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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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