Amsterdam just installed the world’s first retractable urinal for women and it is a Very Good Thing

"Or we could just pee in the canal, I guess." Image: Getty.

It’s here. Womankind has waited with baited breath and crossed legs for this joyous day. Now, finally, the world’s first retractable urinal for women has risen.

Retractable urinals for men have long been a feature of most capital cities. Stored underground during the day and rising to pavement level in the evening, they are designed to counteract the traditional night-time narrative of – man goes out, man drinks, the nice toilet at the back of M&S is shut, man floods streets of city with piss.

Now a rumour that women have bladders too has finally reached Amsterdam. The city council has installed a (one! singular! for all the women who go out after hours in one of Europe’s most densely populated capital cities!) night-time urinal for women. It's part of a unit that comes with two standard issue retractable urinals for men; the women's side of the installation includes a lockable door.

The company behind this towering tribute to the female urethra is Urilift. “During the day there are plenty of opportunities to visit a toilet,” director Marco Schimmel told Dutch broadcaster NOS. “[But] at night they are often locked. Men in dire need quickly resort to public urination, but for women it is more difficult. The urinal for women offers a solution”.

Schimmel’s statement was accompanied by a video, demonstrating the corrosive effect of late-night urination on Amsterdam’s old churches, and a booming voice introducing the twin academic disciplines of Indiscriminate Urination and Peak Urination. (The video also showcases all my favourite bike parking spots around Dam Square, so that’s delightful.)

This is the first time that any city, anywhere, in the world, ever, has acknowledged that women going out in the evening might need somewhere permanent to piss. Many councils install portable toilets on Friday and Saturday nights; but their temporary nature implies that women needing to use the toilet late at night is somehow unusual.

A marketing image of the women's urinal. Image: Urilift.

The suggestion that men are more susceptible to Indiscriminate Urination than women can be seen in the ratio of male to female public toilets in the UK today. Victorian health boards believed that men spent more time outside the house than women did (busy fighting wars and denying us the vote); and so, public toilets were distributed accordingly.

Legislation now requires that public toilets allocate an equal amount of space to men and women – but this usually results in long lines for the ladies, while the gents remain tauntingly empty. In 2015 Soraya Chemaly responded to this blatant provocation by tweeting the British Museum about the #everydaysexism of women having to queue for the toilets.

Chemaly was immediately asked why some of the women didn’t use the (empty) men’s toilets, a fun and practical suggestion. But even once we remove the social taboos around such an action, there’s the fear of assault to contend with, and the fact that most public toilets are designed to exclude people who don’t “belong” there.

After her tweet Chemaly pointed out in Time that current legislation ignores the fact that a lot of older public toilets were built for men and have not been adapted to suit women’s needs. Women traditionally sit down to urinate, they wear more restrictive clothing, are often responsible for young children – and, on an ideological level, no woman should have to live out the best years of her life queueing to change a tampon.


The question of how many public toilets for women a city should supply is partly tied up with how a city council chooses to invest its money. If the majority of a city’s public transport network is not wheelchair accessible then that city clearly doesn’t value disabled people. Likewise, if there are limited or inadequate facilities for women, then the women’s ability to access public spaces is not a priority.

But accessibility isn’t the only reason women need more retractable urinals. By providing women who go out after 6pm with somewhere safe, discreet and permanent to urinate, Amsterdam city council  has acknowledged that women’s bladders are not some SS16 fad: they’re here to stay.

In creating a permanent, public, facility for women, city councils endorse women’s right to be out after dark. It’s 2016, and the question of whether women should be going out at night is apparently society’s Stone of Sisyphus.

There are, however, practical things cities can do to keep their female population safe. Start by acknowledging that they exist and that their biological needs are worth consideration.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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