Public Toilet as Urban Artifact

Today I was reading an article by Dr. Clara Greed from University of West England on suggested improvements for public toilet code in Britain when a phrase caught my attention,

“All the art, science, and accumulated knowledge of civic design should be applied to public toilets because they are important urban artifacts.”[1](p.10)

I never really thought about toilets this way but it is true if you think about it. Public toilets will be prominent when our cities are uncovered by imaginary archeologists of the future. Placing this sort of value on public toilets, rather than seeing them as in a purely utilitarian light, is a pretty unique way of looking at things. For the most part public toilets are hidden away, tucked behind long corridors in shopping malls and generally as out of view as we can make them, a pretty clear symbol of the shame surrounding our need to relieve ourselves. Perhaps this is the root of at least some of our public sanitation problems. We don’t want to talk or think about public toilets and so they are forgotten.

What if instead, as the author suggests, we felt a pride in our toilets? What if we planned them well, made them beautiful and cared for them as well as we do our museums? Instead of seeing them as a shameful reminder of our most basic needs, what if we saw them of a reminder of our progress, of the value we place in hygiene and health?

“Toilets should be proudly placed out in the open and not hidden but thoughtfully designed.”(p10)

If toilets were placed out in the open and made conspicuous, perhaps that would help reduce misuse of public toilets, and if they were a measure of a city’s beauty and considered a piece of valuable civic infrastructure perhaps public officials would pay more attention to their importance. If toilets were held sacred by their users, if they gave them a sense of pride and ownership instead of shame, perhaps they would be treated with more respect and require less oversight and maintenance by a third party.

As Dr. Greed points out, toilets are not just a fact of life; they represent how we see ourselves and how we care about health and human dignity, and as our cities grow we have to decide how we want that to be.

[1]A Code of Practice for Public Toilets in Britain – Dr. Clara Greed

Written by Sophy Burns, intern, Transparent Chennai