Skip to main content

A fully automatic, self-cleaning toilet sits on the streets of Paris.Chris Howarth/Alamy

When Cray Bauxmont-Flynn began mapping out the design that would transform an old paint store into an LGBTQ community centre in Las Vegas two years ago, he decided the public washroom required special attention. He approached his client with his proposal for a gender inclusive washroom design – which would, remarkably, be the first of its kind in a city known for its quirky, anything-goes attitude. The row of first-come-first-serve toilets would sit behind stalls with floor to ceiling walls for privacy. There would be a separate room for urinals. The sink, a granite trough with a motion-sensor waterfall-style faucet would be placed in a common area. "They loved it," recalls Bauxmont-Flynn. The biggest hurdle turned out to be by-law officials, who were worried about safety: isn't it risky to have men and women peeing beside each other? To placate them, the washroom, now open to everyone, was situated near the reception desk, where staff would have line of sight through the entrance.

Public washrooms, the last place you want to go when you have to go, are getting some fresh attention, particularly in the fight for transgender rights. Across North America, schools are adding gender-neutral washrooms, states are passing new regulations on restroom choice, the "men" or "women" signs on bathroom doors are coming down. Just this week, New York City passed a regulation ensuring that people can use restrooms that align with their gender identity; in signing the executive order, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared access to the washrooms "a fundamental human right."

It's about time: the design of our public washrooms – the last sex-segregated public space – is overdue for a good scrubbing. Just ask every woman who's had to linger in line while the men's washroom sat empty. Public washrooms are impractical for seniors trying to balance in too-narrow stalls, for anyone in a wheelchair, for the adult son shopping with his frail mom, for mothers who have to send their young sons into the men's room alone. Washrooms don't just follow the rules of society, they reinforce them: If a father can't help his daughter in a public restroom, how can he be her primary caregiver? And anyway, who made a stick figure in a triangle skirt the arbiter of washroom visits?

"What public toilets need is a good design overhaul, not only from their functional perspective, but also branding," says Jo-Anne Bichard, a British design anthropologist who studies restrooms at London's Royal College of Art. "If we are going to be a bit embarrassed about them, then at least let's make them fun."

Around the world, there have been attempts to build beautiful public loos, or at least attention-getting ones. The parks in Hiroshima have public restrooms shaped like origami birdhouses, each one a different colour. In London, the "Don't Miss a Sec" art exhibit is a box-shaped washroom closed in by one-way mirrors – the user on the toilet can see everyone walking by on the busy street, but can't be seen themselves. In Paris, passers-by can use the compact Sanisette, a single-unit, gender-neutral toilet that opens its door after a pre-set time – a bit nerve-wracking if business is taking longer than usual – and then gives itself a clean with a robotic hand.

But some designers are beginning to ask more serious questions about universal restroom design: if toilet access is a fundamental right, wonders Chicago architect Matt Nardella, how can they be transformed to include, and even work better, for everyone? "For a long time," Nardella says, "nobody was thinking outside the box. It was basically, this is the space we have, and this where we are going to stuff them." The partitions in stalls are a pet peeve of Nardella's, for being "expensive and gross" space-consuming design failures. (He points out that even back in the 1990s, George on Seinfeld was grousing about why they didn't go down to the floor.) When it came to putting the restroom on the ground floor of a renovated landmark apartment building in Chicago, Nardella went with a design similar to the LGBTQ Centre in Las Vegas – he put the sinks in a common area, but was required to build rows of walled-in toilets divided by sex, because the city officials "couldn't wrap their head around" a gender-neutral space.

Think about it: nobody grows up using a sex-segregated washroom. We don't have them on airplanes or trains. Porta-potties at concerts and kids' soccer games are everyone-goes. If it's propriety we're worried about, says Susan Surface, a designer in Seattle who has advocated for gender inclusive washrooms, then "why do people think it would be weird for me to urinate next to a man, but yet my boss can hear me peeing right beside her?"

The question of who gets to do their business where and with whom has made people antsy since the first sex-segregated washroom was created, mainly as spectacle, for a Paris Ball in 1778. (It proved popular, and the trend caught on.) As history has shown, once you stick a toilet behind a wall, the public restroom quickly becomes a place to keep out the poor, to segregate by race, to discriminate by sex. How could women be expected to work, the argument went, if they had no place to pee? Better they stay, as gender writers like to quote, "tethered close to home on the bladder's leash." Men, by the way, are equally quick to protest any incursion on their restroom habits: a recent grassroots campaign in Germany to get men to pee sitting down, on the grounds that it's more hygienic – particularly for the mostly female workers who have to wipe up after them – led to swift backlash, and inspired the book, by a German academic, called Standing While You Pee – The Last Bastion of Masculinity?

The political history of washrooms is relevant, because that's how we inherited several of the crummy designs features we are stuck with today.

Women's washrooms are often a hike farther away than men's in older buildings because they were added later, a small inconvenience until you are, say, trying not to miss a vote in the House of Common – or, as in Hillary Clinton's case, trying to dash to the more distant washroom and back inside a five-minute commercial break during the first Democratic debate.

The dingy stalls were built so the fairer sex could piddle out of sight. Even when they won the battle for washrooms, women lost: in a restroom of equal size, urinals take up less space than stalls, so men still have more places to go.

"You know it does take me a little longer," Clinton quipped upon her return to the podium, and the statistics back her up: according to research, women take about twice as long on the toilet as men – 90 seconds, on average, compared to 45 seconds. Cue the lame joke: Women! Always primping in the bathroom! Rather, blame clothing, anatomy, menstruation and children in tow, along with the fact that women make up more of the elderly population, and the washroom line is soon snaking out the door.

In a British study on publicly accessible toilets, Bichard calculated that in one five-minute period, in bathrooms of equal size, 30 men will have gone for every 12 women. This has led some jurisdictions to pass "potty parity" laws, requiring twice as many toilets for women as men.

As Nardella points out, investing in bathroom design also changes how they are perceived. "If they were nicer spaces on their own, you wouldn't have to tuck them into some dark corner." Making public washrooms more visible and promoting more use arguably would make them safer – the most common concern cited about inclusive washrooms is usually around men sneaking into a woman's washroom with evil attentions. (How is sending children or vulnerable seniors alone into the restroom considered "safe" again? Surely, for the latter group, we should be more worried about falls than muggings?) "If someone wants to follow me into the bathroom and do something horrible, a sign isn't going to change that," Surface says.

In fact, most sexual assaults happen in isolated places without pedestrian traffic, points out Sheila Cavanagh, a York University sociologist and the author of the book Queering Bathrooms. A busy washroom creates more natural surveillance; a more open design would arguably make it harder for playground bullies to corner their victims. There is also no evidence, Cavanagh points out, that allowing transgender people to use the washroom they choose is a safety issue for anyone else. (There is, however, an abundance of evidence that forcing transgender people to use a certain washroom puts them at risk.)

Designers thinking about washrooms propose changes like this: a common sink area, to save on space, increase traffic and allow for a more pleasant space in an area distinct from the toilets. They propose strategic colour blocking that helps the visually impaired. Bars in the stalls for the elderly. Floor-to-ceiling doors that provide actual privacy and prevent theft. In an idea world, several designers suggested, there would even be attendants to keep the space clean and assist people who need help.

Of course, you actually have to be able to find a public washroom to stage a protest in one: Standalone restrooms are in short supply in Canada, and sneaking into Starbucks doesn't count. "If we do not provide toilets for universal access, we will find that some people will just excrete in our streets, while others will just retreat from the streets," Bichard says, pointing to survey data showing a link between the loss of public toilets and loneliness among seniors.

And incidentally, once society has finally settled the politics and logistics of answering nature's call, we might spare a moment for nature itself: Like how much water is being used every time we flush the toilet, no matter whose butt has been sitting on it.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles