Look at Life: Public Conveniences

28th September 2018

At Your Convenience

By Deborah Mulhearn

What do these places have in common: a gift shop in Bath, a couple of trendy coffee shops in London, an underground bar in Manchester, a barber’s in Bristol, a deli in Huddersfield, a noodle bar in Devon and a tiny des res in Cornwall?

The answer is that they were all once public conveniences, now imaginatively reconfigured; some with original fixtures and fittings: one subterranean coffee shop in London has repurposed the ornate Victorian urinals as (presumably thoroughly bleached) booths.

These quirky new uses are… um… convenient, but the fact remains that public toilets are a disappearing species. According to a BBC survey, the number declined by 40% in the first decade of this century, and a further 13%, or nearly 2,000 facilities, have closed or stopped being maintained by local councils since 2010. Some councils have closed all their public toilets, despite Age UK consistently citing their lack as a factor in preventing older and disabled people going out.

It’s a serious issue, impacting on social inclusion. We all need to go to the toilet several times a day. Women, who need to go more often and need to spend more time there than most men, are badly served, whatever their age or health. With little or no access to a public toilet, is the answer to stay at home?

Historically, women in particular were discouraged from venturing out, in large part because there were no public toilets for them. The first ones appeared in Britain in 1851 when the Crystal Palace was built for the Great Exhibition. People, women especially, were delighted to spend the proverbial and literal penny.

Aside from their usefulness, they represent both an architectural and cultural heritage that is disappearing from our streets and parks. Writers and filmmakers must miss them, too, for there have been many movies with iconic public toilet scenes… think of the little Amish boy in Witness, who cowers behind a toilet door at the train station as a man is horribly murdered. And when most people seemed inordinately excited at the arrival of those stylish and efficient blade-style hand dryers, I thought of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, drying her armpits in what the Americans euphemistically call a ‘rest room’, over the upturned nozzle of a traditional hand dryer. How would she manage today? Answer: she’d be hard pushed to find a public washroom at all.

Things aren’t much better on the Continent, for women at least. In Amsterdam a woman was recently fined for urinating on the street (it was at night, and her friends stood guard, but she was caught in another way, too). Protests ensued, with campaigners pointing out that while the city has 35 public urinals for men there are only three public toilets for women. The judge said she should have used one of the men’s facilities, though he knew full well that the design makes them completely impractical for women.

As if men didn’t have enough of what sociologists call ‘gendered spaces’, in Paris the traditional ‘pissoir’ has been supplemented by small roadside ‘uritrottoirs’ to discourage men from using doorways or pavements. Protestors have vandalised them as sexist and tourists have complained about seeing them from the Seine as the boats pass.

But there are solutions for cash-strapped authorities. In the toilet-friendly town of Bremen in Germany, someone at the local council came up with the brilliant idea of paying civic-minded local businesses to let people use their facilities. Members of the scheme have window stickers indicating that you can go in without having to spend a pfennig or buying an unwanted coffee.

The British Toilet Association (yes, it exists and does great work campaigning for more and better ‘away from home’ toilets), says that the lack of public loos is not just insanitary and unsafe, but can also be excruciatingly embarrassing for people of all ages.

Despite toilets once being known as necessary houses, local authorities consider them discretionary services. They have no legal obligation to provide them, and with increasing closures and sell offs, it’s all too likely that convenience, and conveniences, will go further down the pan.

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