Public toilets in parks: can we make them less crappy?

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:

  1. 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
  2. There’s a mobile app that helps people find the closest available washroom registered with the GoHere initiative
  3. 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.

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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”


A Walk in the Park at Rowntree Mills

Park People recently launched A Walk in the Park, a program to establish community-led walking programs in parks across Toronto. The program will help train walk-leaders and support them in leading walks that connect older adults, seniors, and newcomers with easily accessible walking activities in their local parks and ravines to improve the participants’ fitness and to help them form new, valuable and long-lasting social connections.

I had the pleasure of joining the Rowntree Mills walking group on their debut walk through Rowntree Mills along the Humber River. It was my chance to get a first-hand look at the program and experience it as a participant.

Gathering Together:


After some unseasonably warm weather, the morning in question was cool, grey and blustery. I wasn’t sure that there would be much of a turnout for the walk, but as I made my way to the meeting spot at Rexdale Women’s Centre, I was happy to find 13 smiling walkers ready to hit the trail. I was warmly greeted by Adassa and Jackie, this group’s enthusiastic leaders. There were snacks, walking sticks and pedometers available for anyone who was interested. Once everyone was signed in, we got on our way.

Getting Walking:

We did a bit of light stretching before descending down the sloped and tree-lined path into the park. Just a few minutes into our route, several ladies shrieked with delight as a young deer wandered into our path before bounding off into the trees. I was playfully teased for not being able to get my camera out fast enough.

As the walk progressed, everyone found their own pace and the group spread out along the trail. Some of the more athletic participants lead the way, while others strolled more leisurely behind, pointing out various birds and plants and exchanging tips on using walking sticks.


Slowing Down to Chat:

I asked one cluster of women what had motivated them to join the walking program. “It’s a nice way to get a little bit of exercise and spend some quality time with our friends,” one woman replied. Another woman chimed in to tell me about her Fit-Bit, saying that these walking groups are “a good way to get those 10,000 steps in for the day!”

Afterward, I caught up with our walk-leaders who said that they were quite pleased with the turn out for their first outing. Adassa said that people were already expressing excitement about walks to come. I very much enjoyed my first official Walk in The Park. It is truly heartwarming to see how such a simple activity can bring people together in such a big way.

We at Park People are looking forward to supporting walks like this one all through the summer and into the fall. We hope you’ll join us for A Walk in the Park near you!

Thank you to our generous funders the Government of Ontario and the Government of Canada. 
A huge thanks to our community partners Access Alliance, Rexdale Women’s Center, Delta Family Resource Center, and The City of Toronto Parks, Forestry, and Recreation staff at Stan Wadlow Club House and Earl Bales Community Center for helping us connect with the local community and get the project started.

Thank you to also to the Ontario Trillium Foundation for supporting this program


It’s Spring in Your Park: What you Need to Get Started

Spring has sprung. And with it, a new feature on Park People’s website.

We’ve created an entire library of park resources to give you free access a tips, tools on topics from organizing events in parks to working with your city councillor. It’s also where you’ll find all of Park People’s own research reports. 

When you see people in their winter coats, faces turned to the sun, you know park season is ready for its season opener. Here are the must-read resources that you’ll want to check-out as park season starts to unfold.

Park Cleanups


The debris that accumulated during the winter makes your park look like it’s in a major slump instead of primed and ready for warm weather. Fear not,  a park clean-up is a perfect way to kick start your park group’s annual event line-up and get the community members involved in taking direct ownership over their community park

Here are two resources to get you started planning your park cleanup:

Here are the dates and links to cleanups key Canadian cities:


Jane’s Walks

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May 4th, 5th, and 6th, participate in this global festival of citizen-led walks. Now in over 40 Canadian cities, Jane’s Walks activate the ideas of Jane Jacobs through citizen-led walking tours that make space for people to collectively re-imagine the places in which they live, work and play.

Leading a Jane’s walk in your park is a great way to get a park group started, or to uncover some of the unique attributes of your park and surrounding neighbourhood.

We’ve created a resource on how you can lead a great Jane’s Walk in your park.  


Plan for Planting

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Photo Credit: Stephanie Overton 

A food forest produces more and more food over time. You can think of it as an RRSP. Planting perennial vines and fruit is a solid long term investment in food security.

If you’ve ever picked berries along a trail or shared  your home-grown abundance of fruit or vegetables (zucchini seems to be particularly popular) with neighbours, you know something the power of urban agriculture. Several organizations across Canada, like Kitchener, Ontario’s Grand River Food Forestry and Richmond British Columbia’s Richmond Food Security Society run programs that make use of urban fruit to benefit communities.

We’ve created resources based on their experiences. Learn about:


Please be sure to take a tour of our new resources library, and tell us the resources you want to see here by emailing us at


Something New from Something Old: A Short Film about Finding Public Spaces in Cities

Ian Garrick Mason’s short film, Something New from Something Old, shines a light on how making use of existing public spaces allows cities to “gracefully evolve in place” rather than “spreading outwards toward infinity.” The film curates a conversation between New York and Toronto and captures the ideas inherent in our Making Connections report as well as the new Public Space Incubator we have just launched with Ken and Eti Greenberg and the Balsam Foundation.

The projects featured in the short film are on a much larger scale than those that will emerge from the Public Space Incubator, but regardless of scale, the spirit behind these projects is aligned with the projects that will emerge from this exciting initiative. As Jennifer Keesmaat says in the film:

“We need to start finding spaces that were at one time something else and transform them by providing an amenity a neighbourhood needs”

Ian Garrick Mason’s reflections on the short film follow below.

Something New from Something Old, a film by Ian Garrick Mason from Ian Garrick Mason on Vimeo.
The idea for Something New from Something Old came to me early last year when walking the length of the High Line in New York City for the second time. The park — a phenomenally successful conversion of an abandoned elevated railway line running through the heart of Manhattan’s west side — seemed both beautifully designed and, with its linear narrowness and its crowds of visitors flowing north to south and south to north at the same time, not quite a ‘park’ at all. It raised interesting questions about what cities are building, exactly, when they cannily turn former industrial land or derelict spaces under highways into thriving, thoughtfully-designed… and here again the word feels odd… parks. (“Public spaces” is the urban designer’s term of art, but this feels too neutral. The things are meant to be fun.)

So I decided to ask experts, designers, and planners involved in some of the highest profile conversion projects in Toronto and New York City about the rationale behind these conversions, the challenges involved in designing under such novel constraints, and the difficult issues — like funding, accessibility, benefit sharing — that come with them. Their answers were both fascinating and encouraging, pointing to a world in which the development of cities will have more to do with gracefully evolving in place than with spreading outwards to infinity. I’m thrilled to be launching Something New from Something Old with Park People, not only because Executive Director Dave Harvey offers such insightful testimony in the film, but also because the organization plays such an important role in helping the public and policymakers understand the importance of parks to a healthy urban society, and in helping define how our parks should look and function in the future.


Green Line takes a huge leap towards reality

With the start of a City-initiated study of the Green Line this year and money budgeted for improvements, the future 5km linear park and trail is set to take a huge leap towards reality in the next three years. Park People put together a video highlighting the project’s potential.



Since Park People began its work on the Green Line in early 2014, we have advocated for connecting the pieces along this hydro corridor into a cohesive linear park and trail (and we’ve just made a video talking about it!). The Green Line run corridor runs between Landsdowne and just east of Spadina, in a hydro corridor north of Dupont St. We didn’t propose specific designs, but instead called on the City to initiate a study that would engage communities along the route and set out a master plan for how the linear park and trail would look.

We’re excited to announce that we are a partner with the City on the Green Line Implementation Plan, which will be carried out this year by an amazing consultant team headed by local design firm DTAH. DTAH has worked on other notable public space projects like the Queen’s Quay Revitalization, Evergreen Brickworks, and the Lower Don Trail.

Workshop Architecture’s Helena Grdadolnik is also a consultant team member, leading community engagement. Helena has worked for years on the Green Line, running the initial ideas competition back in 2012 that sparked people’s imagination about what the corridor could become. She’s continued as a champion of the Green Line in the years since, including working with Park People and StreetART Toronto to create a gateway Green Line mural at Dovercourt and Geary in 2015.

The study will look at the length of the corridor from Earlscourt Park to just east of Spadina Road to identify opportunities for connections, new green spaces, and creating a continuous trail. It will also propose some high-level designs and priorities for moving forward. A community consultation process will engage with the many local communities along the line to discuss what the Green Line should be and how it could best serve them as their local park space.

The Green Line Implementation Plan consultant team (DTAH, Workshop Architecture, Dillon Consulting, Toni Paolasini, ASI Heritage and A.W. Hooker) had this to say about the study:

This exciting project aims to deliver one of Toronto’s great places. Our city alongside many others in North America have turned to their own ‘left over’ spaces to create wonderful linear parks such as Chicago’s 606 and Atlanta’s Beltline. Similar to the Green Line, these examples have grown from ideas generated by the local community, capturing the imagination of their respective cities at large, connecting neighbourhoods, and enhancing civic pride. A great deal of public engagement has already taken place to develop the current vision, and now the community is interested in action. The Implementation Plan project will commence in January 2017 and work closely with the Green Line stakeholders to deliver a truly signature public space in our city.

But a plan is one thing and having money to put that plan into action is another. Luckily, the Green Line has both!

The proposed 10-year capital plan for the City, contains nearly $1.5 million for the Green Line. This includes money for carrying out the Green Line Implementation Plan study, but also $800,000 for design and construction of some of the elements that will be identified in the Plan, mostly to be spent in 2019, and $300,000 in 2017 to construct a new community garden along the Green Line just east of Christie Street.

While this money certainly won’t pay for the entire Green Line, it’s an important first investment in making improvements to green spaces and connections along the corridor.

All in all, 2017 is going to be a very exciting year for the Green Line. Thank you to everyone who has supported this project, whether it was sending an email with your thoughts, coming to an event, sharing a story at one of our walks, or donating money—it’s because of your support that the Green Line linear park and trail is becoming a reality. And a big thanks to local councillors, the Mayor and Parks, Forestry and Recreation staff for driving this critical green infrastructure project forward. Also, to TD Bank Group, who has supported The Green Line from the start.

Stay tuned for opportunities to get involved in upcoming events and programming from Park People on the Green Line, but also in the public consultation process for the Implementation Plan. We’ll be sending out regular updates and information on how to get involved.


Creating a park plan for downtown Toronto: Power to the People


This is the third in a trilogy about TOCore, the City of Toronto’s initiative to create a parks and open space master plan for the downtown (among other related planning things). In the last two posts I broke down the challenges with buying parkland and the need for flexible design.

Pretend you’re at a community consultation for park improvements. (I mean, what else would you be doing on a Monday night, right?) There’s a sprinkling of people in the room, mostly adults from the neighbourhood. The landscape architect is at the front of the room gesturing with her Pilot Fineliner at three different concepts on poster boards and asking what you think. Should the pathway curve this way or that? Do you like this slide or this climbing structure? How about this bench?

You place little stickers on the things you like and then you go home, pour yourself a bottle of wine, and fire up Netflix (may I suggest Master of None?).

But is that the best we can do?

We have all these super-engaged people in a room together all nerding-out about the park and yet the conversation is almost always only about design. But what happens after the ribbon is cut on that new park with its curving pathways, slide, and bench? How do community members stay involved?

We should use the opportunity in park consultations to engage community members in more long-term direct involvement the park, like developing a programming and engagement plan led by local residents and organizations.

What kind of programming do people want to see? What organizations are nearby that could assist? A community health centre? A yoga studio? Who are the users of the park? Local schools? A nearby homeless shelter? How can local community members be involved? Can they adopt a new tree and help water it? Tend a garden? Lead nature programming for kids? Organize community picnics? A massive flash mob of people silently reading on blankets (my dream)?

These programming and engagement plans would really come in handy because…


We are using our parks more and more

As the City’s Downtown Parks Study found, the number of permits issued for parks has gone up every single year since 2005–not surprising given the population growth we’ve seen. But it also means our parks are more and more active with more and more people. People want to use parks in new and different ways than previously. For cultural activities, for movie nights, for farmer’s markets. Demand on park space has never been higher. This is great…

…until it’s not

We go to parks for social reasons, but we also go to parks to get away from people and be in nature. The city can be a crowded, loud, hard place sometimes and the neighbourhood park is a good place to sit on some grass and read a book for a few hours without anyone else disturbing you. Seriously, all you moms and dads with screaming gaggles of three-year olds in tow, do you really need to set up your children’s birthday party right next to the guy quietly reading under a tree?

Um, anyway


So it’s all about balance

Right. It’s this balance–between active programming and passive uses–that a community-led programming and engagement plan could help maintain. In partnership, of course, with the City, who are the park permit gatekeepers.

Oh, right. Those

Technically, if you want to host a community event in a park you need a permit. Currently that’ll cost you about $120 for the lowest tier. It can be a real barrier, both financial and psychological, to community members hosting activities for their neighbourhood. I’ve pulled a few permits. It’s not exactly an easy experience, even for someone who knows parks relatively well (ok, who am I kidding, I love drawing waste management maps).

So shouldn’t we just get rid of permits?

Well, no. Permits are needed to help the City balance use of public space to make sure that we all get an equitable opportunity to enjoy it. This way your acoustic music festival and drum circle (shudder) doesn’t clash with my Patsy Cline-themed artisanal hotdog cook-off (don’t ask). They’re also a source of revenue that help maintain our parks.

Ok, so…

I think we need a new class of permits that recognize the limited capacities of many community groups and encourage the kind of fun, social activities that make our neighbourhood parks great. Call it a Community Event Permit.


This could build on the City’s newly introduced free art and music-related permits will allow local musicians and artists to better animate parks and promote themselves. Look for my interpretive dance on the effects of amalgamation on Toronto coming to a park near you.

But, seriously, a Community Event Permit could be either free or set at a much-reduced price. It could be limited to local community groups and capped at 75 attendees so that maintenance issues are minimal. It’s totally do-able.

All of these ideas apply not just to downtown, but the whole city.

In short, it’s all getting people more directly involved

And not just when you have some money for new designed elements, but in the ongoing management and operation of the park–both in creating programming that brings people together and in creating a plan that helps manage the effects of that programming.

Dufferin Grove, the closest we’ve gotten in Toronto to a community-managed park, does this well. You’ll find friday night dinners, campfires, and a number of other community-focused programming.


These volunteer-led park friends groups, of which there are over 100 in Toronto, are a great way to tap into local energy around a park. Some of these groups are doing the kind of work I’ve talked about here, but it would be nice to see this embedded more directly into the way we think about “engagement” and “consultation” in Toronto’s parks.

Because who better to involve in a park than the people who live and breathe it everyday?


photos by Park People except the movie night, which was the Canadian Film Centre

This post is written by Jake Tobin Garrett. Jake is a writer and wanderer living in Toronto who works as manager of policy and research for Park People.


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