Toilets are popping up on city streets at night

A toilet appears in Kungsportsplatsen square in Gothenburg, Sweden. Image: Abbedabb at Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend, a very short, very strange news story was featured on the BBC news website. Here’s most of it:

A man in the Dutch city of Amsterdam has been injured after a pop-up public toilet sunk into the ground emerged unexpectedly.

The man was hit by a moped which was thrown up in the air as the so-called UriLift toilet suddenly rose up.

He is being treated in hospital for minor injuries.

An onlooker tweeted this picture: 

If you’re a seasoned European partygoer, you were probably able to focus on the more important parts of this story (the poor man and his injuries, for example). If, like us, you’re innately suspicious of anything that happens on city streets past 10pm, you probably focused instead on the phrase “pop-up public toilet”, and sat back, baffled.

But we’ve had a dig, and we’ve found out that pop-up toilets are even more dramatic and weird than they sound. And they're all over the place. 

They really do pop out of the ground.

At around 6 or 7pm, in cities all over the planet, circles of what might at first appear to be pavement begin to rise slowly out of the ground. Once they reach their full height, it’s clear that they are not, in fact, Daleks shedding their concrete disguises in order to take over the world: they’re actually trios of 6-foot tall stainless steel urinals. According to this video, they take about one and a half minutes to fully emerge. That makes it a very boring video, but a nonplussed woman does stop and stare at around 1.05, so worth hanging on for that bit.

They were invented to prevent people urinating in the street (by people, we mean men). 

The toilets, invented and sold by the Dutch company UriLift for around £45,000 a pop, are usually installed in areas full of pubs and bars: places which get lively on the weekend but don’t have a particular need for public toilets the rest of the time. Councils often invest after complaints of late-night public urination in an area: see Guildford, for example, or Westminster, where a local councillor said of the practice: "The pop-up loos are a further step in our campaign to tackle this menace and to provide people with an acceptable alternative". 

Of course, urinals aren't much use to female revellers, though apparently a version for both genders is in the design stages (let's hope this one has doors). 

They are much safer than they seem.

The notion of a giant steel pillar emerging from the ground, however slowly, is a little unsettling. But according to Wim Hermans, a spokesperson for UriLift, the toilets are always raised and lowered manually, by a city worker armed with a remote control. They check the pavement for bikes or people before calling up the toilet; then clear it of any rubbish and lower it back down come morning.

Hermans says the company have had no serious safety complaints in the 13 years since they installed their first pop-up toilet. They’re now operational in countries including Sweden, the UK, Belgium, Holland and Denmark.

Now we’ve cleared up the meaning of “pop-up toilet”, we can return to the Amsterdam incident.  It turns out that the injured man was actually the toilet’s operator, and it’s believed that a gas explosion near or below the toilet might have caused it to shoot up unexpectedly (the toilet is connected to the water supply and soil pipes, but not to gas or electricity). An independent body is currently investigating. 


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.