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Public toilets letting us down

The inadequacy of public toilets today indicates an abandonment of both municipal responsibility and social solidarity

In his 1937 essay What is a City?, historian, sociologist and architecture critic Lewis Mumford described the city as a theatre — a space in which the social drama of urban life could play out.

It’s unlikely he envisioned the daily drama of parents with young children, the sick, and the weak-of-bladder looking in vain for an accessible public toilet.

According to journalist Lezlie Lowe, it’s a struggle that’s all too common — testament to the decline in public toilets.

In her book No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail our Private Needs, Lowe argues that the state of our public toilets tells us a great deal about what kind of cities and what kind of society we want to be.

The automated toilets that now dot the urban landscape suggest a rather bleak compromise.

The self-cleaning silver kiosks function increasingly as a kind of anti-facility, designed to minimise messy human reality as much as possible.

The toilets have no seats, to prevent them being defaced or ripped out; they are lit with blue UV lights, to deter drug users; their doors are designed to open automatically, to discourage lingering; and they are almost chronically lacking in soap and paper.

“When automated flushers and [taps] and hand dryers stop working, no human is there to know except the users — who have, precisely as a result of automation, been alienated from the space and feel no need to … report, for example, a non-flushing and rapidly filling clogged toilet,” Lowe told RN’s Blueprint for Living.

It’s hard to imagine a more abject illustration of the failure of economic rationalism in urban design than a hapless individual interrupted while trying to relieve herself, by an automatically flushing toilet that flushed too soon, and automated doors that open unprompted to expose the unfolding drama within.

Lowe started writing about public bathrooms a long time ago because she had young children.

Nothing brings the issue into sharper relief than a child looking up at you in desperation, saying they need to go, she says.

“I recognised that I was changing the way I used the city because I always had to have bathroom radar.

“So I started looking at different people, for example, people who have Crohn’s or Colitis. Their entire day may be structured around where [they] can go, where [they] know [they] have instant access.”

Of course, people with serious health conditions are just the pointy end of the problem. Lowe quotes one estimate that suggests when you include the elderly, parents with children, and menstruating women, roughly a quarter of the population has special bathroom needs.

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Posted on: June 4 2019

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