Question: what does everyone do, at least eight times a day?
Answer: go to the toilet.
Yet although we all do it, we don’t talk about it. The politics of sanitation is about everything, proclaims Britain’s pioneering toilet campaigner, Prof Clara Greed. Humans do it where they can, anywhere and everywhere: we do it up Mount Everest, all over India’s mighty railways; we poison Rio’s Guarabara Bay – the city says it won’t be able to clean it up in time for the 2016 Olympics; our stuff ends up in “flying toilets” – poo in plastic bags floating in Africa’s Lake Victoria or landing on the rooves and pathways of slums and shanty towns everywhere. A third of the world’s people don’t have access to sustainable sanitation.
Toilets have been debated at parliamentary hearings, contested on college campuses, and toilet agit prop in Chinese cities got feminists arrested this year for “picking quarrels”: they’d occupied the gents to draw attention to the seemingly global phenomenon of queues outside the ladies.
Toilets are a mark of modernity, they locate the most private needs and dilemmas in the public realm. They are among the first public places encountered by children – toddling along a boulevard, high street, lane, mall or gracht, infant flanneurs suddenly need to go the toilet. It is always sudden. If it is only a wee, then a tree, or a kerb, or a doorway might do, but what if it is not? What if it’s a number two – poo, scheiss, merde, kakka? A child, so small, so desperate, but where to go?
My childhood was punctuated by these dramas. When our little brother just had to go, where could his sisters or his mother could take him? A stinky pissoir in Paris, a krul in Amsterdam, designed only with men in mind? Or England’s underground dungeon designated “gents” or “ladies”.
Toilets have been on my mind ever since. Children’s entry to the public world is choreographed around gendered signs indicating welcome or prohibition.
Now there is a crisis: we are losing our public toilets. A 2008 report from the Communities and Local Government committee, The Provision of Public Toilets, noted that the absence of a legal duty, plus privatisation and cuts produces protracted decline. “This decline needs to be addressed,” said the committee. It is not addressed.
The doyenne of toilet politics, Prof Clara Greed reckons Britain lost 40 per cent of its public toilets in the decade before the 2010 coalition. Since then, Age UK reports, English cities have lost another 20 per cent.
Clara Greed, professor of Inclusive Urban Planning at the University of the West of England, ignited a wave of “toiletology” with her book on public toilets in 2003. She describes this loss as an assault on citizens’ rights: toilets are vital to accessible, equal and sustainable cities. “All dimensions of human life are components of the toilet agenda – gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity, class., disability.” She insists that toilets should not be seen as “money down the drain”, not a burden but a benefit.
Ironically, the decline of public toilets has shadowed the rise of global cities and the rise of flourishing nighttime economies and, inevitably, pissed people pissing in the streets.
In Amsterdam, it is estimated that every year a dozen or so men lose their lives whilst “wild plassen” – peeing in the canals. Holland improvised mobile plastic urinals that look like they belong on a Doctor Who set to address the problem of “indiscriminate urination”. A Dutch company, Urilift, invented pop-up toilets – pods connected to underground utilities that rise at night and sink during the day. Urilift commercial director Wim Hermans tells me that pop ups were designed for drinkers, or rather: “Men. I can’t say it more beautifully than that – men are the problem.”
The fate of the public toilet is the antithesis of the nineteenth century urban revolution when pissoirs spread across Paris after Napoleon commissioned Baron Haussman to re-design the capital, and Britain’s 1875 Public Health Act made the provision of public toilets and sanitation an emblem of civic pride.
But they were always gendered and the beneficiaries were men, says Prof Greed: fewer than half were for women, even though women take longer and have more complex sanitary needs, from undoing clothing to menstruation. She calculates that we need a ratio of two to one in favour of women to create equal access. “Women are likely to outnumber men in ratio of 65 to 35 in shopping areas and up to 80 to 20 in busy shopping malls,” yet in town centres at “best” (in rare instances) provision is likely to be half and half, “and more typically, on a 70 to 30 ratio in favour of men”. Women’s toilet time is compounded by menstruation – a quarter of women may be menstruating at any one time.
Clara Greed explains that the 1936 Public Health Act, which allows (but does not mandate) local authorities to provide public toilets, permitted them to charge fees “other than for urinals”. So, toilets for women were seen as a “special burden”, until the 2010 Equality Act allowed charging both men and women.
Westminster Council was one of the first to introduce pop ups in Britain: it installed temporary urinals and pop ups in the West End. The council has handed over all of its public toilets to a private contractor, but it still has statutory equality duties. Has it performed an equality impact assessment? Has it audited the various needs of women, men, children, able bodied and disabled? Four attempts to get a response from Westminster have yielded no answer.
Why do urinals persist? And why are they so stinky? “Rancid!” says Ray Martin, a toilet enthusiast and director of the British Toilet Association. “Urinals are anathema,” he says. He first started thinking about toilets when he suddenly became a widower 28 years ago, with two young daughters: “I had to take them with me into the gents. That’s what put toilets on my agenda.”
The stink problem is not much men, or even urine, it is the uric acid crystals that loiter in urinals and don’t get sealed off in the alternative toilet s-bend. (Uric acid from promiscuous urinators around Trafalgar Square has apparently eroded some of the National Gallery’s masonry.)
Germany is pioneering a movement to make men sit to pee – stehpinklers v sitzpinklers. Unsurprisingly it met manly resistance which this year was vindicated by a court ruling against a landlord who wanted to withhold part of a tenant’s deposit because of uric acid damage to the marble floor. It was only a partial victory for stehpinklers, however – the judge sympathised with the landlord, but cautioned that tenants should be forewarned.
In the US, the gendering of toilets is inscribed in planning laws, and remains totemic for Republican and religious right ideologies of separate spheres, identities and powers. For a quarter of a century “potty parity” has been promoted by an equalities lawyer with a marvelous monicker, John Banzhaf III, and by architecture professor Kathryn Anthony, whose focus is family-friendly toilets for both men and women, toilets that accommodate carers, and equality based on time as well as quality of space. Anthony’s trigger happened in the last week of her late husband’s life: wheelchair-bound, he needed help, but she could not take him to the men’s room, and he couldn’t go to the women’s room.
The eminent US equalities lawyer Mary Ann Case writes that despite decades of equalities activism, “public toilets are among the very few sex-segregated spaces remaining in our culture” that are governed by law. That’s what led Case into the politics of toilets.
Clara Greed, too, was provoked by both the persistence of segregation and the huge deficit of provision for women.
Sex separation is idiosyncratic, however: it is most robustly enforced in large public arenas, sports facilities, schools, colleges and shopping arcades and stations, while unisex toilets are universal on planes, trains and, of course, in homes.
One of Britain’s toilet and urban design scholars, Jo Ann Bichard, research fellow at the Royal College of Art, discovered complex relationships to strangers and intimates when she studied women’s use of space and Turkish baths: “We called it naked ethnography,” she says. That took her to toilets. “We allow everyone into private toilets,” says Bichard, but in public buildings and men and women are directed through different doors. “On planes I sit next to a man and think I might die with you! He uses the same toilet as I do.” Yet put Bichard and that man in a college, shopping centre, or cinema and they are steered in different directions. If gender neutral toilets are ok in small places and homes, why not in shops, universities, theatres and the high street?
Mary Ann Case believes that the “time for integrating toilets has come”. It would “relieve the anxieties” of the transgendered, parents and children, or people who need carers, and it would also detonate the prevailing demand that we all “self-segregate by handing a gendered sign on ourselves”.
Case resists the idea of women-only toilets as safe spaces – women can be raped anywhere. Clara Greed, however, argues that women still “need their own space”, for good reason some women, particularly the elderly and those who have experience violence, just don’t want to give it up.
For a decade conflict has been growing on some university campuses in the US over sexed toilets and transgender access to women’s toilets. In Britain, however, there is (with the exception of Brighton) no national transgender toilet strategy, and several prominent transwomen campaigners insisted to me that they experienced no problem of access, “toilet reform? I’ve never even heard it mentioned”, said one trans campaigner, “and I’ve never had a problem”.
But there is a problem and it confronts everyone – exponential decline in public provision. In 2011 Royal College of Art designer Gail Knight (who collaborates with Jo Ann Bichard) launched a public participation website to create The Great British Public Toilet Map. It came out of her work on ageing: next to dementia, incontinence is elderly people’s greatest fear. It is a dread that keeps them stuck at home.
Sanitation – and the lack of it – is an occupational hazard for cabbies, street vendors, truckers, couriers and homeless who, like everyone else, average at least eight visits per day, or about 2,500 per year. Businesswoman Gillian Kemp launched the Truckers Toilets Campaign after overhearing two women drivers discussing the difficulties of finding toilets while on the road: truckers are refused access by clients and some resort to a “bucket and chuck it” approach, and women drivers have to cope with periods, too. “Lorry drivers are not treated with respect,” says Kemp. “We expect 24-hour deliveries, but we don’t think about the needs of the person delivering.”
Like most of the “toileteers”, she advocates a statutory obligation. In 2012 France embarked on a programme of free and adequate public toilets. But not Britain. The former Conservative communities minister, Eric Pickles, refused to support statutory obligation.
Peter Hampson, director of the British Resorts and Destinations Association, told the Parliamentary committee that public toilets cost local authorities £100m per year, but they earn back a meagre £4.5m in charges. “Frankly, it costs as much as to collect a 20p, cart it, count it, account for it as it does to collect it.”
The solution is obvious, says Clara Greed: make provision a public duty, “more public toilets and more space”. Even disabled toilets – seemingly the apogee – are an illusion of perfection. A decade ago Jo Anne Bichard and her colleague Gail Knight researched 101 disabled cubicles, “Not one followed the regulations,” says Bichard.
“There’s an artificial divide between able and disabled: public toilet design is awful for everybody,” protests Clara Greed. More people travel in buggies than wheelchairs, and able bodied people have to navigate what she calls a “three-point turn” to get into a narrow cubicle already occupied by a mega toilet roll holder and sanitary bin.
Contemplating what would make toilets accessible to all now confronts not only the need to accommodate “companion carers” but the impact of a global world with diverse manners and rituals: standing vs sitting, sitting vs squatting. Europeans on both sides of the sitting-standing war may think they are sanitation pioneers, but sitting on a toilet is as weird to much of the world’s people as squatting appears to the rest; then there’s and wiping vs washing: to much of the world, wiping with paper rather than washing just seems filthy.
The best model for all is a mix of gender-specific spaces and safe unisex disabled toilets with baby-changing facilities. Gents may like urinals or the open air, but single cubicles, capacious if not fragrant, work for everybody.