The story of Portland Courthouse Square’s gender neutral restroom
The idea of having two genders using the same restroom at the same time is such a shock to our sense of norms that we might lose sight of how it could be a useful thing. Who would voluntarily use a toilet in a stall with people of the opposite gender around, and what is the point of having one restroom for everyone? We were curious how this concept would play out, so we went to Portland, Oregon to find a non-gendered restroom that also happens to be one of the most used in the city.
In 2017, Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square converted an existing two gender restroom building into one giant restroom for both genders to use at the same time. This was done by a renovation project which knocked down the walls between the men’s and women’s rooms. The original design included a hallway separating the two restrooms, which means that all the space previously occupied by both inner walls and the hallway became new added floorspace for the restroom.
So why was this conversion deemed necessary? That reason mostly falls to the concept of potty parity. Women use the restroom longer and more often than men do. According to a study by Phys.org, women take 50% longer to pee than men. This is because of practical reasons that mostly stem from anatomy differences – men can unzip and let ‘er rip into the urinal, women cannot. Yet in nearly all cases a restroom will be equally sized for both genders in spite of the usage gap. This leads to long lines on the women’s side and plenty of unused time on the male side.
Additionally, there are some specific scenarios where men have long lines out the restroom and women don’t, such as restrooms at sporting events. Point being, nearly all restrooms are built to provide 50% of the space to each gender, but it is very rare for the usage to be split 50/50.
The larger the venue, the more pronounced this problem becomes. Lines can get insanely long, and people will get accordingly desperate. It’s worth noting that Pioneer Courthouse Square is a large venue with the restroom being used roughly 22,000 to 30,000 times every month.
In theory, you could custom build a restroom to give more space to the female side. But how much? 60%? 70%? And what about the situations where men suffer from long lines? Ultimately, you’d be guessing. The only* way to for sure achieve perfect potty parity would be for everyone use the same restroom, which is exactly what Pioneer Courthouse Square did.
*The other way potty parity can be achieved is through mass amounts of single-occupancy restrooms. However, this method takes too much space to be feasible for venues with very high rates of bathroom users. It’s also more expensive per square foot and more prone to vandalism / rough users. This method CAN make sense for smaller venues.
We reached out to the Director of Operations at Pioneer Courthouse Square to learn how this restroom venture had gone after two years of operation. We wanted to know what worked about it and what lessons they learned.
The general impression we received from the conversation is that Pioneer Courthouse Square considers the restroom to be a success. The Director couldn’t recall negative comments from users specific to the issue of gender neutrality, and the design succeeded in its intended effect of equalizing potty parity. The switch also helped solve some issues concerning ADA circulation.
They also reported overall rates of graffiti and etchings declined after making the switch. Though it’s important to note that the Pioneer Courthouse Square restroom has an attendant at all times of operation, and the restroom is generally only open during what would be considered daytime hours.
An attendant is useful for orienting new users to the unique nature of a non-gendered restroom, as well as making it feel like a safe place with the wide variety of restroom users.
The attendant provides a feeling of comfort and safety but also costs a lot of money. Paying for an attendant seven days a week is not something many public places can afford. But areas with high operational budgets and large crowds such as Pioneer Courthouse Square should give the idea serious consideration. In particular, this concept could be very useful in places where there are huge swings in the day to day gender ratio. A stadium or event center could have mostly female attendance one night, then have a different event the next night that has mostly male attendance.
As such, the concept of a gender-neutral restroom is best seen as a situational move- one that makes the most sense for very large venues with more to gain from the move and the resources to see it through- but this is by no means to suggest that every restroom should convert to being non-gendered. Some people are against using restrooms with the opposite gender for reasons varying from comfort, sense of safety, preference for the gendered social dynamic, and/or religious beliefs. This is only to say that a gender-neutral restroom can be a sensible and efficient solution in some cases, as the case of Pioneer Courthouse Square has shown us.