Why Public Toilets are a Social Value Issue
The narrative surrounding sanitation in the UK needs to change. Statistics on sanitation, health and death rates caused by lack of access to public toilets highlights this starkly. Caroline Criado Perez in her book Invisible Women, demonstrates that this is not just a public health issue but one of equality. For when we rob women of dignity, privacy, and access to toilets We are exposing them to a myriad of health and social issues, from toxic shock syndrome and dysentery to an increased likelihood of rape, murder and the social anxiety that accompanies these statistics.
Greengage spoke to Amber Probyn, co-founder of PEEQUAL, a pioneering business that has provided the first every woman’s urinal. Based in the southwest, we can use this example to begin to understand the issues faced in UK cities and towns. In Bristol city centre, spanning from Clifton to Knowle, Arnos Vale to Ashton gate, there are just 31 public toilets for a city of nearly 466,000 people. Of these toilets, 8 charge a fee for use and only 4 are gender neutral. The other provide a supposed equal split of male to female provision. But what does that equal split really mean?
Amber notes “we still see the inequality between men and women in existing structures and places of power where women’s toilets are further away from decision-making spaces. A key example of this was Hilary Cliton coming back to a debate late because she had to go to the toilet and it was much further away from Congress than the men’s facilities. This prompted Donald Trump to call a basic human necessity being displayed by a woman ‘disgusting’. Structural inequality needs addressing.”
When PEEQUAL founded they broke into the festival market, noting that often in these space “Women are having to take matters into their own hands, finding wooded areas or sheltering behind buildings. In some instances these women are followed, sexually abused or made to feel uncomfortable – especially in spaces where anonymity is prevalent such as large events.” Where the women’s urinal differs is that they provide an additional safe space for women, and it fits to them rather than moulding to a world that fits men. In the same way that men have the choice to use a cubical or a urinal, so should women. There is no difference in the biology of the bodily function, only in society’s over-sexualised view of women and their need for privacy and security due to the danger of being vulnerable or in any state of undress.
Most have observed or been part of the trailing queues that form outside women’s toilets across the world. This is not an isolated instance in spaces where the ratio of women is higher, in fact there is often still a queue when the converse is true. As Criado Perez notes it is not simply the case of equal footprints means equal provision.
The founders of PEEQUAL were also speared on by noticing an isolated incidence where the interval period for a show, that specifically attracted an older male audience, was made longer to accommodate the possibility that more of them would need to use the bathrooms due to age related bladder conditions. This has never happened for women, yet “women have more smaller bladders, more bladder issues, more care giving duties and other health implications associated with bathroom use.” This decision by people in power and influence over how a space is used has an unconscious bias. In this instance we can see a worthwhile change to the norm being made to accommodate the specific audience. There is nothing innately wrong with the action, yet the fact it was only in this isolated situation shows that unconsciously we have accepted that women will have less access, less time and less say in how a space operates. We saw it recently in sport, when women who were suffering with menstrual cramps struggled to compete in races due to a myriad of issues, bloating, pain and potential delays in their cycle caused by travel to events, all resulting in lost places when they should have qualified. The response from a man on twitter, not to reschedule the race but to re-organise the woman’s life. When men become inconvenienced or time pressured change seemingly occurs much more rapidly.
On top of this, roughly half of the female population and 26% of the global population are of menstruating age. This means we need to be dealing properly with sanitary products, tampons, cups and pads for those lucky enough to be able to afford them, rags and makeshift contraptions for those who can’t. Safe places to clean these items, to dispose of them and to ensure that they are changed regularly enough to prevent other illnesses, need to be designed into our public places. This necessity to be close to safe sanitation can be captured by the term “Loo-leash. This accounts for people not being able to go outside in a certain remit because they know they won’t be able to access a toilet. People become limited and their health becomes out of their control.”
How can we address this in our built environment?
Public toilets present a multitude of issues for private developers. “When planners fail to account for gender, public spaces become male spaces by default” notes Perez. Public toilets cost money to build and bring zero returns, they need maintenance and servicing, and they need infrastructure to be bought into the public realm. But rarely do we also think of the positive returns. If you create a public space with toilets people will be drawn to it. They will see it as a safer space for them where they do not have to fear for their safety or health and one they can take the children to without having to pack up mid-picnic to rush home for a toilet emergency.
While public spaces should be free and accessible to all at all times, there will also be financial benefits to those who see value in toilet provision. People will come and spend money, they will inhabit a space making it feel vibrant, boosting desirability, raising house prices. The knock-on effects may not yet be fully quantified, but they will be felt.
I asked Amber how we could make the PEEQUAL model the norm:
“We are aware that bringing in something like a women’s urinal is a behavioural change. We are used to a space where we are locked in, you can take your time. This is compared to the PEEQUAL space which is more about having access and equal options to men. When young girls use them it makes us so happy because there is a whole other facility that is now in their lives and they will grow up with it.
It needs to be about admission that there isn’t current equality. We need to be able to talk about female urination without feeling embarrassed or feeling like it is unattractive. This is so unconnected to the sexualised women world view. We are starting to realise that as women we have that attitude engrained within us and we need to make steps towards breaking the taboo. Talking about it openly will be the start”
When looking at how these facilities can be used within our built environment, we need to start to re-imagine the space. “If you have the same footprint, you can fit so many more urinals if you change the ratio with cubicles.” We have long been aware that the 50/50 GIA split is not suitable for everyone within society. “In a few years’ time we hope this is going to be a legal requirement. At the moment it’s something that innovative leaders in the space are using, put in the future if there isn’t equal access to facilities there will be massive backlash, this isn’t the way the world is heading. It’s in a developer’s best interest to be on that breaking wave rather than jumping on an existing wagon. If you want to be a genuinely equality focused company you need to be adopting earlier rather than later.”
Globally the picture is very different. We cannot shy away from our privilege of being able to access toilets in some form throughout our day. The PEEQUAL vision extends beyond their current facilities and “After fixed sites we have a vision of being relevant in places such as refugee camps or natural disaster sites where sanitation has been destroyed and they need facilities immediately. The product can be flat packed and can hold its own waste. We would do a huge amount of research before this to ensure that the provision would be safely adopted into the culture. This will be adapted dependant on country, practices, and environment. This is about working with people to get the product right, talking to the experts in those spaces and not making assumptions.”
Equality for women and girls is fundamental to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We can no longer make small gestures towards this and think it’s enough. We need to review the way we approach the whole built environment and really integrate the perspective of the female sex. By working with diverse individuals within spaces we can understand their varied needs, how to create places where everyone feels safe and we can ensure healthy, sustainable and forward-thinking developments for shared futures.