Ammonia gas detectors could be used to detect sites of open defecation

The UN marks World Toilet Day with a giant inflatable toilet. Image: Getty.

Approximately 1bn people around the world practice open defecation. Last month, on World Toilet Day, the UN announced that 1 in 6 people in developing countries are not using toilets.

The problem is often overlooked; yet it’s known to result in cholera, typhoid, diarrhoea, polio, reduced physical growth, hepatitis, worm infestation and impaired cognitive function. It has other implications, too: women faced increased risk of sexual harassment for women; children are forced to drop out of schools at an early age due to lack of toilet access.

The World Health Organisation and UNICEF estimate that open defecation rates in developing countries have actually almost halved in just over 20 years: from 31 per cent in 1990 to 17 per cent in 2012. Of the 1bn that do practice open defecation, 82 per cent are present in just 10 countries. Nonetheless, in Sub Saharan Africa, diarrhoea remains the third biggest killer of children under five.

It’s clear is that peoples’ attitudes needs to be changed – but how can governments go about monitoring peoples’ toilet habits? Brurce Muhammad Mecca, an engineer from the Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia, thinks he may have the answer.

There are more people in Indonesia who practice open defecation than in any other Asian country except India: approximately 21 per cent of the Indonesian population, a whopping 54m people. So Mecca and his colleagues have designed Open Defecation Eyes, or ODEYES. These will capture information about the open defecation activities taking place by using gas detectors to measure how much ammonia, a gas found in human faeces, is present in different villages.

Mecca and colleagues aim to place the detectors in different locations within Indonesian villages, so the amount of open defecation taking place in different areas can be mapped out accordingly. But because open defection doesn’t only take place in villages, the project is also looking into placing the gas detectors in strategic areas such as the riverside or corn and paddy fields. This mapping activity should make it possible to compare the attitudes of people within cities to those in rural areas, too.

The ODEYES project also aims to develop electronic maps that would ultimately be present inside governmental offices: whenever there are significant levels of ammonia present, an indicator would light up, informing officials that high levels of open defecation are taking place in that particular area, so that they can take action.

Mecca and colleagues have recently submitted the ODEYES project to the UNICEF Global Design Challenge to get advice on how to refine the project further. Mecca says the project should begin developing its first prototypes after approximately six months, when enough funding has been obtained, further changes have been implemented and designs have been finalised.

Although ODEYES is currently in its initial stages, the problem it targets is essential and the solution it proposes has potential; one can also imagine similar initiatives being executed in other developing countries in the near future. 

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.