the use of homeless people?  Cities need to provide public toilets beyond what can be found in malls and cafés and restaurants and hotels, and provide them for all people, not just for homeless people, because going when you need to go should be a civil right.  Yet, as the public toilet situation in North American cities stands now, not everyone can go when she or he needs to go.  People with physical disabilities and mobility impairments, parents and attendants of children with disabilities and mobility impairments, people who travel with a companion for assistance, people with certain medical conditions, elderly people, moms or dads with babies and young children, people with complexity or ambiguity in gender presentation, homeless people, and everyone else should be able to go to the bathroom when they need to go.  And it is morally incumbent on cities to ensure that their citizens have this right.  Perhaps homeless people understand best the indignity that could come from not being able to access a toilet when needed.  Yes, public toilets can be dirty, disgusting places and no, they’re not always used only for peeing and pooping (whether or not they should be is a whole other matter).  But if they get to be dirty and disgusting then it’s because of the way they’re viewed, not because of who uses them or how they’re used/what they’re used for.  If public toilets are looked at as expensive nuisances used by offensive people for improper purposes and the people who are hired to clean and maintain public toilets are underpaid, inadequately trained, and undervalued, then, yes, even the newest and most modern public toilet, no matter how technologically complex and expensive, quickly will become dirty and disgusting and most people will not use it.  So, should cities hire attendants to monitor public toilets?  Should there be video surveillance outside public toilets?  There are so many questions to ask regarding public toilet provision.  Questions about design and about location, about cost and about security.  And I want to address them all.  But, regardless of all the questions, cities still need public toilets.  So, where do we start?  How about with two apt quotes from my favourite television show (not to minimize the issue):

Sheldon: I do not have to urinate.  I am the master of my own bladder . . . . Drat!

The Big Bang Theory, Season 3, Episode 13

Sheldon: I have to skip the chit chat.  Emergency.

Leonard: What kind of emergency?

Sheldon: Mathematical.  32-ounce banana smoothie, 16-ounce bladder. 

The Big Bang Theory, Season 4, Episode 21