As COVID-19 restrictions lift, some worry public restrooms will remain inaccessible

Lezlie Lowe says that Canadian cities need to make more public restrooms available outside of businesses

CBC Radio, May 14, 2020
Written by Jason Vermes.
Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby and Jessica Linzey.

Author Lezlie Lowe says that as the economy reopens, Canadians will once again turn to public restrooms — but there’s a shortage of facilities outside of private establishments and large-scale gathering spaces.

As the world reopens from various states of coronavirus-related lockdowns, some worry that one public amenity could remain inaccessible: toilets.

Several provinces have begun to loosen restrictions on businesses and public spaces. But with most establishments only allowed curbside pick ups and take out orders, restrooms are off limits.

So as Canadians begin to spend more time outdoors — shopping from the sidewalk and strolling in parks with their to-go coffees — a lack of restrooms in public spaces could hit some hard, says Lezlie Lowe, author of No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs.

“People are going to realize that they cannot navigate the city the way they used to navigate the city because those are not available,” she told The Current’s Matt Galloway.

“If we want people out buying a coffee and going for a distance to walk with a friend, they can’t be out for more than a few hours without a bathroom. Nobody can.”

According to Lowe, regions across the country are seriously lacking public washrooms — those being toilet facilities outside of shops, restaurants, malls and sports facilities.

It’s a problem echoed in cities across the U.S. and the United Kingdom, thanks in part to cost and public apathy, she argues.

“We expect benches and we expect trash cans and we expect street lights and we expect well-maintained sidewalks, but somehow we do not expect public toilets.”

“We’re not taking a very serious look at this at all and definitely not post-COVID, as far as I’ve seen.”

Reinventing the public loo
Some jurisdictions have tried to remedy the problem.

In Portland, for example, the city government designed and built its own solution for public toilets, appropriately titled the Portland Loo.

The Loo is an on-street, off-grid public toilet available to anyone free of charge. They fit a bike, so users don’t have to park and secure their wheels outside, and they offer drinking water for those in need of a sip.

“You see people in Portland of all ages — all different kinds of people — just using them,” Lowe told Galloway.

The City of Toronto installed a similar toilet along the waterfront. That model is self-cleaning and offers users a maximum of 20 minutes of use. After it was installed a decade ago, however, only two others followed.

Lowe blames the slow uptake on cost, with each installation ringing up at about $250,000.

“That’s because they’re really little houses. They have hydro, they have sewage, they have water. They are highly technologically advanced pieces of infrastructure that we’re putting on our city street,” she said.

As life begins its return to normal, and Canadians spend time outside of their houses, Lowe believes now’s the right time to be talking about this.

“I hope that this is sort of the breaking point for us where we start to realize the importance of these things,” she said.