Public Restroom Advocacy

February 16, 2009

Effective advocacy can reverse the public restroom crisis.  

Effective advocacy starts with a clear understanding of benefits and costs.   At PHLUSH we articulate the positive impacts of facilities on human dignity, health and fitness, and urban livability while outlining the high economic and social costs  of the demise of public restrooms.

Why Public Restrooms?

Public restrooms help revitalize downtown neighborhoods. People are comfortable strolling in downtown when there are public facilities.  For visitors to a neighborhood or to an establishment, the restroom is often the place where first and lasting impressions are made.

Public restrooms get people out of cars and onto their feet, bicycles and mass transit.   Commuters need restrooms along their route.   Without facilities that serve  public transit systems,  people will drive.

Public restrooms promote both fitness and public safety. One of the attractions of private gyms is access to toilets.    Restrooms in public parks and other areas promote fitness,  activate space and provide natural surveillance that helps everyone feel safe.

Public restrooms contribute to public health. Adverse health effects result from involuntary urinary retention.  Mental health suffers when people want to be out with their families and friends but restrooms are not available.

Public restrooms serve the “restroom challenged”. The American Restroom Association uses this term for two types of people. First are  those who have to go frequently –  every hour or so.   Second are those whose need to go comes suddenly and urgently.   “Restroom challenged” people may have normal conditions – pregnancy, young age, old age etc – or medical conditions, many of which are invisible.

Downtown  revitalization through public restroom?  Yes!  First, restrooms enable people to leave their cars at home and commute on foot and on mass transit.   Second, restrooms significantly cut down on the public urination and defecation and make our downtown streets much more inviting.   Third, by encouraging a pedestrian environment, they move people toward health and fitness.

People avoid strolling in downtown areas that lack public facilities. Businesses have drifted out of downtown to malls in outlying areas.  One of the appeals of enclosed malls is a dependable restroom.   Asking permission to use a restroom at a food establishment where one is not a customer is no longer acceptable.

Let’s restore civility and human dignity in our cities.  Ensuring availability of clean, comfortable, well-designed public restrooms is a way to defend our shared values and to meet common requirements of urban livability.

The economic and social costs of the demise of public restrooms

In the early 1900s American cities acknowledged the need for public toilets and started building facilities that were clean, comfortable and well marked.  By 1940 there were restrooms in all of New York City’s 1,500 parks while the subway had 1,676 toilets and conducted regular inspections. Today there are a mere 78 public toilets in New York’s 468 subway stations.   Sometime after mid century, the public restrooms of the nation’s cities started into a precipitous decline.

Portland, Oregon was no exception. The city’s historic comfort stations served everyone.  Workers in the mills along the river and farming families who came into in the heart of the city on streetcars could relieve themselves and clean up before attending to business.  As late as the 1950s Portland boasted public restrooms staffed by friendly attendants, who also received tips.  Old Town Chinatown’s Howard Weiner has childhood memories of the one in Pioneer Courthouse Square.  “You’d get done, they’d hand you a towel — everybody left happy,”  he says. “I don’t know about you, but I miss that.”

Economic costs  Portland’s Downtown Clean and Safe cleans downtown public restrooms and responds to clean up calls.  In 2005, PHLUSH reported that Clean and Safe responded to 6000 calls a year from people who call for emergency clean up services in public areas at a cost of $10,000 a month.

Add to this the cost to individual business and building owners whose bottom line is impacted by public urination and defecation.

Lack of toilet access is an attack on human dignity.

Even more important than the economic cost of urban toiletlessness are the unspeakably heavy social costs.    Human dignity is compromised: no person should have to relieve himself or herself in a public place.  Abuse is compounded when a person is also subjected to public harassment, law enforcement or a potentially physically threatening situation.

The best way to understand the affront to human dignity that accompanies limited restroom access is to listen to the citizens who have experienced homelessness.  The following conversations were recorded at Sisters of the Road.  in the course of research for the book Voices from the Street:  Truths about Homelessness.

I don’t know what the laws are here, but I know when I gotta go, I gotta go, and I’m gonna find a tree to go behind. And every time I do it, I say, “Oh boy. Please don’t let me go to jail tonight.

But what is a woman to do when she has to use the restroom at night-time, in the middle of the night, when everything’s closed up?  And then, she goes and squats and uses the bathroom, what are you supposed to do?  “Oh!  You’re urinating in public!”  Thousand-dollar fine.  What am I supposed to do, hold it ‘til five or six o’clock in the morning, when something opens up?  I mean, this really needs to be taken a look at it, it really is, it’s something really serious…….. it’s time to sit at a table and look at it, and do something about it.

 Basically, I…I would not eat or drink because I was afraid that that I would not have a place to the bathroom, that is…that is another really terrible thing when you are homeless.  I have been kicked out of places, even a bar, I was about to go into the bathroom and they came and grabbed my arm and said, “You’re out of here, you’re not a client here, you can’t go to the bathroom here,” and I was told in quite a few places….., that I could not come in there anymore even though I used to phone also, so it is pretty humiliating.

Those people caught breaking “civility laws” are arrested and fined.  When they cannot pay the fine, they suffer added indignities and consume judicial resources.   When homelessness is criminalized, people striving for a better life suddenly face new obstacles to finding employment and housing.   Leaving citizens in poverty is an affront to the human dignity of everyone in society


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.

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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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