How public washrooms help make a city work well

As Edmonton's strategy slowly progresses, most candidates agree we need more places to go


By Emily Rendell-Watson
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The majority of city council and mayoral candidates who responded to the Taproot Survey agree that the city should have more permanent public washrooms.

It's an issue that the City of Edmonton has been exploring since April 2019, when it launched its City-Wide Public Washroom Strategy with the aim to improve access, user experience, and management of existing facilities (of which there are now 127), as well as develop more permanent public washrooms like the one on Whyte Avenue at Gateway Boulevard.

"I define a public bathroom as something that's like a bench or a street sign or a stop sign — it's on the street and it's free," said Lezlie Lowe, who consulted on Edmonton's public washroom strategy and wrote No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs. "Everybody needs those amenities for a city to work well, it's paid for by tax dollars, and it's available when you need it."

She explained that cities tend to rely on publicly available washrooms, like those in malls or businesses, rather than investing in truly public amenities. That's problematic because access may be compromised based on race, identity, the need to use a mobility device, or many other reasons.

"Those people are more vulnerable, but they're also less frequently the people who are in decision-making roles," she said. "Access is compromised in different ways for different groups of people ... and so not everybody sees or experiences the problem."

Lowe applauded Edmonton for being one of the few cities to tackle the issue at all, but despite its ingenuity, it has been slow to move towards actually developing new permanent facilities — a need that has been intensified by the pandemic.

Nicole Fraser, the City of Edmonton's general supervisor of parks and roads, said the slow progress has in part been due to a shift in focus to making mobile washrooms available during the pandemic and ensuring that permanent washrooms stayed open, with additional sanitation and monitoring.

"This fall and into 2022 we are continuing to move forward with other goals including finalizing standard operating procedures for permanent and temporary washrooms in parks and open spaces, establishing criteria and a method for prioritization for where permanent and temporary washrooms should be located in the city, further defining the role of city and the business community in ensuring accessible, safe and clean public washrooms, and exploring opportunities to work with various partners including alternative strategies for funding costs for maintaining these spaces," Fraser told Taproot.

A map of all of the public washroom locations in Edmonton

A map of Edmonton's public washrooms, including those in libraries, recreation centres, and LRT stations. (City of Edmonton)

'Little houses on the streets'

COVID-19 aside, on a broader scale Lowe said cities typically get held up implementing these changes because washrooms are complex and perceived to be costly, though a solution like The Portland Loo could be easily replicable.

"(Washrooms) tie in a whole bunch of different user groups, and for them to work well, they have to be really well-designed," she said. "It's not a sink and a toilet in a room ... bathrooms are like little houses on the streets. They have to have hydro, sewer, ventilation, and water."

Public washrooms may also need to be staffed, which costs more. Unstaffed facilities cost about $8,000 per month to maintain, while a six-month pilot project to staff the Whyte Avenue washrooms cost about $20,000 per month. But both Lowe and the City of Edmonton agree that staffing can be a good solution to address many of the possible issues with public washrooms.

"The need for staff varies bathroom to bathroom. Mid-20th century cities really put bathrooms in places that made them dangerous, like at the back of parks, and off the beaten path in public areas so that so there are fewer eyes on the bathroom, which actually made them less safe and less usable," Lowe said.

"(Attendants) can both maintain the bathroom and also provide support to people in other ways, like for those experiencing homelessness."

A brick-and-glass building on a street corner

The permanent public washroom on the corner of Whyte Avenue and Gateway Boulevard has been in place since 2012. (Paula Kirman/Flickr)

And it doesn't necessarily have to be a dedicated staff person, Lowe explained. She said cities should think nimbly about how they could combine permanent public washrooms with other installations - like a visitor centre or kiosk — to help decrease the costs.

Staffing some of Edmonton's stand-alone washrooms with attendants from Boyle Street Ventures has allowed the city to "address safety issues and social disorder," Fraser said.

She noted that the Whyte Avenue attendant monitoring program resulted in an overall decrease in incidents, from 21 between January and June 2019 to six incidents in the same period during 2020. There was also a 58% decrease in the number of repair and maintenance requests; and maintenance costs, which were often required due to vandalism, were $7,277 in 2020 compared with $21,976 in 2019. Overall, Fraser reported that the pilot resulted in a savings of almost $15,000 due to decreased repair requests, plus a reduced need for Edmonton police patrol and response to incidents.

"The attendants working at these washrooms are on their journey of healing and getting out of homelessness. They know the area (and) many of those in it and were able to keep people out of the washroom who might cause harm to themselves or others," Fraser said.

Next steps

Moving forward, the city is working on an implementation plan for its washroom strategy over the next 10 years, which means the next council will help guide its execution, including where permanent and mobile washrooms are created, and how they are cared for.

A screenshot of the mayoral candidates' answers to Taproot's question about permanent public washrooms

Most mayoral candidates seeking election on Oct. 18 support more permanent public washrooms. (Vanessa Denman, Augustine Marah, and Mike Nickel have not yet answered Taproot's survey. Abdul Malik Chukwudi has since said he endorses Nickel.)

As of Oct. 5, 66 of the 85 candidates had responded to the Taproot Survey. Of those, 59 chose "Yes, we need more permanent public washrooms," while five chose "No, we have enough." One chose "No, we shouldn't have any," and one doesn't have a position on this issue. All of their responses are visible on the question page, where future responses will be added as they come in.

You can take the survey yourself to see how you align with the candidates on this and 29 other issues.

Header image: The inside of a temporary public washroom at The Backyard at 101st Street and 104th Avenue (Mack Male/Flickr)