… Not So Public Toilets
“I’m starting to think that, actually, we don’t need more public toilets…”
This was the guilty whisper of one toilet expert of my acquaintance during another of our
obsessive rants research meetings.
For years (decades in fact), organisations have been counting and objecting to the decline in public toilets. 10% decline over this period… 20% down over another… etc.
However the overall numbers don’t tell the real story.
For one thing, the term ‘public toilets’ doesn’t take into consideration shopping centre toilets, department store toilets, supermarket toilets, train station toilets, etc…
Yet all of these Not So Public Toilets are available, to varying degrees, for the public to use, be it at the discretion of the private-manager.
Public toilets sprang to life in the Victorian age, from a culture of ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ and the philanthropic attitude of the upper classes towards the poor, filthy masses.
Many of these facilities have closed down, having proved expensive and underused. Meanwhile, shopping centres have sprung up and have included toilets. They realised that this is essential if they want people to spend a load of time and money in their stores.
In fact, to digress a bit, one element of women moving out of the confines of the home and into the ‘public sphere’; going into towns and cities unaccompanied and what-have-you; was the creation of department stores where they could go about their womanly shopping without intimidation. To attract and provide for the womanfolk, these stores included tea rooms, reading and writing rooms, and powder rooms.
Almost everyone that we interviewed for our research project (about 100 people) said ‘We need more public toilets!”.
A few said “I don’t see the point in more toilets that I don’t use” – in reference to the presumed scumminess of some facilities.
Almost half said that if they needed to find a toilet in an area that they didn’t know, they’d look for a cafe or pub.
They wouldn’t even look for a public toilet.
They would assume that there wasn’t one, or that even if there was, they’d prefer to use private (cleaner) facilities.
And so there we are. Maybe there are fewer and fewer public toilets because there are, frankly, not-so-public toilets nearby that we’d rather use.
It doesn’t work in all circumstances. Villages, tourism spots, markets, events, and certainly parks all need public toilets as no other facilities exist.
We are also at the disposal of the shopping centre / train station opening hours, so come nightfall our towns risk becoming ghostly, and certainly less accessible to people who don’t frequent pubs.
And finally, on a similar note, these toilets are not ‘inclusive’. Unless we get some pretty stringent planning rules, shopping centre toilets are going to be “on the top floor, at the back, where the cheapest retail space is”.
They’re not going to, as a rule, provide facilities that meet everyone’s needs, and they may even be inaccessible to anyone they wish to ban from their premises, in a way that a public toilet are not (I hope).
But just as public toilet provision itself is fragmented across a gazillion councils, publicly-accessible toilet provision is fragmented across a mountain of different public and private providers.
Public toilets are needed in specific, local, locations, dependent on the needs of that environment, and that community.
Better toilet information is needed, to open up this complex system to anyone who needs it.
But ‘more’ public toilets?
Maybe. Maybe not.