Public toilets: Why the UK is lacking behind in providing this vital public amenity

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Kay Hill takes a look at an undervalued amenity, public toilets, and asks why the UK is lagging behind other countries in its loo management


Words by Kay Hill

Council officers and tabloid newspapers have been keen to lay the blame for the great outdoors being used as a loo firmly at the door of yobbish behaviour. Or, in the case of the Lulworth Estate, on the sudden influx of ‘a much younger and more geographically and culturally diverse’ day tripper (because elderly Dorset-born ramblers would never find themselves caught short…). The truth, of course, is more complicated.

Public toilet provision has been in terminal decline for years. The Royal College of Nursing started a campaign for authorities to provide better facilities after discovering that, between 2000 and 2019, nearly 2,000 council-run toilets closed, leaving ten UK councils with no publicly funded WCs at all. With no law compelling councils to provide for this most basic of human needs, the humble toilet became a quiet victim of cost-cutting.

Ebisu Park toilets, designed by Wonderwall founder Masamichi Katayama. They are based on ancient Japanese toilets called kawaya, which were made from wood slats bound together. The toilets are part of the Tokyo Toilet Project, of which seven of a projected 17 have been completed, at a total cost of nearly £5m – with the rest to be finished this year Designer: Masamichi Katayama/Wonderwall Client: Nippon Foundation Sanitaryware: Toto Contractor: Daiwa House Industry. Image Credit: SATOSHI NAGARE/NIPPON FOUNDATION
Image Credit: SATOSHI NAGARE/NIPPON FOUNDATION

Ebisu Park toilets, designed by Wonderwall founder Masamichi Katayama. They are based on ancient Japanese toilets called kawaya, which were made from wood slats bound together. The toilets are part of the Tokyo Toilet Project, of which seven of a projected 17 have been completed, at a total cost of nearly £5m – with the rest to be finished this year Designer: Masamichi Katayama/Wonderwall Client: Nippon Foundation Sanitaryware: Toto Contractor: Daiwa House Industry. 

It mainly affected the poorest in society – the ones who couldn’t afford to buy a coffee just to use the facilities in a cafe, or couldn’t hop in a car to go to a service station. It affected those who were already marginalised – women who would not feel comfortable popping in the pub or who were with babies or toddlers, elderly folk, those with disabilities, and the homeless. Then, along came Covid-19; when all those hospitality places closed, the frailty of the remaining public toilet network was laid bare, and the lack of loos became everybody’s problem.

Ebisu Park toilets, designed by Wonderwall founder Masamichi Katayama. They are based on ancient Japanese toilets called kawaya, which were made from wood slats bound together. The toilets are part of the Tokyo Toilet Project, of which seven of a projected 17 have been completed, at a total cost of nearly £5m – with the rest to be finished this year Designer: Masamichi Katayama/Wonderwall Client: Nippon Foundation Sanitaryware: Toto Contractor: Daiwa House Industry. Image Credit: SATOSHI NAGARE/NIPPON FOUNDATION
Image Credit: SATOSHI NAGARE/NIPPON FOUNDATION | Ebisu Park toilets

According to the Royal Society for Public Health, which two years ago published a study entitled ‘Taking the P***’, the increasingly inconvenient lack of conveniences is dragging us back to the Victorian era, when women’s access to the world was limited by the ‘urinary leash’. According to the report, lives are once again being limited by the lack of toilet provision, with one in five people stating that a lack of facilities restricts outings from their homes.

Clara Greed, professor of inclusive urban planning at the University of the West of England, has spent the past 20 years focusing on the need for better bathroom provision. Back in 2003 she wrote Inclusive Urban Design: Public Toilets, writing, ‘Public toilets are the missing link in creating sustainable, equitable and accessible cities, and are an essential facility for people when walking, cycling and travelling by public transport.

Shigeru Ban’s Haru-No- Ogawa Community Park, another of the Tokyo Toilet Project designs. It uses glass technology that turns the walls from transparent to opaque when locked, and shines like a multi-coloured lantern at night; the clear walls take away fears about safety and cleanliness as the whole toilet can be clearly seen before entering Designer: Shigeru Ban Client: Nippon Foundation Sanitaryware: Toto Contractor: Daiwa House Industry
Shigeru Ban’s Haru-No-Ogawa Community Park, another of the Tokyo Toilet Project designs. It uses glass technology that turns the walls from transparent to opaque when locked, and shines like a multi-coloured lantern at night; the clear walls take away fears about safety and cleanliness as the whole toilet can be clearly seen before entering Designer: Shigeru Ban Client: Nippon Foundation Sanitaryware: Toto Contractor: Daiwa House Industry

‘Our built environment is required to meet human needs at the most basic of levels. If our pavements and roads afford our movement across the built environment’s landscapes, then provisions should also be in place to meet the needs of the body in motion.’

If she was frustrated then, she is furious now. ‘It’s 100 times worse than when I wrote my book,’ she says. ‘Covid has [pushed] the situation into the news, with all the public toilets closing as well as all the toilets in cafes and restaurants and shops – people have been left with nothing. It’s not fair to blame the public for going outside because they really have got nowhere to go. It’s illogical to shut toilets for health reasons, as public defecation is a much bigger public health issue. Meanwhile, the government keeps saying wash your hands when there’s nowhere to wash them. We had some civic pride 150 or 100 years ago but its long since gone [now], and it creates a very poor image of the country to visitors and tourists.’

While UK toilet facilities are going down the pan, in other parts of the world it’s a very different story, with Japan, Norway, Australia and China investing heavily in public restrooms, often designed by leading architects. The Tokyo Toilet Project, for example, is a joint initiative between Shibuya City government and the Nippon Foundation to install 17 new public facilities. Rather than the UK approach of getting a junior in the public works department to throw something together, international names such as Tadao Ando, Shigeru Ban, Toyo Ito and Fumihiko Maki – all winners of the Pritzker Architecture Prize – have come on board.

Ban’s design was particularly innovative. ‘There are two things we worry about when entering a public restroom, especially those located at a park,’ he said on the project’s website, explaining the rationale behind his colourful designs for Haru-no-Ogawa Community Park and Yoyogi Fukamachi Mini Park. ‘The first is cleanliness, and the second is whether anyone is inside. Using the latest technology, the exterior glass turns opaque when locked. This allows users to check the cleanliness and whether anyone is using the toilet from the outside. At night, the facility lights up the park like a beautiful lantern.’

In Australia, public toilets are also undertaken by architects – and far from being regarded as beneath their dignity, they present an interesting challenge. Casey Bryant, Sydney-based director of the TRIAS architecture practice, notes, ‘Unlike a home, amenities buildings are disproportionately burdened with the complicated stakeholders, consultants, requirements and standards of a public building – but crammed into a small footprint with an equally small fee. They also attract a second client group, not often the concern of a house – the public. In many ways, the not-so-humble amenities block asks some of the hardest questions of an architect: how do you take a hugely complex building that is traditionally associated with filth and crime, and make it into something people love?’

French design company Faltazi created the Uritrottoir as an attractive and eco-friendly solution to wild toileting on city streets. Available in versions that hold up to 450L, the urinals are filled with a mix of straw, wood shavings and sawdust that is collected and turned into compost used to grow the flowers in the top. A female version, in a cylindrical pod on legs, has also been developed
French design company Faltazi created the Uritrottoir as an attractive and eco-friendly solution to wild toileting on city streets. Available in versions that hold up to 450L, the urinals are filled with a mix of straw, wood shavings and sawdust that is collected and turned into compost used to grow the flowers in the top. A female version, in a cylindrical pod on legs, has also been developed

Sam Crawford, director of Sam Crawford Architects, the New South Wales practice responsible for new toilets at Bondi Beach and other tourist sites, believes that councils and architects have a vital role to play. ‘In Sydney, councils are building more public amenities at a rapid rate. At Inner West Council [in the city], for instance, the stated goal is that citizens are never more than 400m from a public amenity. As architects, we want to contribute to the making of the city, and a city is made of many small elements. Each one contributes to the physical form and cultural life of the city, so small public conveniences are a critical piece of the broader whole – and the most public of public buildings.’

In Sydney, the North Bondi Beach toilets, changing rooms, showers and bus stop-seating facility, designed by Sam Crawford Architects. The local council’s toilet-building programme ensures no one is ever further than 400m from the nearest loo. The building won the AIA National Architecture Award for Small Project Architecture in 2017 Architect: Sam Crawford Architects Client: Waverley Council Contractor: Grindley Interiors. Image Credit: BRETT BOARDMAN
Image Credit: BRETT BOARDMAN 

In Sydney, the North Bondi Beach toilets, changing rooms, showers and bus stop-seating facility, designed by Sam Crawford Architects. The local council’s toilet-building programme ensures no one is ever further than 400m from the nearest loo. The building won the AIA National Architecture Award for Small Project Architecture in 2017 Architect: Sam Crawford Architects Client: Waverley Council Contractor: Grindley Interiors. 

Behind Crawford’s designs is an underlying humanity. ‘People respect spaces and places more when they feel respected by those spaces – when they feel someone cares about their experience and dignity,’ he says. ‘We push back very hard to avoid, for instance, installing stainless steel toilet bowls. That, to me, sends a signal that “we don’t trust you to respect this space”. That reduces people’s dignity, and they respond in kind. Architects need to respect the public, offer them some joy and respite, make them feel appreciated and cared for. Social cohesion is made of many small acts.”

The triangular, prefabricated aluminium toilet at Farstadsanden beach in Norway, a governmentcommissioned facility designed by Rever & Drage. It comprises a double-height accessible toilet, regular toilet, store room and outdoor shower. The equilateral triangle makes good use of space and is sturdy enough to withstand high winds in the area Architect: Rever & Drage Client: Norwegian Scenic Routes Engineers: Norconsult Construction: Solstrand Verft, Sivert Malmedal, Lervike. Image Credit: TOM AUGER
Image Credit: TOM AUGER 

The triangular, prefabricated aluminium toilet at Farstadsanden beach in Norway, a governmentcommissioned facility designed by Rever & Drage. It comprises a double-height accessible toilet, regular toilet, store room and outdoor shower. The equilateral triangle makes good use of space and is sturdy enough to withstand high winds in the area Architect: Rever & Drage Client: Norwegian Scenic Routes Engineers: Norconsult Construction: Solstrand Verft, Sivert Malmedal, Lervike. 

In the UK, new toilet provision tends to involve providing the most basic of amenities in places where people are already letting nature take its course. While the first Victorian toilets were grand affairs – better than people had at home – the new facilities are more ‘any-port-in- a-storm’ level. Pop-up urinals and pissoirs solve problems caused by public peeing, such as damage to buildings (the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square has suffered permanent staining to its creamy neoclassical facade thanks to urine). However, they basically provide a convenient and often surprisingly attractive receptacle for what able-bodied male users would be tempted to deposit there anyway. They are no use to the disabled, those who need to sit or the performance-shy (around 20 million Americans suffer from paruresis, or shy bladder syndrome, which makes it impossible to use a public urinal).

The simple, stackable, moulded plastic squatting urinals of Lapee, made by Gina Périer and Alexander Egebjerg. There are no doors but privacy is provided by the curved design, similar to a triskelion spiral. Image Credit: LIV WARDLAW
Image Credit: LIV WARDLAW

The simple, stackable, moulded plastic squatting urinals of Lapee, made by Gina Périer and Alexander Egebjerg. There are no doors but privacy is provided by the curved design, similar to a triskelion spiral. 

They are also no help to women. While ‘stand-to-pee’ devices such as the Shewee are becoming increasingly common (the company that makes the handy device reported a 700% increase in sales during lockdown), most women, for a variety of practical, biological and cultural reasons, need more than a public urinal. Copenhagen-based architects Gina Périer and Alexander Egebjerg have addressed some of these problems with the funky Lapee, a female toilet consisting of three squat-urinals moulded from pink plastic. Their research at music festivals found that 90% of toilet queues are women needing only to urinate, and the touch-free Lapee, which the designers say takes just 30 seconds to use compared with two minutes for a regular loo, provides a quick, clean option. It stores around 3,500 average deposits in a tank, so it can be easily deployed for festivals and sporting events, and seems to have been warmly received by younger, able-bodied women who don’t mind squatting behind a curved screen if it means they avoid queues. A similar concept, albeit in more traditional form, is provided by MadamePee urinals, in use at events in Belgium, Spain and Canada.

MadamePee female urinals, which don’t need to be flushed, were the brainchild of Nathalie des Isnards after she missed her favourite band while queuing for a cubicle for half an hour at a music festival
MadamePee female urinals, which don’t need to be flushed, were the brainchild of Nathalie des Isnards after she missed her favourite band while queuing for a cubicle for half an hour at a music festival

While the young and fit are being catered for with urinals, the rise of the Changing Places toilet in the UK is providing relief for the estimated 250,000 people who have disabilities that require more than a standard accessible toilet. The government has pledged £30m to extend the roll-out of these toilet spaces, which include an adult changing bench and a hoist, as well as changing building regulations to ensure that new public buildings include them. There are now more than 300 around the country, although a Radar key is usually required and many are inside businesses such as supermarkets, so are only available during opening hours.

In the golden era of public toilets in every park, their open-all-hours privilege made them attractive to a certain sector of the population, and despite the fact that getting frisky in a public loo is specifically banned under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it obviously preys on the minds of planners everywhere. The town council of Porthcawl in Wales was forced into an embarrassing climbdown two years ago after its plans to introduce smart toilets with weight-sensitive floors that would dowse occupants with cold water for inappropriate behaviour caused a peculiarly British mix of outrage and hilarity.

The bold Norwegian Scenic Routes WC facility at the Skjervsfossen waterfall. It has been designed to look like it was carved out of the mountain rock and relocated on to a river bank, with its pointed, rugged shape made from local stone. A glazed section of the cubicles allows views over the moving water below Architect: Fortunen Arkitektur Client: Norwegian Scenic Routes Landscape: Østengen & Bergo Landscape Architects. Image Credit: STEINAR SKAAR
Image Credit: STEINAR SKAAR

The bold Norwegian Scenic Routes WC facility at the Skjervsfossen waterfall. It has been designed to look like it was carved out of the mountain rock and relocated on to a river bank, with its pointed, rugged shape made from local stone. A glazed section of the cubicles allows views over the moving water below Architect: Fortunen Arkitektur Client: Norwegian Scenic Routes Landscape: Østengen & Bergo Landscape Architects. 

Less hilarity but more outrage is generated by the subject of gender-neutral toilets, especially anything resembling the hideous 1970s French option that traumatised a generation of exchange students, where women had to tiptoe past a row of urinals, eyes carefully averted, to reach the safety of the cubicles. Gender-neutral toilets are regarded as either a sensible solution to long queues for women and lack of facilities for trans people, or a charter for predatory males to invade the safe space of women and girls, depending on who you ask.

‘Gender-neutral toilets do not reduce queuing unless additional toilets are provided,’ says Greed. ‘If women’s toilets are rendered gender neutral, it vastly increases queues as men share the already limited female facilities, while even if the men’s loos are also made gender neutral, women cannot use the urinals.’ When the Barbican tried simply relabelling all its loos a few years back, a near riot broke out as men made use of urinals and cubicles in all the facilities, while uncomfortable women avoided those loos with urinals so had to queue even longer.

New public toilets at Titisee in the Black Forest have become a tourist attraction in their own right. Commissioned by the local tourist board, the high-quality, domestic-style interiors have increased considerate use and reduced soiling and vandalism. SensoWash shower-toilets from Duravit combine with forest motifs, sound-insulating moss panels and speakers playing birdsong and the rustle of trees for a spa experience in a public loo Client: Hochschwarzwald Tourismus Contractor: Kramer Sanitaryware: Duravit. Image Credit: DURAVIT
Image Credit: DURAVIT

New public toilets at Titisee in the Black Forest have become a tourist attraction in their own right. Commissioned by the local tourist board, the high-quality, domestic-style interiors have increased considerate use and reduced soiling and vandalism. SensoWash shower-toilets from Duravit combine with forest motifs, sound-insulating moss panels and speakers playing birdsong and the rustle of trees for a spa experience in a public loo Client: Hochschwarzwald Tourismus Contractor: Kramer Sanitaryware: Duravit

True ‘potty parity’, as the Americans put it, means that only when women have twice the number of toilet cubicles as men will queuing time be equal, so it’s certainly tempting for architects to attack the problem by making all toilets open to everyone – and that is certainly becoming the norm in Scandinavian countries.

This image The Bukkekjerka rock formation in Andøya, Norway, is part of the country’s Norwegian Scenic Route. But the rough terrain and consecrated ground challenged Morfeus – the architects – so it designed a sculptural folded concrete amenity building, inspired by the jagged peaks in the area. The toilets have one-way mirror glass, so that visitors can admire the view Architect: Morfeus arkitekter Client: Norwegian Scenic Routes Structural engineer: K Apeland Landscape architect: Aaste Gulden Sakya Contractor: Veidekke Entreprenør. Image Credit: MORFEUS STØVRING WILLE
Image Credit: MORFEUS STØVRING WILLE
The Bukkekjerka rock formation in Andøya, Norway, is part of the country’s Norwegian Scenic Route. But the rough terrain and consecrated ground challenged Morfeus – the architects – so it designed a sculptural folded concrete amenity building, inspired by the jagged peaks in the area. The toilets have one-way mirror glass, so that visitors can admire the view Architect: Morfeus arkitekter Client: Norwegian Scenic Routes Structural engineer: K Apeland Landscape architect: Aaste Gulden Sakya Contractor: Veidekke Entreprenør.

The Norwegian Scenic Routes department of the country’s transport ministry has been funding striking architect-designed toilets across the nation, with individual, gender-neutral cubicles. In the UK, however, it’s not popular with the public. In January, a YouGov survey found that just 9% of men and 4% of women wanted to see public toilets going totally gender neutral (as London mayor Sadiq Khan would wish), with 53% wanting only segregated facilities and 33% preferring a mix of male, female and gender-neutral options.

The argument, pitting the rights and comfort of different user groups against each other, can be an ugly one, and looks likely to get uglier: a government consultation called ‘Toilet provision for men and women’, which closed in February, has provoked a storm before the results are even published, with the UVW union’s Section of Architectural Workers (SAW) arguing that the name alone suggested that trans rights are under threat. Writing in the Architects’ Journal, SAW’s Tatiana Whiting complained, ‘This review is not motivated by improving access to public toilets. Rather its mission is to encourage the policing of gender presentation, and suppress the rights of trans and gender non-conforming people to exist publicly.’

Greed’s preference would be, simply, for more toilets. ‘Providing separate self-contained cubicles, in addition, not instead of standard male and female toilets, helps disabled people who aren’t wheelchair users, those who are non-binary and those who need extra privacy.’ Above all, she would like to see real recognition that toilets are not an optional extra, they are vital to getting the economy moving after Covid, and potentially worth their weight in gold. ‘Many developers see toilet provision as dead space that won’t bring any income – but it keeps the economy going. People don’t want to go shopping when there are no toilets. It discourages people from travelling and reduces their freedoms. Toilets are not money down the drain; good toilets are a major attraction. If you want to create accessible cities and thriving high streets you have to have toilets.’



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