Why UK is going down the pan

July 26, 2002

To squat or sit, to flush or recycle, to accept top-down solutions or 'bottom-up' revolutions - toilet provision, or the lack of it, reveals a nation's soul, argues Clara Greed

There is a great deal of talk about creating sustainable cities, getting more people out of their cars and on to public transport and increasing equality, accessibility and social inclusion within our towns and cities. But the practical implications of all this are seldom thought through. When I talk to people about the social aspects of cities, women and planning and increasing accessibility, the one topic that is always mentioned is the lack of public toilets. The number of public toilets in the UK is limited and declining, particularly for women, who have about half as much provision as men to start with (men have both cubicles and urinals). Yet it is men, not women, who have provoked debate about inadequate provision because of the growing incidence of street urination. Cities such as Reading and London have been installing male-only street urinals while at the same time existing facilities that cater for both women and men are being closed.

In the past year, my researcher Isobel Daniels and I have been undertaking Nuffield-funded research on the differences between user and provider expectations of public toilets. We wanted to understand why provision seems to be so out of touch with user demands and to contribute to the development of better policies.

We found that providers and users seemed to operate on two completely separate agendas and perceptions of reality: they seemed to be talking past each other, with little mutual understanding. Significantly, most providers, including toilet policy-makers and designers, are male, and most user representatives and campaigners are female. We were interested in views from the two groups on toilet location, distribution, management, finance and design, as well as their cultural assumptions and perceptions of public toilets. I have undertaken qualitative and ethnographic research before, and it always takes a while for respondents to get in the mood to "talk toilets". Moreover, one has to be fairly unshockable in dealing with responses. Many women readily confide personal and detailed observations, but some of the men tend to be very impersonal or much given to innuendo and schoolboy humour. It is one of my missions in life "to take the joke out of toilets" as I believe an inability to take the subject seriously, especially with regard to women's toilet needs, is one of the main stumbling blocks to legislative and design reform.

We found that user groups, especially women (who are the main users of public toilets), wanted more toilets, greater accessibility, wider cubicles, attendants, more baby-changing and disabled facilities and longer opening hours. They saw public toilets as a very important social benefit to which they considered they were entitled from their rates and taxes. In contrast, we found that many providers, especially local authorities, were of the view that "the only good public toilet is one that is closed". Their agenda was governed by what went on in the Gents. They were so obsessed with the problems of drugs, policing, cottaging and vandalism that they had developed a defensive fortress-like approach to public toilet provision and design, using every means available to restrict and discourage use, such as limiting opening hours, introducing barrier payment systems, narrowing cubicles, and increasing CCTV coverage.

This zeal for control is misplaced. My view is that accessible public toilets are the missing link in developing accessible cities and in encouraging people out of their cars and back on to public transport. Toilets must be provided at all transport termini and stations, and they must not be put down steps preventing those with pushchairs, luggage, shopping or ailments from using them. Our research found that public toilet provision is not a component of mainstream town planning or of high-level spatial strategy. There is no statutory requirement that public toilets be provided or that they be included in development plans or transport policy documents. Toilets are likely to be dealt with by the cleansing department along with dustbins, where a technical rather than a strategic urban policy perspective is likely to predominate. Rather than an integrated policy, we found an extremely fragmented, ad hoc approach to provision with any reasoning as to location having being lost in the mists of time. The approach to toilet management was generally a "fire-fighting" one, based on dealing with the latest disaster.

But it need not be like this. In my travels to international toilet conferences and as a committee member of the WTO (the other WTO - the World Toilet Organisation) and the British Toilet Association, I have observed that while Britain's toilets are in decline, there is a "restroom revolution" going on in the Far East. In Toyama in northern Japan - a city the size of Birmingham - the mayor told us that the provision of good public toilets is as important an investment as building a new airport. Toilet policy is integrated into all the city's planning and spatial strategy policy documents. At the recent World Toilet Summit in Singapore, I was impressed by the sense of social mission, responsibility and civic pride that instils toilet strategy in Southeast Asia. In contrast, when we had a frank discussion about each other's public toilets (as one does on these occasions), Britain, and especially London, was considered out-of-date, arrogant, dirty and ignorant of tourist and visitor toilet needs. A nation is judged by its toilets. The first thing a visitor or tourist does when arriving in a new country is to look for the toilet, so first impressions count. As a US delegate put it, "bathrooms mean business". Public toilets should not be seen as a drain on public resources but as key components in increasing retail turnover, tourist attraction and urban regeneration.

Manufacturers, of course, want to see more public toilets. In East European countries, "toilet re-armament" (as promoted by the Moscow Toilet Association) means more sales opportunities for western companies, an opening for toilet imperialism even. As the toilet market becomes increasingly globalised, multinational toilet companies are offering "top-down" homogenous designs to the same high specification whatever the location, what some have described as the McDonaldisation of toilets. The WTO, however, stresses the need for a more sensitive "bottom-up" approach in which different toilet cultures are respected and catered for rather than companies just exporting western designs. They want toilet evolution as well as toilet revolution. For example, most of the world prefers to squat rather than sit, and many want to do so in gender-separated modesty for a range of perfectly logical religious, social and cultural reasons. People do not want a toilet future in which they are expected to change their ways and be forced into alien contraptions or inappropriate hi-tech toilets designed for the convenience of machine rather than man (and certainly not woman). They want comfort stations where they can feel relaxed and relieved. Moreover, western water-based flush toilets (and related sewerage systems) are not sustainable. The global toilet world is riven by debates: to sit or squat, to flush or recycle, to mix or separate. Some want everything integrated and universally accessible (and therefore free of charge), whereas others want choice, separation and the retention of "special needs" toilets, accompanied by a great improvement in the quality and dimensions of existing "abled" toilets. Narrow cubicles and underground loos prevent many would-be users from availing themselves of the facilities. Even we were surprised at how much the abled envy the disabled for their superior toilets.

So "all human life is here": the study of public toilets incorporates social, economic, biological, sexual, environmental, medical, health, architectural, legal, cultural, historical, planning and plumbing dimensions. It cuts across a vast range of academic and professional realms. I would go so far as to say that "toilets" is the new feminism or maybe even the new Marxism, and the revolutionary moment is imminent, so great is the demand for change. The condition of the public toilet may be seen as a symbol and outward sign or sacrament of the inward state of our society, the ultimate indicator of whether the government really cares for its citizens' needs. The level and male-female ratio of public-toilet provision are good indicators of women's true position in society. After all, despite years of feminism and verbal diarrhoea about equal opportunities, women still have to queue for the loo.

Clara Greed is a reader in the faculty of the built environment at the University of the West of England, Bristol. She is completing a documentary for Carlton Television with Alex Cumming, Loos for London , and a book, Public Toilets: Inclusive Urban Design for Elsevier (Architectural Press), both out later this year.

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