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.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.