Here's why we need to talk about public toilets

A man leaves a toilet in New York City in 2003. Image: Getty.

We don’t tend to talk about toilets much, even though we all use them. But not only do public toilets meet our voiding needs when we go out: they are the site for many underlying social processes and behaviours, especially those related to gender roles. They also represent unspoken boundaries between public and private. (Eyes front! Avoid noises! Wash hands!)

The lack of attention to public toilets means we know very little about how they meet local needs and social participation in my native Australia.

We do know that a lack of public toilets can result in social isolation and create difficulties for daily life (particularly for the large proportion of the population with continence issues), such as shopping for food and even going to work. Wider consequences are low self-esteem, depression and loneliness.

Meeting the need to go

From a purely physical needs perspective, nearly five million Australians have bladder or bowel control problems. This means many can’t confidently leave their homes unless they know toilets will be available.

People who have to plan their activities or schedules around their toileting needs are frequent users of public toilets. They include the elderly, parents with small children, people with certain disabilities, people with a range of medical conditions, and workers whose jobs involve driving (and these groups are not mutually exclusive).

Inability to find or use toilets when outside the home also has implications for bladder, bowel or kidney health when people are forced to “hold on”, or can result in embarrassing accidents. Incontinence has a profound effect on people’s social and psychological wellbeing.

Half the public toilets in the UK were closed in the decade after 1999. Image: EPA/Paul Caddick.

A 2006 survey in the UK found that 82 per cent of respondents felt that public toilet provision in their areas did not meet their needs. More than half agreed that the lack of public toilets stopped them from going out as often as they would like.

Despite this need, the number of available public toilet facilities in the UK halved between 1999 and 2008.

Population ageing means more people will eventually experience incontinence or take medication that means they need to go more often. Older people may also simply find it harder to get on and off the toilet, or even reach it in time.

Barriers to use

Ironically, current innovations in public toilet design may not be suitable for an ageing population. Research has found that older people perceive self-cleaning toilets as unfamiliar and difficult to use.

Many other people may also avoid self-cleaning public toilets. The reasons include fears of being locked in, the doors opening or water squirting before the user is ready, wet surfaces, or being unable to see who might be waiting outside.

People with disabilities face additional problems. For a start, toilets designated for the disabled are often locked (to prevent others from using them for undesirable purposes). Users must first request permission or a key to gain access.

The average toilet cubicle does not provide enough space for people with disabilities (or aged persons) or, for those who have carers, for a carer to assist them. Very few public toilets have hoists or changing tables for adults. Sometimes they must lie on the floor of a toilet block, which obviously is neither private nor hygienic. If carers are of the opposite gender, entering a public toilet can be awkward.

Having a disability is hard enough without the design of public toilets making it worse.

A right to better toilet facilities

As a result of these problems, many people with disabilities are forced to go home to attend to their toileting needs. This is a major disruption to their education, employment or socialising.

All these problems mean that some people with disabilities must restrict their fluid and food intake so as to avoid needing a toilet while outside the home. That’s a serious infraction of human rights.

Australia's online National Toilet Map tells us where public toilets are. What it does not tell us is:

  • whether there are enough public toilets;

  • how well the pattern of distribution meets the needs of the local population;

  • how the availability, cleanliness, maintenance, design and other uses of public toilets influence people’s daily life.

Providing public toilets is not a legislative requirement for Australia's local governments. In fact, most don’t have dedicated public toilet policies beyond basic aspects of design and costs of maintenance and vandalism. Research by the author has found one result of this is socioeconomic inequality in where public toilets are provided.

Issues for all age groups and genders are hygiene, information (about location), lighting, cleanliness, maintenance and cubicle design. The presence of “sharps” disposal boxes, for example, can have a negative impact on ordinary public toilet users who are forced to share the space with people with a drug habit.

The inclusive design of a public toilet is not just a matter of “getting the specifications right”. How do the multiple uses of public toilets affect people’s toileting patterns and consequently their use of public spaces?

Without understanding how the wide range of prospective users actually use public toilets, costly design responses may exclude rather than include.The Conversation

Lisel O'Dwyer is senior researcher in social and policy studies at Flinders University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.