Building Support for Public Restrooms
Restroom use fulfills a universal need, yet approval of public restrooms is often contentious.
In one such case, a council deputy leader for South Lanarkshire, Scotland successfully pushed to close public toilets in his city. A short time later, he was found by police urinating in an alleyway and fined £40.
In another example, a home owners association in California began developing a plan to install a small restroom in their neighborhood park. The idea of a park restroom upset a handful of members so much they forced a recall election in protest.
Countless other examples show that public support for public restrooms is not as universal as the need for such facilities. Those desiring greater access to public toilets in their communities may have to win support on the issue and dialogue with naysayers. This article will aim to help such efforts by looking at who these naysayers are, their concerns, and successful methods of building support for restrooms.
Who are these naysayers?
The naysayers are regular community members, as are the advocates. This resistance comes not from corporate lobbyists, but from local business owners and residents who care about their communities and self-interests. Sometimes they have legitimate concerns, sometimes not.
Why are some against public restrooms?
Public restrooms may provide a universal benefit but they also have some potential negatives. Take it from Randy Leonard who served as City Commissioner for Portland, Oregon and championed public restrooms in his city. According to Leonard, naysayers brought him legitimate concerns that he agreed would need to be addressed.
Their concerns were varied but the bulk of them can be summed up in a word: mischief. Restrooms (more so in urban environments) can be used for acts of sex/prostitution, drug use, “homeless hotels”, and are sometimes vandalized resulting in eyesores and exorbitant maintenance costs. After listening to these concerns, Leonard consulted with police, planning officials, and community groups to design (and later patent) the Portland Loo. The Loo has successfully stood up to vandals and deterred criminal activity. Units are now installed in several other Portland locations as well as in dozens of cities across North America. This was all made possible because of a listening attitude that welcomed opinions and concerns.
Randy Leonard’s design did deter mischief, but there is one objection that no design can eliminate – cost. Even a small restroom can have a six figure price tag if utilities are not immediately available making connections expensive*. Many people need to be persuaded that small buildings are worth large sums of money.
Anna DiBenedetto, who worked with Leonard on the Portland Loo project, recommends using a pragmatic perspective when justifying cost. “Public funds will be used one way or another, if not for servicing a restroom then for cleaning human waste off of sidewalks,” says DiBenedetto. San Francisco had this exact issue in many of its neighborhoods. The city added flush restrooms and hired restroom attendants at a significant cost burden but saved money on cleaning sidewalks because there was less public urination and defecation.
Less legitimate concerns
Not every concern voiced by the public is going to be helpful or legitimate. The home owners association mentioned earlier had some residents worried that criminals would travel to their neighborhood park in order to use the restroom for crime. A police officer for the area was invited out to inform the community that this sort of thing does not happen.
People have even worried about restrooms becoming the target for planting bombs. This has happened before as it did last year when a suspected bomb exploded in a bathroom at a controversial Tokyo war shrine. The bathroom was damaged but no one was injured. The bombing showed that restrooms are poor bomb targets because they are often empty and the structure shields people on the outside.
Whatever the concern, advocates and city officials should be prepared to listen but also prepared to address dubious assumptions.
How to build support for public restrooms
Getting public restrooms funded and installed requires not only addressing concerns but also building supportive coalitions. The People for Fairness Coalition, a Washington D.C. based restroom advocacy group, has made this their chief strategy. To get backing for more public toilets in their city they researched the stories of successful restroom advocates. They found success resulted from broad support from different stakeholders: business groups, churches, local community organizations, the AARP, groups that support people with disabilities, the homeless and people who support the homeless.
Individuals are also likely to be supportive because a near majority of people are “restroom challenged”. According to the National Association for Continence, 40% of people between the ages of 30 and 70 have to frequently use a toilet and/or have difficulty with bladder control. Parents of small children can also relate to the urgent need for a restroom. Those who are not familiar with this sort of stress are still familiar with the discomfort that results from not being able to find a toilet. By and large, people will already be supportive because of their own personal experiences.
Expect restroom progress to be slow moving. “Raising consciousness regarding the problem, educating the populous on approaches to solving the problem, and building coalitions can take a year, two years or perhaps more,” says Marcy Bernbaum with the People for Fairness Coalition. While this might seem like a long time to advocate for something, remember that restrooms last for generations. It may not be the most heralded issue, but it will provide a tangible benefit to thousands of people.
Other advocacy resources
The Public Toilet Advocacy Toolkit was created last year by restroom advocates at PHLUSH (Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human). It is well-researched, chock-full of tips and case studies for those looking to get restrooms for their communities. The 65 page document is available free online at – toolkit.phlush.org.
If you would like to discuss restrooms or be connected to other advocates, contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org or by submitting a contact form.
*Connecting to utilities can be the most expensive part of a restroom project. Green Flush restrooms do not require utility connections and allow for the elimination of this cost entirely.