The politics of peeing in public
//Natalie Corbo, Columnist

As a kid growing up with no video game console, my favourite games were all computer games – or really, just Roller Coaster Tycoon. You may remember it. The game gave you the option to charge as much as you wanted for any services that your theme park provided – including the toilets. As a greedy little 11-year-old, I always wanted to extort my guests as much as possible, and would usually begin by hiking up the cost of services that seemed “necessary” – umbrellas during the rain, park maps and the toilet facilities. But even as a dumb kid wasting all her time playing a boring computer game, I felt strange charging people to use the toilet. It’s not that I felt bad for the pixilated park guests – it’s more that it just didn’t seem like a thing that should be done. I ceased charging for the toilets, deeming it unnecessary and a little weird.

10 years later, I traveled to Europe and experienced the ubiquitous pay toilet. My initial thought was that it was a total rip-off. I have to pay to use the McDonalds washrooms? Really? But then I realized that it was kind of nice to feel entitled to use any washroom, in any establishment, and have outdoor washrooms so readily available.

Vancouver performs fairly poorly in terms of public toilet provision. As someone with a notably small bladder, I know what I’m talking about. Toilets are confined to malls, gas stations and private restaurants, which only allow paying customers to use their toilets. And while most Vancouverites have ducked into the Commercial Drive Blenz bathroom without buying a frappuccino at least once, generally most of these businesses enforce a “customers only” policy for toilet use.

So if we’re not consuming, then where do we pee? In the light of day, we might waddle around uncomfortably in search of a mall. By night, we might rush to the nearest bush. In either case, men have it easier than women (male public urination is barely frowned upon, and doesn’t leave you caught with your pants down). But there aren’t a lot of options, especially at night. Drunk people have a tend to travel on foot, and they also have a tendency not to be concerned about what they pee on.

In order to enjoy our public spaces, street furniture is important. Much like you wouldn’t want to spend much time in your home if you didn’t have a couch and a bathroom, it is difficult to spend time in public spaces if they don’t have a few benches and somewhere to relieve yourself. The recent proliferation of non-hotdog food carts coupled with the summer-long run of street furniture along Granville St. meant that people could enjoy Japanese-style crepes or fresh, local seafood at a table along a pedestrianised street, all outdoors in public space. This step in the right direction needs to be complemented with an increase in public toilets. Some areas are better than others – Downtown Vancouver offers a few toilets on the streets, but as Gerald Belmont of Vancouver Is Awesome puts it, “Good luck trying to find somewhere other than your house to drop the deuce in Hastings Sunrise or Mount Pleasant.”

Newly concerning is a recent announcement that the Vancouver parks board will be closing a number of public toilets in order to cut costs. The Vancouver Courier reported in December 2010 that the parks board hopes to save $300,000 – money they are in need of due to a $1.03 million budget shortfall. If money is the issue, then could pay toilets provide an option?

Throughout most of Europe, the wealth of public toilets is incredible. Some cross from the utilitarian definition of “street furniture” into something more akin to public art. A recently erected toilet in London, across from the Tate Britain gallery, is made of one-way glass, so that those relieving themselves can see out in 360 degrees, but passers by can’t see them. Unfortunately, those precious few public toilets that have popped up around Vancouver look more like rectangular bomb shelters, making them distinctly unappealing to anyone not on the verge of wetting their pants.

Pay toilets unquestionably have their merits. The cost is generally considered a maintenance charge, so the washrooms are reasonably sanitary. Since there is a source of revenue, budget shortfalls also become less of an issue. Toronto recently unveiled its first automated pay toilet, which has been met with an enthusiastic public reception. The state-of-the art toilet costs 25 cents to use, and is wheelchair accessible and equipped with a baby change table.

The small cost would unfortunately make the toilets inaccessible for some, and is essentially a privatization of what we tend to consider a basic right. However, when that right is not being adequately provided for, the European standard offers an alternative to consider.

//Natalie Corbo, Columnist

Natalie is that weird person who goes to other cities and rides their public transit purely for fun, to see how it works. She finally has an outlet in this column to talk about urban issues in Vancouver, and explore how other cities have dealt with similar problems. Also, if you want to show someone a cat video, she’s your girl. Cats and buses.

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: