Health experts argue access to public restrooms will be essential to infectious disease prevention during the coronavirus pandemic
Toronto has a toilet problem. That’s been evident not only to long-time residents, but visitors.
The city’s lack of public restrooms has long been a joke. Consider the many Instagram accounts, including @wheretopooptoronto, @washroomsoftoronto and @toilets_in_toronto, solely dedicated to finding the best of the worst, or the Reddit threads that pop up every month asking where they might be.
Two years ago, Crohn’s and Colitis Canada even started an app called GoHere to help Torontonians instantly locate a bathroom near them, because they’ve never been easy to find.
While public washrooms can be found at some parks (where they’re open seasonally), outside City Hall, at some subway stations and inside libraries, many resort to malls, fast-food restaurants, coffee shops and public-access buildings. In most cases, you’ve got to be a paying customer to use these toilets, and not all establishments are friendly toward people experiencing homelessness who need on-street, free and accessible spaces.
With public health officials advising people to frequently wash their hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the problem is has grown more urgent. Health and public space experts argue that now is the time for Torontonians and local politicians to get over NIMBYism and put public toilets back on the political agenda.
“In Canada, we have a culture of publicly accessible toilets, rather than public toilets,” says Lezlie Lowe, author of No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs. “There are massive problems with this model of provision, because it means that access is controlled and curtailed.”
Those problems have gotten louder as many of those “customer toilets,” as Lowe refers to them, closed when Ontario ordered the mandatory closure of non-essential businesses in response to the pandemic. And it’ll only get worse as the city reopens, and options become even more scarce and difficult to locate.
“Municipal governments need to consider toilets as an integral part of the basket of goods we expect our tax dollars to support and sustain,” adds Lowe. “We expect trash cans. We expect benches. We expect street lights, sidewalks, bus shelters and stop signs because they’re required elements of a useful city. Toilets are as or more important than all those pieces of municipal infrastructure, and they shouldn’t be left out of the formula for city-making any longer.”
So why have Toronto’s public toilets been neglected?
It’s not only that public washrooms are few and far between, but that they have fallen into disrepair and are unsanitary. That contributes to the stigma surrounding their use, which has existed for decades across North America. Public washrooms are associated with homelessness, drug use and public sex.
“These are things that are deemed to be less desirable in the public space but, in reality, public bathrooms serve a really important public health role in helping people maintain hygiene,” says Michael Widener, Canada Research Chair in transportation and health, and assistant professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto. “Having access to clean facilities is a key part of the urban planning fabric.”
It’s also a class issue.
“As somebody who has a decent income, if I really need to go to the washroom, I’ll go into a Starbucks, buy a bottle of water, and use theirs,” he adds. “But then we also have people who have fewer means, and if they are not able to go inside and buy something first, then they have an inability to maintain their own health.”
Then there are those who are older, people with children or those who have gastrointestinal disorders, like ulcerative colitis or irritable bowel syndrome, for whom the GoHere app was expressly created. These people require public washrooms regularly, but are paying for that age-old stigma, too, which is only reinforced when these spaces are not cleaned regularly.
Earlier this May, city councillor Joe Cressy announced that Toronto had opened sanitation and washroom service locations with access to showers, washrooms and drinking water during the pandemic. That included eight portable washrooms and hand-washing stations that are being cleaned and restocked twice a day and are open to anyone, and six locations with showers and access to drinking water for people who are homeless.
City staff are on-site at each location to ensure infection prevention and control measures are in place and being followed.
But are there any longer-term plans for public washrooms given people will need to wash their hands more frequently for months to come?
“There’s not a city plan or target that currently exists, no,” Cressy wrote in an email to NOW. “We know that for basic accessibility and convenience, but also for infectious disease prevention, public washrooms are important.
“While they have not been as big a priority for cities across North America, where many have gotten out of the business of public bathrooms, in light of COVID, I’m hopeful that they will become a greater priority going forward,” he added, “and that we’ll be able to respond quickly just as we have now with washroom and hand-washing stations, which should be permanent.”
Widener believes Toronto needs to commit to a plan despite the stigma.
“We still suffer from a little bit of NIMBYism in this city,” he says. “Nobody really wants these facilities nearby their store, office or home. But a longer-term solution really just requires a longer-term investment, where the city commits to having a reasonable distribution of public washroom facilities that are maintained and open 24/7.”
While these changes may have once seemed to only be possible in a very distant future, COVID-19 has brought the necessity of public bathrooms to the forefront – for everyone. And, therefore, likely far closer to reality.