Public toilets in parks: can we make them less crappy?
September 4, 2018
The topic may, at first blush, seem unimportant. But, make no mistake about it, public toilets are a major public health issue. In an excellent article, The Globe & Mail’s Andre Picard commented that:
“In Canada, we behave as if urination, defecation and menstruation are not routine bodily functions, but are somehow optional if we are away from our homes.” Adding that: “The answer is not to refuse to build public bathrooms, it is to value and maintain them as any other public infrastructure.
We couldn’t agree more. That’s why we spoke to five park people from across Canada to get their take on how public toilets could be less crappy.
Lezlie Lowe, The Journalist
Halifax Journalist Lezlie Lowe is literally writing the book on public toilets in Canada. She was inspired to write the book when she became a mother, spending time in Halifax’s Common, Canada’s oldest urban park. “The only bathroom on the premises was in a basement where I couldn’t take the stroller and the public bathroom was often locked.” This caused her to contemplate the politics of public bathrooms.
Lowe’s way of moving through the city changed because, as the parent of two daughters, her needs had shifted. What she’s discovered through this new lens is that it’s challenging to try and fix the lack of access to public bathrooms, particularly if you’re not a person of privilege.
“If you have compromised access to public bathrooms and you don’t have a voice, it’s hard to get things changed.”
Lowe points to the particular challenges of homeless, trans and disabled people who face unique challenges when accessing public bathrooms.
“Public bathrooms are supposed to be for anybody. But that access is compromised if there are activities deemed “anti-social” going on in public bathrooms. When that happens, instead of fixing the challenge, bathrooms are simply shut down.”
Lowe points to the fact that while most public bathrooms are divided 50/50 for men and women, women actually need more bathrooms than men do. First, women tend to use bathrooms more frequently. Also, because women are more often the caregivers of children and seniors, they have others who accompany them on their bathroom visits. That explains why there’s always a lineup for the women’s bathroom.
Watch out for Lowe’s book No Place To Go, being released by Coach House books in September, 2018.
Joan Kuyek, The Advocate
An Ottawa Civics Bootcamp gave birth to an organization that advocates for public toilets. At the session, Joan Kuyek and her team developed a 5 minute pitch that was so well received that it led to GottaGo!, a campaign for safe, clean, accessible and easy to find toilets in Ottawa.
Kuyek believes that public toilets suffer under a veil of silence that needs to be broken. She likens breaking the stigma around public toilets to Margaret Mitchell’s pronouncements about domestic abuse in the House of Commons in 1983. “It’s time to let go of the stigma, shame and silence that gets in the way of providing publicly accessible toilets,” says Kuyek. Gottago! does just that.
Ottawa’s highly trafficked Dundonald Park was recently renovated, without the inclusion of a publically accessible toilet. What are the practical implications? “The seniors who used to do Tai Chi in the park can no longer get together there. Not without a bathroom,” says Kuyek. We know that only 5% of seniors use parks. Kuyek believes this number would be much higher if we provided basic facilities that would make it easier for seniors to venture out without worrying about how they’ll be able to find a bathroom should they need one.
Kuyek acknowledges that building new public toilets is expensive. Installing and maintaining a new bathroom is somewhere between 200,000 to 300,000 dollars. In the interim, she welcomes the use of porta potties, but doesn’t see that as a suitable long term solution.
Montreal has installed composting toilets that cost in the neighbourhood of $30,000 to $40,000 dollars, which Kuyek sees as the best solution for everyone. A typical composting toilet is completely waterless and the waste from composting toilets is processed on-site.
“Every park needs a public bathroom. Otherwise the amenities created for people simply can’t be used by many. If we want the health benefits of parks, we have to provide bathrooms.”
Most importantly, we need to have the conversation about public toilets in a way that reduces the stigma associated with bodily functions. “It can’t be hidden away anymore.”
Jason Singh, The Disruptor
Living with Crohn’s or Colitis can mean upwards of 20 urgent bathroom trips a day. It’s a huge issue for the 250,000 Canadians who have Crohn’s or Colitis and face serious social isolation without enough access to public bathrooms. That’s why Crohn’s and Colitis Canada developed the GoHere Washroom Access Initiative which is based on three key components:
- Local businesses and organizations sign on to the program and display a decal letting people know their bathrooms are open to those in need-no questions asked
- There’s a mobile app that helps people find the closest available washroom registered with the GoHere initiative
- A GoHere card (both printed and virtual versions) acts as a safeguard for people facing emergencies and needing access to a location. It’s a shorthand that helps people explain their need without having to speak about it in public.
Crohn’s and Colitis Canada is actively working with a number of municipalities such as Toronto, Mississauga, Calgary and Stratford to open up washroom access at city operated facilities such as civic and community centres, helping to make communities more accessible.
“All people should be in a position to venture out without anxiety,” says Jason Singh Manager, Innovative Health Initiatives with Crohn’s and Colitis Canada. “This is a hidden disease that affects so many Canadians. When our constituents have the right accommodations, everyone benefits.”
Rebecca Pinkus, The Urbanist
“I’ve been a park person for the better part of my life,” says Rebecca Pinkus. And she means it. Pinkus is an “”Olmsted groupie” who focused her masters research on the history of engineering green space, and she is deeply interested in the role of urban parks on mental health. Her park-time increased last year when she got an allotment garden in High Park, a 109 plot garden in Toronto’s biggest park. In her section of the park, a porta potty has been provided by the City and is used by the gardeners who often work on-site for several hours. It’s also used by dog walkers, runners and the general park population.
Rebecca finds that the porta potties do the trick, as they are generally well maintained and clean. In fact, she sent a thank you note to the City when they replaced the free standing flush-model unit that people had trouble using with a standard no-flush model.
Photo Credit: Rebecca Pinkus
However, Pinkus worries that the porta potties aren’t accessible to people in wheelchairs and mobility devices. Also, she says, there have been times when the lock has been broken and fellow gardeners have had to stand watch while others used the facilities.
Rebecca understands the risks and costs associated with installing bathrooms. City workers need to address issues such as drug use, vandalism and misuse of the space. However, she wonders whether compost toilets might be a better long term, year-round solution. “I’ve used them at Everdale Farm and they’re amazing,” she says. “I wish the city would consider installing them in places like High Park.”
Stuart Mackinnon, The Commissioner
Stuart Mackinnon is a Commissioner of the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation. Mackinnon’s long been an advocate for public bathrooms across Vancouver. He is adamant that “”publicly accessible bathrooms need to be approached as a public health issue.” This issue is particularly urgent as the population ages, he says.
Mackinnon was pleased to see that Vancouver’s recent capital plan included $12.3 million to maintain and renovate publicly accessible washrooms which include washrooms in field houses and concession stands. Even though that’s a big investment, Mackinnon admits, “it’s very expensive to put in a public bathroom.” Those capital costs include building the infrastructure to pipe in water.
“No one really likes porta potties,” says Mackinnon, “they’re ugly, smelly and community members complain about them.”
One solution to the lack of publicly accessible bathrooms is mixed use development, which Mackinnon says is “just good design.” Once the city is investing in infrastructure for new seniors or daycare centres or community centres, they also build publicly accessible bathrooms outside the building when they’re located adjacent to parks. It’s a solution Mackinnon would like to see spread around his city, and across Canada.
Also, during his term as Commissioner Mackinnon has championed the availability of hand soap. It seems obvious, but before 2010 many public bathrooms did not provide soap because there had been issues of soap being misused and soap dispensers being pulled off the wall.
As a public school teacher, he knows how hard the government has worked to inform people about the importance of hand washing as a critical method of avoiding communicable ailments like the flu. “Dealing with this kind of stuff is just the cost of running public services,” says Mackinnon, “and the cost of not providing soap, from a public health standpoint, is much higher”