Exclusion by design: a slippery ride

November 16, 2015

This guest post from Rhonda Cheryl Solomon, master’s degree in Regional and Urban Planning Studies and proprietor of the Gotta Go: Examining Public Toilet Provision in the City blog, is third in our series to celebrate World Toilet Day on November 19 with the launch of PHLUSH Public Toilet Advocacy Toolkit.

Before a city installs a public toilet, this is the question it should ask itself: How can we design our toilet to be as inclusive as possible—to allow anyone who needs to use the toilet to be able to use the toilet?

Instead what cities tend to ask themselves is: How can we design our toilet to exclude populations a, b, and c and also to control what populations x, y, and z do in there? Most cities provide exclusionary toilets (i.e. when they provide them at all). And they provide exclusionary toilets because they think this is the way to eliminate unwanted behaviours, everything from people flushing their socks down the toilet to people just not flushing the toilet.

What is an exclusionary toilet? I would argue that any public toilet whose design does not allow for easy access and operation of the unit by all people—any public toilet whose design does not allow anyone who needs to go to be able to go—is an exclusionary toilet.


Photo Courtesy: Rhonda Solomon

All Automated Public Toilets (APTs), by design, are exclusionary, particularly the newer models of APTs on the market. These toilets (could) come equipped with all manner of exclusionary tactic, from the explicit (e.g. floors with weight sensors that will not allow the door to close if more than one adult person likely is in the unit and doors that automatically open after a set amount of time) to the implicit (e.g. restricted hours of operation (closed overnight), fee for use, and located usually only in tourist areas).

APTs are designed to prevent undesirable behaviours (e.g. vandalism, sex, drug use) from occurring in the toilet. And APTs cost a lot of money. Purchasing and installing an APT can cost cities up to $1 million USD depending on supplier, design, and a city’s existing infrastructure. Yet, despite this hefty expense, APTs do not prevent people from doing more than just numbers one and two. Even the most sophisticated and costly APT cannot overrule human behaviour, human need, and human want. And I’m glad, because no machine ever should have authority over one of the body’s most basic requirements, regardless of the alleged advantages.

But, beyond this, if you exclude one, you risk excluding all. If you try to prevent people from having sex, you likely exclude someone who requires a personal aide from using the toilet. If you try to prevent someone from taking a nap in the toilet, you likely exclude someone with Crohn’s disease from being able to use the toilet undisturbed. If you try to prevent someone from using too much toilet paper or too much soap, or from taking too long to dry their hands, you likely exclude someone whose first language isn’t English, or who is not able to read, or an elderly person, or someone with vision loss, or . . . . If you exclude one, your facility is not inclusive.

Exclusion by design makes for a slippery ride. It sets in motion the idea that human dignity should be accorded to only certain people: that only certain ‘ideal’ people are worthy of having human rights in the toilet. While I don’t believe that a public toilet necessarily should be used as a location for people to do their laundry, take a shower, take drugs, or have sex, the reality is that you cannot design away these behaviours from a public toilet. Cities need to accept that ‘unwelcome behaviours’ will happen in any public toilet, and they need to find a productive way to address this. Cities need to approach public toilet provision with intention.

So what do I suggest in terms of public toilet design? First, I want to say that no public toilet can meet the needs of all people. People with profound and multiple physical disabilities likely won’t be able to use a standard public toilet even one designed to be ADA compatible. This is why I think it is so important that all cities install at least one Changing Places toilet. It is unconscionable that so many disabled people and their families are subject to ‘the bladder’s leash’, planning their “daily spatial routines around the provision of toilets, avoiding locations where there is no provision, and consequently having a constrained daily home range and constrained patterns of spatial behaviour” (Kitchin and Law, 2001, p.295). Lack of accessible public toilets can be understood as a denial of the rights of disabled people to participate in social life with dignity.

I like this quote by Molotch (as cited in Molotch and Norén, 2010, pp.9-10)

At the extreme, officials often close down the facility altogether rather than put up with the bad acts—thus depriving everyone of access. Those utterly without alternatives then excrete in public spaces—yielding visual and olfactory ugliness, among other consequences. Such patterns of prohibition, exclusion, adaptation, and befoulment raise more general issues of how to respond to disliked behaviors. It brings home the problem of social control: What price are we willing to pay to limit activities about which we might disapprove? How much does potential offense of the few color our imagination, politics, and resource expenditure? To what extent does a society design operations and governing procedures out of fear of the miscreants, versus adding satisfaction to collective needs?

Public toilet provision is about human dignity and human rights. Kitchin and Law (2001) explain that “public toilets must be able to be used in private and in a way that minimises the potential for embarrassment” (p.290). I think this is exactly correct. No one needs to know what you’re doing in a public toilet and how long you’re doing it for. I really like PHLUSH’s Public Restroom Design Principles. These principles are comprehensive and thoughtful, and they address the concerns and fears (and disgust) many people have about public toilets while offering a plan for how to make public toilets inclusive spaces, including the creation of all-gender single-stall toilet units.

For many people, lack of accessible public toilets means being “placed in a situation where you are unable to relieve yourself” without violating the cultural and social practices that “surround the act” (Kitchin and Law, 2001, p.290). By creating a well-informed public toilet provision strategy that incorporates design principles such as those suggested by PHLUSH, cities will go a long way towards establishing comfortable, safe, accessible, and inclusive public toilets.

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Our Mission Through education and advocacy, PHLUSH helps local governments and citizen groups to provide equitable public restroom availability and to prepare for a pipe-breaking seismic event with appropriate ecological toilet systems.

Our Vision Toilet availability is a human right and well-designed sanitation systems restore health to our cities, our waters and our soils.

Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human (PHLUSH) was founded in Portland, Oregon and today collaborates with groups across North America.

PHLUSH is a member of the World Toilet Organization and a partner in the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance.

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