Sarmishta: What do you do when nature calls, but there’s nowhere to answer? That’s a predicament lots of Canadians have found themselves in lately, if social media is any indicator. Spend more time outside, as many of us are doing in these pandemic times, and you hit a harsh reality. There are no bathrooms out here. Washrooms in many public parks have been closed to prevent the spread of COVID. And for months, we haven’t been able to rely on coffee shops or restaurants or community centres or malls, our usual suppliers. What’s a person to do? But the pandemic because only shone a spotlight on a situation that was bad to begin with. North American cities have never had a great record on public washrooms. For people with the anatomy to pee outdoors, there are options, in a pinch. For a great many of us, though– that includes older people, children, people with disabilities and lots and lots of women, the washroom, or lack thereof, is a source of stress. We’re talking about a great universal need here. Shouldn’t it be a number one, and perhaps also number two, priority in city planning? Don’t vibrant, livable, walkable cities need good public washrooms? I’m Sarmishta Subramanian sitting in for Jordan Heath Rawlings. And this is The Big Story. Joining me today is Lezlie Lowe, author of the book No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs. She’s also a self described toilet advocate. Hi, Lezlie.
Sarmishta: You were prescient in your attention to public washrooms. Your book came out in 2018. Paint me a picture of the washroom situation for the general North American public. How well were we doing on public bathrooms before the pandemic?
Lezlie: So, we weren’t doing great. As I outlined in the book, what we have in North America, very broadly speaking is a culture where we– most of us use what I call publicly accessible bathrooms. And by that, I mean, bathrooms that are inside businesses, or inside private buildings that are available to the public. And you can think about restaurants, and cafes, mall bathrooms, to some extent library, although libraries are a little bit in the middle between publicly accessible and public toilets, proper, which are toilets that are public. They’re paid for by our tax dollars, they’re typically on street, they’re free to use, and those are bathrooms that we, you know, we think of with them as public toilets, or I think of them as public toilets, because they’re part of the common, they’re part of the sort of basket of goods that we consider necessary to make full and safe use of our cities. And other examples would be trash cans so there’s not trash all over the street, or sidewalks, which are, you know, nice and wide so if you use a mobility device you can use the sidewalk, if you have a stroller, the sidewalk’s fine. Street lights that light streets and sidewalks at night, so that the spaces are safer. And there’s a whole bunch of different sort of pieces of, I guess, street furniture is a term to use for them, that we don’t really think twice about when we think about the things that we need to use our city, and we just know that those are necessary. And public toilets really don’t– they have never really fallen into that category in North America. So what we’ve really learn to live with as Canadians is, you know, we make due with the bathrooms that we can get into. So Tim Horton’s, Starbucks, McDonald’s, the malls that we visit, the other places we visit.
Sarmishta: When you put it like that, it seems kind of crazy that we accept a reality that affects all of us. We wouldn’t accept a reality where we didn’t have somewhere to dispose of our trash and we just threw our garbage on the streets. And yet we’ve accepted and come to rely on private business to fill this fundamental public need. How did that come to be? How did we come to rely so much on the Starbucks and the McDonald’s of the world to fill that need?
Lezlie: So we can sort of trace it from a historic level. And what you would look at is Canada particularly never really had a strong culture of public toilets, the same way, for example, lots of places in Europe, but England is a great example, or the UK is a great example, where in the 19th century there was this really strong sense of, I guess, civic duty is a way you might think about it, but this really strong sense that it was important for the government to provide hygiene services to people. So you saw a lot of bath houses going in at that time. But you also saw a lot of public conveniences going in at that time. And that would be end of the 19th century. So in England, in the UK, there are many, many examples of those toilets. Many, many of them have disappeared, which is due to budget cuts and austerity budgets, excessive austerity budgets, those toilets have closed. But in Canada, we really didn’t have enough big cities with enough populations, I would say, to support that kind of initiative. So Toronto, as an example, had a few public toilets that were built in the 19th century. And these are, many listeners will be familiar with this kind of toilet, it’s a subterranean toilet. So really all you see is sort of a railing above ground. You would go down a set of stairs, and there were typically be really a men’s bathroom at the bottom of the stairs. There was actually one in the middle of, I think Queen West and Spadina, in the middle of the street.
Sarmishta: Underground, but underground?
Lezlie: Yeah. Yes. But you, you literally had to walk into the street to access the toilet.
Lezlie: Yeah. So anyway, so we really never developed that in the past, we just didn’t have a kind of big population base that had that happening. The other argument I make in my book is that as children, we’re taught that bathrooms are places we do private things, and they absolutely are. But we’re also taught, or we learn, that bathrooms are gross and bathrooms are funny. So, if you even think today about these sort of paragons of filth, you think about a public bathroom. You think about that idea that the grossest possible place to imagine is a public bathroom. And for sure, public bathrooms can get super gross. But they don’t need to be, nor are they typically I would argue. And we make toilet jokes, right? We laugh about toilets, because toilets are kind of “embarrassing” places where we may do “embarrassing” things (these embarrassings are in air quotes). And so I would argue what happens is we become adults who have kind of no language to rationally and calmly discuss this basic human need, right? And I’ve seen this in my research, you know, you think about male municipal leaders who are unable to talk in a council meeting about menstruation. And that’s, you know, I’ve seen a lot of cities across Canada in the last year or two years have seen initiatives to provide free menstrual products in public bathrooms. And that’s been good, that’s kind of cracked open the shell a little bit on that conversation, but I don’t think those are comfortable conversations for everybody to have. Not only men, but women too. Women have the same sort of neuroses around public bathrooms. And I think what’s happened is that’s really prevented us from just thinking, okay, there needs to be a toilet here, let’s provide this toilet. It just doesn’t get done.
Sarmishta: Right. So if you don’t have a comfort level with talking about it, planning policy around those issues also lags behind, because you’re not having those public conversations.
Lezlie: Yeah. I mean, I would argue that’s the case for sure.
Sarmishta: How has the pandemic made washroom access an issue for a wider public in a way that is now getting talked about? Whether it’s happening in serious policy conversations or not, I think anecdotally, those conversations are happening in a lot of places. People are outside right now. It’s one of the few places we can be.
Lezlie: Yeah. I would characterize that change as we went from, there was a small vocal collection of, you know, journalists and activists across the country. So, you know, there’s organizations like in Ottawa, there’s an organization called Gotta Go, which do lots of public advocacy around access to toilets. And, you know, certainly I would talk about this. I talk about this in my journalism practice all the time and my book. And so we would talk about it. And I always say that when you write the book about public toilets, and you mentioned it at a cocktail party, people just kind of either laugh or walk away from you. But now yeah, I mean, it’s amazing, right now it’s changed to this kind of– I would say it’s turned into this rage. Low level rage. Because what we’ve seen is, if we think back to that model I described about Canadians largely using publicly accessible toilets in private businesses. With COVID, those toilets have not been open. Because those businesses have not been open. And so I think what we’ve seen over the last four months or so is, it used to be the people who really experienced a lack of provision of public toilets, experienced that really profoundly, were people on the edges of social safety. People experiencing homelessness, and then also, you know, a whole range of people who have heightened needs, let’s say, so if you have an inflammatory bowel condition, you need a bathroom– when you need a bathroom, you need it fast and close. People who care for the elderly, people who care for young children, which is predominantly women, women themselves who use the bathroom more than men, biologically, and for more reasons than men. So there are all these pockets of people who have sort of heightened need. And those are the people you would hear from in the past, who would say like, Oh my gosh, I really need there to be, you know, a public bathroom at this park because I’m sick of going home cause my toddler peed her pants for the 15th day in a row. But now what you see is people typically have gotten along okay, cause they knew, okay, I can get on the train or the bus, and then I get off at this station and I know I can go into the Starbucks next door and I can use the toilet there, and then I can walk the 20 minutes to my other destination, and then there’s a toilet there. People would kind of plan that. That has just not been available. And so I think you’ve seen people who really didn’t pay attention before, have their eyes open to the situation that we’re really dealing with every day.
Sarmishta: What have you been hearing about people’s frustration with that lack of facilities in the last– either yourself or from colleagues, people you’ve been speaking to, what kinds of things are you coming across?
Lezlie: I just received an email today from a woman who said that she’s in her seventies, her husband is in his eighties. And she wrote me a letter and she said, you know, we really made a conscious decision– she lives in Ontario– that our mental health was suffering because of being cooped up inside, and that what we needed to do was get out and about, and we decided that we would just get in our car and go on little day trips. And she said that she has been basically going to places and begging businesses to use their bathroom. Her husband is just going outside because there’s really no where to go. So I think it’s kind of– people are angry, but I think it’s– I don’t want to overstate it, but it can be scary too. And I think we’ve all had that experience of really having to go and not having a place to go, and thinking of that feeling, it is a deeply negative feeling. I’ll leave it at that.
Sarmishta: Well, you’re stranded. I have a friend who has to travel a long distance by road next week. And he’s packing pee pockets, these little funnels and tubes so that if his daughter needs to use the bathroom and there is no bathroom, there’s an option. And I just think it’s fascinating. You had, I think in your book, you told a little story of Hillary Clinton, where Hillary Clinton was. Can you tell that story?
Lezlie: Sure. So it was one of the Democratic debates for the presidential nominee in 2015. And there was a commercial, it was a live televised debate, and there was a commercial break and Hillary Clinton had gone to the bathroom, as one would during a presidential debate during the commercial break. Anyway, there was somebody in the toilet and she was waiting in line. And you can, any listeners can actually look it up on YouTube, it’s at St. Anselm college, I believe is the name of the college where the debate was taking place. Anyway, and the debate is starting because it’s a live televised debate, and no Hillary. And so the moderator asks the question to Bernie Sanders, and then Hillary just kind of strides onto the stage and says, sorry, and carries on. And yeah, I do tell that story in the book and I think it’s an interesting story, because if you look at women particularly, this is something every woman– every woman– can recognize and identify with because we’ve all waited in bathroom lines and we’ve all seen if it’s a single gender bathroom with multiple stalls and there’s a male and a female, we’ve all seen the men scoot in and scoot out while women are waiting in the line.
Sarmishta: Yes. And you’re gazing longingly at this other door with this other symbol on it. And you can’t go there. Are there Canadian cities right now, in this time, are there cities that are doing it better? What’s the picture of public washrooms right now? Have they been closed uniformly everywhere? I’m talking about, you know, washrooms in parks, and provincial facilities, and just what does it kind of roughly look like?
Lezlie: So the little bit of research I’ve done about the COVID situation shows me that it varies. There’s been many closures, and not necessarily– I will say, those closures are in part, you know, many municipal buildings just closed. And it was not, Oh, we’re closing these toilets. It was, we’re closing this building. And so the toilets inside were shuttered. Other stories are positive. So in Halifax, as one example, where I live, the central library, which is on a prominent downtown corner, it’s a huge, beautiful five level library. And it serves as a public bathroom for many, many people I know during the day. And that building closed, and that was a huge, huge hit to people, you know, everybody downtown, I would say. Anybody who really frequented downtown would be familiar with those toilets. And so the library actually, along with the CAO’s office in Halifax, had two temporary toilets installed that would help alleviate some of the need. I know similar things have happened in Toronto and I know Montreal as well put in a sort of small army of portable toilets to help. I think, primarily, those have been framed as provision for people experiencing homelessness. Cause that was a really acute, abrupt need. You know, when everything kind of shut down, mid-March, I think a lot of people were really without the kind of provision that they would rely on, people who were experiencing homelessness. So, I think it’s positive that those went in, and certainly anybody you can use those toilets. But I know Montreal and Toronto specifically, they were targeted in areas where there were encampments or where there was a higher population of people experiencing homelessness. So that’s good. But also doesn’t fundamentally, you know– right now we are in COVID and we’re dealing and we’re at some point going to emerge from this pandemic, and I would hate to see us go back to a situation where we’re just right back where we were, and there are no– there’s no sort of talking about increased provision of the permanent kind, or a different way to address the need that’s out there.
Sarmishta: Right. So it sounds like what there is, is emergency solutions to deal with the crisis. It’s triage, or it’s hacks that people are coming up with– the person who you who’s begging, the person I know who’s taking pee funnels so that the outdoor peeing and can take place. And the idea of course, is to not rely on hacks or triage, but to have an actual system in place so that this need that is not going to go away for the foreseeable future for humanity finds some planned way of being addressed.
Lezlie: That’s right. And I think that’s where cities– I mean, that’s a lovely way to put it. It’s hacks and it’s emergency sort of triage of the situation. But I think that I would love it if cities could really look at public toilets, look at them as a real benefit to the city. And so, you know, I spoke earlier about this idea of public bathrooms as– could be part of the common and part of this basket of goods that we just expect and know we need. But I think it’s even beyond that. It’s that if you think about the last time– if any listener can think about the last time they were at a mall and they use the washroom, those washrooms, typically speaking are really, they’re nice bathrooms, right? They’re kept very clean. There’s ample provision. They’re renovated regularly in my experience. There is a reason for that. It is not because they have money to waste, it’s because they want money. So the more amenities there are at the mall, so they have a food court there, because the longer you can stay, if you can shop in the morning and then have a bite to eat and then keep on going, that benefits the mall economically. It’s the same with the bathrooms. If everybody had to leave the mall to go to the bathroom, then, you know, that would cut down the amount of money people were spending. So I think downtown cores really need to look at that aspect of it. And, you know, I always kind of think of it as, it would be great if everybody was concerned with human dignity and social justice and public health, and those were the reason they supported public bathrooms. But if the way they enter this as a possibility is through money, that’s cool too.
Lezlie: That’s totally okay. So, I really wish downtowns would take that approach more. And some do, you know there are some downtowns that focus on putting in public bathrooms specifically for that purpose. My favourite bathroom ever is in Midtown Manhattan in a park called Bryant Park, which is this just beautiful, beautiful, single story 1911–
Sarmishta: I know that park, it’s a wonderful park.
Lezlie: Oh, I mean, the park itself is amazing, but the bathroom is– they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on fresh flowers every year. And they have music piped in. There’s an attendant.
Sarmishta: I regret very much not having had the pleasure. I probably assumed that it was a stinky New York public bathroom.
Lezlie: Oh, it’s so amazing. No, but that is that’s paid for by the business improvement district in that area. So if anybody’s not familiar with that, it’s a fee that is paid to an organization that basically beautifies the neighbourhood to make it more walkable and livable and nice so that people want to go there and want to spend money there. So that’s a way to get into public bathrooms too. There’s a lot of different ways to sort of approach it, if you can just get over that idea of these things are scary and gross and dangerous and are a money suck, right? If you can get past those ideas and actually look at the reality, they can be very beneficial.
Sarmishta: Can we afford a more functional system? I mean, what are some good alternatives? You’ve talked about business associations paying for public washrooms. Just very briefly, are there some possibilities for a better system that we can have, that we can have access to?
Lezlie: Yeah. I mean, I’m never going to be the person that says toilets are cheap and we should just put in a ton of them and what’s the holdup? Because toilets are not inexpensive. When you put in a toilet on a street corner, typically a public toilet is, you know, it’s like a little house. It’s got hydro, it’s got sewage, it’s got water, it’s got air conditioning usually, or at least ventilation. So the capital costs can be quite high for a traditional on street public toilet. And then there’s also ongoing maintenance costs. Which can vary depending upon how municipalities go about sort of attacking that idea. Do you want to have an attendant at a public toilet? That that can be a way of keeping maintenance costs down because people are not vandalizing. You can look at putting bathrooms in that are nearby other places, like tourism information kiosks or buildings, that can help too. But there are less expensive ways of doing things. There can be, you know, temporary toilets can be trucked in to high need areas at night. If you think about, you know, in Halifax, we could probably really use some temporary urinals put in when that pizza corner, if anybody knows that who’s from Halifax, when the bars let out, pizza corner is wild, and we could probably use urinals down there. So there’s that. Chemical toilets are another option too, which cities don’t really seem to embrace too much. But that’s another thing. I think the one thing I would say is everything I’ve been talking about today, if people agree with it, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t, because this is really about dignity, it ties to livability. It ties to walkability. It ties to being pedestrian friendly and cyclist friendly. It ties– this is a huge one that often gets left out of the discussion– to aging in place. Because you can’t have a city that is walkable or livable or cyclable or where people can continue to live for longer periods, without public bathrooms. And cities talk a lot about that. They talk about wanting to be that. And I’ve read many, many municipal strategies that say, you know, we want to be a livable city, we want to be a walkable city, we want people to age in place here. And if you want those things, you know– if you don’t want those things, okay, fine. You don’t want those things. If you do want those things, the reality of the matter is you must pay for public bathrooms. They are simply part of the cost of being that place.
Sarmishta: That is a wonderful note to leave it on. We have just a couple of minutes left. I just want to thank you for– I’m going to go ahead and say that was a lovely conversation about toilets.
Sarmishta: Thank you for joining us.
Lezlie: Thank you.
Sarmishta: Lezlie Lowe the author of the book No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs. And that was The Big Story. For more from us, you can visit our website, thebigstorypodcasts.ca. You can also follow us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. And now you can write to us to let us know what you think, or even suggest an episode topic. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m Sarmistha Subramanian, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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