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.

I have also written about Portland’s Loo which costs $90,000 USD to install and has been very popular, designed to be functional without being too comfortable.

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.





  1. If it costs $400,000 to construct an accessible public washroom, we can’t be building public washrooms. The specifications for public construction projects too often do not reflect any concept of reality. A number of years ago, I challenged another City government on the costs they incurred for a public washroom and small caretaker’s residence in a park. They provided me with a line item breakdown of their budget. The costs for a geotechnical consultant was almost double what I paid a geotechnical consultant for a 76-unit four storey wood-frame condominium apartment building, constructed on a site with quite similar soil conditions. I challenged City staff on how they tendered that particular consultant’s contract. They told me they issued a tender, which included the City staff’s estimate of what they would need to spend on geotechnical services. No surprise that all three bids came back with bid prices very close to the budgeted amount the City staff disclosed to the bidders. I asked them why they did that. They told me that was a requirement of the procedures for tendering set out by their purchasing department. In nearly 35 years in the development business, I have never told a bidder what I expected to pay them. By the way, I am not sure why the City even needed the services of a geotechnical consultant for a very simple, slab-on-grade small building. We wonder why a public accessible washroom costs $400,000

  2. A lack of public washrooms is proof positive that our regard for the dignity of seniors and children is nothing more than vapour-ware.

  3. I believe the City of Vancouver has two public washrooms in the Downtown East Side. The Parks Board has any number in “Field Houses.” TransLink has quite a few – reserved for staff. That’s it, probably in all of Metro Vancouver. The bid for public facilities in the early 2000s in the COV that saw a French firm beat out Jimmy Pattison was supposed to include washroom facilities resembling those few in the streets of Portland and San Francisco , but they never happened. Viable and lively street life demands them.

  4. As I suspected, options for the Charleson Park washroom were considered and costs were variable depending on the washroom’s proximity to existing underground sewer and water services. The prefab accessible washroom they had costed is that provided by JC Deceaux that can be see in some locations downtown (although it might have been larger than the accessible washrooms we see in Nelson Park or on Bute near Davie). They are “Automatic Public Toilets” and I suspect there are not many competitive sources of those out there.

    It appears that the representatives of the local resident and marine community favoured alternative locations that were much more expensive due to the requirement to extend the underground services to the washroom.

    Agreed, it is disappointing public washrooms continue to be a low priority in the City’s capital plan compared to other projects.

    Here’s a link to what was discussed and community preference for to be somewhere else in the park which likely explains why there is still no washroom there due to the high cost of locating one further away from underground services.

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