What Happens When Public Spaces are Without Public Restrooms?
In the realm of design, we often talk about ensuring that there are enough public spaces to serve a community. We discuss the need for public parks so that people have access to outdoor spaces. We think about public transportation, and how our dwindling reliance on cars will help to ensure that we have a healthier planet. But what about the public spaces we lack? What happens when we don’t have enough public restrooms?
New York City is home to over nine million residents, with millions more visiting each year. There are only 1,103 public restrooms in the entire five-borough area. Only two of these are open 24 hours a day. This is a serious problem for anyone, resident or non, who finds themselves in sudden need of a restroom, but no place in sight. The issue of lack of enough public restrooms in New York City, and other major metropolitan areas, has a deep-rooted history in how commercial buildings and private residences were designed. historically, public restrooms exist for people who did not yet have a toilet in their homes, which at the time, was seen as a luxury. American cities in the 1860s that saw a significant influx of immigrants began to build more public restrooms to meet the rising demand of factory workers who needed to use them throughout the day. After World War II, many public restrooms closed, as cities declined with the increase in suburban sprawl. This caused significant budget shortfalls for city parks, and public restrooms were often the first to feel the impacts. Many more public restrooms closed during the 1970s and 80s due to maintenance costs, as cities shifted the responsibility for their upkeep onto local business owners and property managers. There were also safety concerns around public restrooms, with many becoming vandalized and hot spots for crime.
The demand for more public restrooms comes with the significant stigma around who might need them the most, and how they get used in alternate ways, especially during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Seattle, many delivery drivers and public servants noted that with many businesses shuttered to the city’s rules, there were few places for them to use the bathroom. Stores that used to allow these employees, and the homeless, in to use their facilities, were no longer doing so. As a result, the city installed 114 temporary toilets and reopened five restrooms within the Seattle public library system for public use.
The Evolution of Shared Space: Privacy vs. Openness in an Increasingly Dense Architecture
The public restroom issue is not geographically bound and has only been a growing crisis through the pandemic. Over time, cities have begun to divest from these facilities, heavily relying on private businesses which often require a customer to buy something before they can use their restroom. So when your government essentially no longer puts effort into creating viable restroom spaces, what are ways that individual projects have become successful public solutions?
There have been some local programs, such as POPS (Privately Owned Public Spaces) in New York City, which incentivizes developers to design and build restrooms in their buildings that are secure, yet accessible to the public in traditionally dense neighborhoods, like midtown and lower Manhattan central business districts. When POPS are greater than 10,000 square feet, they are required to have some sort of food space as an amenity, which typically means an accompanying bathroom. In other places around the world, cities have found success in hosting private design competitions for bathroom concepts and designs that can be easily deployed anywhere and en masse. Further yet, people have begun to “crowdsource” information on where the best public bathrooms are in certain cities, creating Instagram accounts and TikToks dedicated to the craft of reporting out on the location and condition of public restrooms. Think of it as Google Maps and Google Reviews of every place to use the bathroom.
Public restrooms are one of the most important issues that we might face in terms of how we continue to think about evolving public spaces. Their existence, or lack thereof, impacts every single person who may find themselves away from home but in need of an accessible, safe, and clean space to “go”.