Oh, Sh**: Excretion, the forgotten public services issue?

This weekend, a friend in Pontiac posted to his blog,

While I was getting ready for work this morning, our trusty dog Gus started barking furiously during his morning yard exercises. I took that as a sign that someone was passing by on foot, followed his sounds to the west side of the house and peeked out of the bedroom window.

Lo and behold, there was a gentleman defecating on a tree in the city lot next to our house…

I contacted the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department and put in a complaint, but the scatological scofflaw had already departed on foot by the time they drove through the Union Court area between Union and Mechanic Streets.

It was the second time in the past week this particular issue had crossed my radar.  A subscriber to the (wonderful) Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition Google Group shared a thought-provoking post:

I suspect, that in most of the world’s “walkable cities” you’ll find public toilets at the ready and the way-finding in place to leave little confusion of where they are located…

Here in the U.S… the norm is avoidance of the topic.
We apparently prefer to subsidize the storage of people’s automobiles (MW) over providing for bodily requirements that impact everyone’s ability to be a
fully functioning human.

Here in Ann Arbor you often read of locals’ impassioned lobbying for more “green space” and parkland downtown.  I can’t recall a single instance of any of these well-intentioned citizens suggesting the city invest in what strikes me as a far more urgent investment, a few simple pay toilets.

Details of implementation are crucial, of course.  Recall the scandal a little over a year ago over the horrendous conditions in the bathrooms of the otherwise lovely new Rosa Parks Transit Center in Detroit (a classic example of “Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”).   Meanwhile, the unbelievably patient staff at the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown branch struggle on a daily basis with downtown’s ample homeless population, which likes to use the library’s bathrooms to wash up and launder their clothes.

In the event that City Council or the DDA decided to extend the right to void with dignity to pedestrians, the Atlantic Cities suggests emulating Portland and its eponymous loo, which “includes a variety of bells and whistles meant to keep in check the most degenerate of bathroom users”:

• No running water inside: “Some people, if they’re homeless, use a sink to wash their laundry,” says (city staffer Anna) DiBenedetto. So there’s no sink, just a spigot on the outside that pours cold water.
• No mirror: People tend to smash mirrors…
• Bars at the top and bottom of the structure... Cops can peep in near the ground to make sure there’s no more than one set of feet inside. The openings also help sound flow freely, letting pedestrians hear the grunts and splashes of the person inside and the person inside hear the footsteps and conversation of pedestrians…
• A graffiti-proof coating…
• Walls and doors made from heavy-gauge stainless steel: “It’s built with the idea that somebody could take a bat to it,” DiBenedetto says. “And if they did damage it, we could replace that part.”…

These PSYOP-worthy features are outlined in U.S. Patent No. D622,408 S, which Leonard received in the summer of 2010. The toilet has the dubious honor of being the city of Portland’s first patent.

I personally don’t think see anything dubious about the honor.

I’ll also note that there’s no reason the Portland Loo or similar such investment need necessarily be undertaken by the local government or DDA.  Could it perhaps prove a lucrative undertaking for a private sector actor, whether an entrepreneur or an established company?

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3 responses to “Oh, Sh**: Excretion, the forgotten public services issue?

  1. The WTO gave a lecture on this topic at my university…no, not that WTO. (http://www.worldtoilet.org/wto/)

    It’s a real obstacle that sanitation issues are an uncomfortable topic and end up getting bundled with water, usually. I am sure that many households in metro Detroit lack sewer service but are ashamed to publicize their plight.

    But is it in the public interest to have public toilets? How many people would actually utilize them? It seems like another thing that we’ve privatized off in the US, with Starbucks and the like providing washrooms. While there are accessibility issues, both whether there are enough commercial outlets in an area and whether they require purchases to use the facilities, it seems to work well enough. In a developed, post-industrial city with finite resources like Detroit, I don’t think public toilets are where I would start. As always, an interesting and thought-provoking post, Andy.

  2. Thanks, Kyle. I agree that public toilets are probably not a top priority for a city like Detroit, with its extreme fiscal constraints. But in light of stories like that shared by my friend Mike, I don’t necessarily agree with your conclusion that the current strategy of basically ignoring the issue “works well enough.”
    I also think that public toilets could potentially enhance the experience of visitors to places like downtown Ann Arbor. Yes, I can buy a small coffee at Starbucks & ask to use the bathroom, but I’d be just as willing to pay a dollar for a pay toilet if I could skip the awkward human interaction. I’m thinking of New Years’ Eve 2010 when I raced through the Vieux Carres in New Orleans frantically looking for a place to empty my full bladder.

  3. They had some pretty accessible toilets in San Francisco. Just don’t stay in them after flushing though,.

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