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illustration by Hanna Barczyk

When my kids were little they loved a book called Everyone Poops, which was second in their hearts only to another literary masterpiece called My Big Boy Potty. When humans are small, they’re fascinated by the biological necessities of consuming and excreting. By the time we’re large, and able to pay property taxes, we like to pretend those biological necessities no longer exist.

This was brought home to me, a biological unit, as I wandered along Bloor Street in Toronto. Never set out for a walk with a large beverage in one hand if you don’t have a map of pitstops in your head like Nicolas Cage in one of those National Treasure movies. The Xes on my mental map were a different sort of rare and priceless treasure: an open public washroom.

Public libraries are the holy grail for pilgrims with weak bladders, but there was no library nearby. The closest park was many blocks away, and who knew if the park’s staff had even unlocked the bathrooms that morning? I went into a coffee shop, but there was an out-of-order sign on the loo. The next coffee shop was more promising, but I felt I had to buy something to use the facilities. I dumped out one drink to buy another (thus beginning the cycle anew.)

Toronto, like many cities in Canada, has a washroom problem. There are not enough of them. According to the Public Toilet Index, Canada has 18 public toilets per 100,000 people, which is better than the United States (eight) but much worse than Iceland (56). Even if you are lucky enough to find a washroom in a park, you’d better make sure you only want to use it between the hours of 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., from May to October. Otherwise, please turn off your body’s taps.

Washrooms may not figure in most people’s reckoning of a great city, but they should. They allow people who might otherwise feel leery about straying too far from their own bathrooms – the elderly, people with young children, those with inflammatory bowel disease – to have full access to their cities. Years ago, when I was living in London and writing about the lack of toilets there, I interviewed urban planning professor and public washroom advocate Clara Greed, who called this unnecessary constraint “the bladder’s leash.” I’ve loved that phrase ever since.

It is also, of course, an equity issue: Who feels comfortable walking into a department store to use their toilets, if there’s no public restroom available? Many people wouldn’t. If you’re a person without a home, where are you supposed to perform your bodily functions, to wash and shower? “As gross or goofy or quotidian as they may seem, public toilets represent higher notions and beliefs,” writes Lezlie Lowe in her invaluable book No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs. “Fundamentally, who is in and who is out. Whom we see as part of the city. Whom we see as human.”

It was not always this way. In the early 20th century, Toronto built public palaces for its thrones, a fascinating history that is laid out in the Gotta Go TO report for Toronto’s Public Space Committee. But those public washrooms were closed by the early 1980s, because the city, like many others, insisted that bathrooms be installed in gas stations instead of being a municipal responsibility. This led to the private handoff of bathroom keys we’re stuck with today: If you don’t fill one tank, good luck trying to empty the other.

Good-hearted subversives all over the world now post maps of washrooms in public and private spaces, along with entry codes, if required (I follow @TOToiletCodes on Twitter, for example.) But it’s ridiculous that people should be forced to scour the internet in their moment of need, like Victorian explorers unfolding giant maps. At least Victorian explorers could duck behind the nearest date palm.

There are any number of reasons that city politicians have abandoned their responsibilities to provide washrooms. What if they become hubs of drug use or sexual activity? (These challenges can be countered with proper monitoring and upkeep.) As well, when pilot projects are attempted and face challenges, like automated toilets, people complain that it’s flushing money down the drain.

While cities such as Vancouver and Edmonton have public washroom strategies, Toronto is far behind: It’s not part of the city’s plan. Being the champion of loos is not exactly a sexy vote-grabber for local officials, unfortunately. This means that ensuring access to a necessity in parks and on transit falls to campaigners, and angry citizens posting pictures of locked toilets on their social-media feeds.

Instead, we need to think of the reasons that washrooms are a vital part of the cityscape. They make economic sense because they allow locals and tourists to move freely throughout the city, spending money as they go. They make the city a more welcoming place for all the people who live in it, not just those who can afford a double latte. If you want people out in the fresh air, especially during a pandemic, you have to give them a place to go.

Yes, it costs money to build and maintain public washrooms, but we need to get beyond the simple no-tax-dollars-spent mindset that has constricted visionary thinking and made life shabbier over the past few decades. We might need to spend a few dollars to spend a penny, but it’ll be worth it.

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