Op-Ed: Ottawa, let’s talk about our public toilets

Ottawa Citizen
March 30, 2014

Public toilets represent society’s finest aspirations about responsible civil behaviour. A great city has great public toilets. — Rae Bridgeman, Winnipeg architect


The “GottaGo!” campaign advocates for a network of safe, accessible, free, clean and environmentally responsible public toilets and water fountains in major transit stops, parks and key public places to meet the needs of residents and tourists in Ottawa.

The GottaGo! team has been researching public toilet provision in other cities in North America and around the world, seeking advice and support from key decision-makers at the City and NCC, and encouraging people to speak out about the need for open, accessible public toilets. There are effective public toilet programs in Christchurch, Tokyo, Paris, London, Seoul, and many other capital cities.

Which of us has not been caught short by our need for a toilet? A Crohn’s and Colitis Canada survey in 2010 found that more than 75 per cent of the sample had been humiliated in this way. What parent has not had their child urinate or defecate behind a tree in a park? Which pregnant woman, tourist, bus user, cyclist or jogger has not had moments where they worry about getting to a facility in time? What about our aging population and the disabled?

There are no plans for toilets at the LRT stations (except at the ends of the line). Although Ottawa does have public restrooms in large parks, their hours do not accommodate need. People with urgent needs, such as irritable bowel and celiac sufferers, are held captive in their homes. In the downtown, restaurant owners fret about non-paying customers using their washrooms. The real costs of not providing these facilities is born by the people who limit their activity in the city because of their fear of an “accident” and by those businesses and residents that are expected to cope with the results of unmet needs.

Accessible toilets are a public health issue and a key to sustainable cities.

When people “gotta go”, if there are no toilets, even the most fastidious will have to take advantage of alleys, stairwells and bushes as emergency bathrooms. It is not a choice.

The Ottawa Police Service agree that toilet design choices can be made that allow for easy cleaning and management, resistance to vandalism, and low utility costs. We can create useful jobs looking after public toilet facilities: an investment in safety, security and public health.

Our research has led us to propose that the National Capital Commission and the city should:

* Invest in signage, appropriate staffing, improvements and maintenance for existing toilets. For example, in Wards 12 and 14, there are 37 municipally-supported toilets. Only City Hall is open 7 days a week from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Twelve are only open during the short summer programme; the rest are “open programming hours.” From the street, no one would know that these toilets exist. We need recognizable signage indicating an accessible toilet in the building and directional signs showing the distance to the toilet. We need a regional toilet map/app. We need to hire people to look after the public toilets we do have; neglect only generates vandalism and misuse.

* Add at least one 24/7 outdoor access unit to buildings like fire-halls, ambulance garages, recreation centres, and libraries. It may not make economic sense to keep some of these buildings open outside programming hours, but after-hour needs could be addressed with one built-in unit that opened onto the street, used the utilities in the building (heat, water, sewer), and was designed to be vandal-proof.

* Provide subsidies to private operations like coffee shops in return for open access, improvements to bring toilets to disability standards, municipal oversight and clear signage. In many parts of the UK, municipal councils provide subsidies in recognition that, in the absence of public toilets, the costs fall to private business owners.

* Require new developments to provide for (or contribute to) disabled/unisex direct access toilets as part of their permitting; use Planning Act Section 37 monies to create public toilets; ensure inclusion in community design plans.

* Build new toilets where required, such as the proposed LRT stations. These stations are major intersections where large numbers of people will often need urgent access to toilets. In other countries, security and cleanliness in stations is assured by attendants. In recent weeks we have heard numerous times that women do not feel safe from predators in transit stations, but do if there is a uniformed staff person there. An obvious solution to both problems?

Joan Kuyek is chair of the GottaGo! campaign. Email: [email protected].