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The $75,000 public urinal on Government and Pandora steet which Victoria mayor Dean Fortin believes has helped combat public urination. VICTORIA, B.C. December 15, 2010.

Arnold Lim for The Globe and Mail/arnold lim The Globe and Mail

The morning after every Friday and Saturday night, Victoria's downtown merchants and residents wake up to the malodorous evidence of bad habits.

Closing time for Victoria's bars and nightclubs is 2 a.m. The city is quickly shuttered, with throngs of drunken young men hunting for taxies or congregating at the few late-night food joints selling pizza by the slice. With few alternatives, many would turn to any shadowy corner to relieve themselves.

The scene was routinely awful, leaving a trail of graffiti, recesses spattered with urine, shattered shop windows, and all too often, serious injuries resulting from fights.

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A year ago, the city decided to impose a modicum of civility. And the most visible symbol of their victory - and it is a success, measured by thinner police blotters - is an outdoor urinal.

The $60,000 open-air convenience is self-cleaning and discreetly encircled by a series of upright tubes, painted sea-foam green, like some twisted pipe organ sprouting out of the pavement.

This fall it won an international downtown award: It is the pinnacle of pissoirs.

Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin is so pleased with the results, he's planning to build more. "It's something that works," he said, standing outside the "whimsical" latrine just around the corner from Monty's Showroom and Pub - a men's den if there ever was one.

If there is one criticism about the progress on the urinal, it is not much use to women - although it is technically feasible if you can get by without toilet paper. But Mayor Fortin isn't perturbed by the lack of equal access. "Women do a much better job of planning."

Darlene Hollstein is general manager of the Bay Centre, a downtown shopping mall that routinely wore the aftermath of the weekend pub crawlers. Portable toilets are now set out every Friday and Saturday night, including one across the street from her office.

It's made the trip to work the next day less eye-watering. "We see less activity in our alcoves, yes," Ms. Hollstein said. "You're not smelling it in the morning."

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Public potties are just one part of a larger strategy to reduce the late night mayhem. There are now three taxi stands - staffed by security guards who ensure an orderly queue. Late night bus service has been added to offer another alternative to get people home. And the Victoria Police Department has increased foot patrols, with officers removing rowdies early in the evening before problems escalate.

Victoria is a small city of 80,000 residents, but its compact downtown offers seating at clubs and bars for more than 9,200. The ratio may seem high, but the downtown serves a broader constituency of another dozen municipalities. The University of Victoria alone can contribute up to 40,000 youthful night owls to the mix.

The challenge facing the city was how to encourage people to come down and spend their money day and night. But fights and property damage had to controlled. Mr. Fortin acknowledged the city didn't want to be a wet blanket. "Do you hammer everybody?"

The soft-gloved solution, worked out with police and pub owners alike, has resulted in measurable progress.

Overall, the police have recorded a 10-per-cent drop in calls for service downtown at night, compared to the same period a year earlier. Police calls to fights are down 24 per cent, and mischief calls decreased by 20 per cent.

Sergeant Grant Hamilton, spokesman for VicPD, said the city is slowly changing attitudes about acceptable behaviour. "They are all drunk and don't understand basic civility. They go and pee in someone's doorway - there is such a disconnect."

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But his most important measure of progress is the reduction in serious fights. "People get punched, fall back and hit their heads and are left with long-term disabilities - after a fight over nothing."

The extra police patrols are squeezed out of overtime, rather than diverting services. In the first 11 months of the year, officers have put in $154,000 worth of overtime. Sgt. Hamilton said it's worth it. "The idea is that people can come down and enjoy themselves and feel safe and get home safe."

Ken Kelly of the Victoria Downtown Business Association, said it all fits together for a more vibrant nightlife, with less hangover. As for the urinal, it's also a message about manners.

"Come on boys, use a convenience instead of a doorway."

What it is

A custom-built, self-flushing, open-air urinal.

Why it works

Located just around the corner from a stripper bar and a nightclub, it offers a better alternative to answering the call of nature in a nearby alcove - which had been the tempting solution especially after closing time. There is no door and little privacy - a deliberate design to discourage drug users and prostitutes from using the spot for anything other than its intended purpose. Merchants in Victoria report that the vexing problem of public urination has improved since the urinal was installed.

In October, the International Downtown Association awarded the city a Pinnacle Award, recognizing the "innovative solution to a common urban issue."

Things that worked: Making music accessible for the disabled

CanAssist is the University of Victoria's research-and-development agency that focuses on technology to help people with disabilities. In a perfect world, their gadgets would go commercial and the earnings would help sponsor more R&D. Late in 2010, things fell into place with the podWiz.

The podWiz is a little adapter that allows people with severe disabilities to use a digital music player, so that an off-the-shelf iPod can be controlled with a knuckle, a voice command or even by clenching jaw muscles. A Victoria teenager with cerebral palsy helped with the development.

UVic biologist Nigel Livingston, director of CanAssist, said 200 units were delivered to children across the province in 2010. In the final weeks of the year, the firm signed a licensing agreement with a U.S. company, AbleNet Inc., and the podWiz is expected to be in commercial production by the spring of 2011.

CanAssist will get 15 per cent of the profits, which will allow it to develop new products. Already, CanAssist's engineers are working with AbleNet to develop a similar product to adapt the iPad.

Justine Hunter

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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