The Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee asks: If the Romans knew that public toilets were an essential part of urban civilization, why don’t we?
If you have ventured out of your house or apartment to take transit or go anywhere in downtown Vancouver, you’ve been thinking about where you can use a public washroom and of course if that public washroom is safe to use. Of course the issue of the availability and accessibility of public washrooms are not top of mind these days and I have been writing relentlessly that everyone needs to go.
I wrote last month about a walk on the south shore of False Creek planned because there was a council report from 2016 saying that a $400,000 accessible washroom was going to be built in Charleson Park. Sadly, for me, it’s not there. Yet. Maybe in the future. Maybe in another four years.
Mr. Gee observes that “Public washrooms have been around since the clever Romans designed a version with holes in a bench over a channel of running water. They put them in busy public places such as markets and theatres. In Victorian England, public washrooms were palatial affairs with grand entrances, stained-glass windows and marble counters. Paris had its pissoirs, simple urinals surrounded by a barrier to provide a minimum of privacy. Montreal had camilliennes. They were named after its Depression-era mayor, Camillien Houde, who joked that building them would give the city’s jobless residents “two kinds of relief.”
The truth is that when public facilities such as libraries and community centres close down there is no substitute, and the lack of public washrooms really does impede the mobility of the population. If you need people to come back and shop in commercial areas and feel comfortable spending extended amounts of time there, you need public washrooms.
Lezlie Lowe wrote her book No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs in 2018. She argues for an international push to insist on clean accessible “environmentally responsible” public toilets. Somehow in the design of the North American city quick, clean access to public washrooms was seen as something to be provided by private corporations, with municipalities not taking on civic responsibilities.
Ms . Lowe is pretty blunt about it. “Planners and committee chairs sound off about the livable, walkable, healthy, age-friendly city. But, somehow, providing a comprehensive network of public bathrooms, in the way cities create spiderwebs of bus routes, parks, and playgrounds, isn’t part of that conversation.”
There’s been an array of things tried in the public realm including the fancy Decaux automated toilets which may be costly and challenging to maintain, and too tech forward for many users.
There’s even Portland Loos in Victoria B.C. and in Smithers. The Victoria loo even won an award as the best public washroom in Canada.
If cities want to support customers coming back into their downtowns to shop and back onto transit to get there they simply must provide clean, accessible washrooms. We’ve wasted too much time thinking this is a trivial thing. It’s time to get serious about the fact that everyone needs to go.