Crohn's and Colitis Canada has just launched an initiative dubbed "GoHere," an effort to have restaurants and office buildings open up their washrooms to people who can experience urgent and frequent bowel movements.
Business owners and municipalities can post a "GoHere" decal and Crohn's and colitis sufferers will know they can avoid awkward conversations and pleading for access, at least in those select facilities. The group is also creating an app to make participating locations easier to find.
The approach, endorsed by Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi among others, is intriguing, but doesn't go nearly far enough. While Crohn's and colitis sufferers need ready access, they are not alone, and this underscores a couple of larger issues:
- Unlike many U.S. states and at least one other country (New Zealand), Canada does not have legislation guaranteeing washroom access to people who suffer chronic incontinence.
- With few exceptions, access to toilets in public places is abysmal in much of Canada, and that is an impediment to the growing legion of people with health issues that influence their bodily functions, such as diabetes, colorectal cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, prostatitis, shingles, stroke, dementia, not to mention the regular needs of pregnant women, children, women who are menstruating, and so on.
- Providing adequate public toilets is not only a necessity for those with urological, gastrointestinal or reproductive complications, but for all women and men who are out and about, be they residents, tourists, workers or homeless people.
Urination and defecation are routine bodily functions, and finding relief is a basic human need.
Yet, in our public policies, and in the design, construction and maintenance of public spaces, we behave as if they are optional.
Just try to find a public toilet in the subway system in Toronto or Montreal, services used by millions of people. Is there a single public toilet along Ottawa's Rideau Canal or the Halifax waterfront?
Vancouver probably has the country's best access to public facilities, especially in touristy spots such as Stanley Park, and with its space-age, self-cleaning, pay-as-you-go facilities downtown.
But access still pales in comparison to what exists in cities such as Paris and Melbourne, where public toilets are commonplace and well maintained.
These cities have recognized that having well-maintained, easily accessible public facilities is a basic service – like sidewalks, streets and parks – and good for business to boot.
Great cities have public toilets. It is an essential element of inclusive urban design. It is also a sound public-health policy.
If you're going to encourage people to be more active – to run, bike, walk and engage in other forms of exercise – they need to know there will be places "to go" along their routes.
If you're going to sing the praises of community-based care for seniors, then their communities need to have public facilities – and not just at the mall.
Canada is an aging society; as we grow older, bladder problems tend to be more common. Fear of not being able to access public facilities contributes to social isolation.
Similarly, many municipalities like to brag that they are "family-friendly," but rarely do their parks, soccer fields and walking/biking trails feature public washrooms that would reduce the stress of outings.
Now, there are those who will pooh-pooh these arguments, saying municipalities can't meet every need of citizens, that people can always duck into a Tim Hortons to do their business.
But restaurants, even fast-food ones, increasingly limit access to paying customers. Public buildings are just as bad – or worse – often under the guise of security concerns.
The bottom line is that people shouldn't have to beg for access to toilets.
Cities come up with all kinds of excuses for inaction. Public bathrooms, we are told, are magnets for drug users, sex workers, sexual predators and graffiti vandals. Facilities are difficult to keep clean and expensive to maintain, especially in our wintry climate.
Of course, these same arguments can apply to all public spaces. When public facilities – be they washrooms, sidewalks or parks – are neglected and laws are not enforced, they quickly degrade. The answer is not to refuse to build them, but to maintain them.
For many Canadians, better access to public toilets is a No. 1 (and No. 2) concern. Policy-makers need to get off the pot and act. Some needs can't wait.