March 24, 2021

The Pandemic, Parks, Politics & Public Washrooms

Once again despite the fact that citizens are being encouraged to get outside and exercise during the pandemic, we have the public washroom wars. After years of chat about it, the Vancouver Park Board has plans to locate three public washrooms based upon the Portland Loo model which have I written about in the past.

The Portland Loo was designed in Portland over a decade ago with one goal in mind-to make an interior that you will feel safe and comfortable to use, but one that is designed so you want to leave as quickly as practicable. That means there is no running water inside, just an exterior spigot, and no mirrors. There’s open space at the top and bottom of the Portland loo so it’s not private, ensuring that pedestrians and others can know if someone is in there.

They are also not cheap. Even in the United States these stainless steel kitted washrooms are in the area of $90,000 USD, and maintenance is about $1,000 USD per month per  location.

The Park Board is going to place (maybe by next winter) two toilets in CRAB Park in the downtown waterfront, one toilet at Columbia Park near Oakridge, and one in Coopers Park in North False Creek. There’s no servicing connections for the toilet to be located in Coopers Park and no surprise, that means there is a hefty price tag, an eye watering estimate of $648,000.  Of course everyone has an opinion on how one toilet can cost so much, and the politicians on their countdown to municipal election 2022 wasted no time decrying this expense.

How did we ever get to the point that we don’t think having public washrooms that are clean, safe, and accessible to everyone is just a basic necessity that should be part of public basic amenities? Why is the costing of  public washrooms not part of every development cost levy collected in the city? Why did we ever think that citizens and residents who are walking or shopping in the city would never need to go?

Author  of How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs Lezlie Lowe has written in The Walrus that Canadians “do not enjoy the same toilet access common in some parts of Europe and the United Kingdom, such as London and many German cities. Canada relies heavily on publicly accessible toilets—which are privately owned by businesses and open to customers—rather than truly public toilets, which are on the street, paid for by taxes, and open to everyone. We have learned to make do largely with mall and café bathrooms (and the occasional public bathroom available in larger urban cores). “

That means that in Canada the onus for public washrooms falls on private businesses, many that are required to close their facilities due to Covid restrictions, or fearful of the mess and disturbance  that drug users make while using the facilities. I have written about the worry of staff at JJ Bean at 14th and Main Street about their washroom use, and the fearless staff at the Wallflower cafe at 2420 Cambie that  have meticulously cleaned and maintained their washroom for anyone that might need it.

Ms. Lowe gets it right: city planners have forgotten about public washrooms, and they are plonked in parks. Imagine in Vancouver where we decry the fact there is not good internet on the rapid transit lines, but somehow that is  an equivalent injustice to not having public washrooms at each and every station. In shopping areas we rely on businesses to allow us to use their washrooms.  But there’s no bank of clean, managed public washrooms for the populace.

When the pandemic started in earnest in March 2021 it was the homeless that really suffered, without access to washrooms in businesses and in many cases in parks, where washrooms were closed or hours curtailed. Libraries and community centers, other places that are warm and have washrooms were also shuttered. We only have to look at what happened in San Diego where an outbreak of hepatitis A in the homeless resulted from a lack of places to wash hands and use toilets.

It is Globe and Mail journalist Andre Picard that has insisted that the right to public washroom facilities is a basic human right, and they should be funded as essential infrastructure.

Mr. Picard points out it “costs more than $1 million to build a kilometre of road, and we also pay to clear them of snow and fill potholes. We also police roads to ensure that people aren’t speeding or defacing road signs. Why is building and maintaining roads for cars considered an unquestionable necessity and legitimate expense, but having public washrooms is deemed a superfluous luxury? The answer is not to refuse to build public bathrooms; it is to value and maintain them as any other public infrastructure.”

Mr. Picard is bang on in his assessment. In Vancouver we have nine public self-cleaning toilets and 94 washrooms in city parks but there are still no public washrooms in the downtown cores of Metro Vancouver and along the major transit routes.

Five years ago Vancouver Councillor Elizabeth Ball put forward a motion, inspired by a push by Vancouver’s Seniors Advisory Committee for more public washrooms, which stated: “Access to public toilets is a basic human need and is a critical feature of any age-friendly city.” As noted in the motion, public toilets help older adults and those with medical issues feel comfortable going out to run errands, exercise and socialize, “thus encouraging healthy, active aging”.

That was half a decade ago. And here we are, still looking for public washrooms where we need them-in shopping cores and along transit lines.

What will it take to make the change?

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