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No place to go (part 2) 

At the December 2, 2002 meeting of the Chebucto Community Council, councillor Linda Mosher brought to the assembly’s attention that an average 300 people per day were using the washrooms at the (now-demolished) Scotia Branch Legion on Cunard Street (Legion members, according to the minutes, obliged these visitors). This complaint appears to be an early catalyst in getting the new North Common facilities built.

Are men tromping into yards on Princess Place and Moran Street to urinate and women changing tampons in the bathroom at Subway because they don’t know there are toilets on the Common? Because they can’t they find them? Are they scared to go in? Unwilling to leave kids in strollers alone outside? Or are they just plain locked out?

According to Kevin Rideout, HRM superintendent of contract services, the problem is that members of various athletic teams have keys to the washrooms and they lock them.

“The baseball teams lock them due to the amount of vandalism there,” says Rideout. “The baseball teams each have a key and what’s happening is that the teams—who pay for usage of the field—don’t want outside people. They’ve been locking the doors themselves because they don’t want the vandalism, which is terrific in that location. We have big complaints from the users of the sports fields about the misuse of the washrooms by the public. Especially the ladies.”

According to John O’Brien, manager of corporate communications for HRM, that misuse includes graffiti, intentionally plugged toilets, stolen wash basin taps, pulled fire alarms, dumped garbage and strewn-about trash.

The Pavilion toilets, despite their appearance—or perhaps because of it—are the most expensive bathroom facilities in HRM to run. Cleaning products, toilet supplies and custodial services for 2004/2005 ran about $3,500, but the tally for graffiti removal, repairs and outside repainting stands at $30,000 per year.

It’s a lot to pay for public toilets that aren’t so public. “They are public,” Kevin Rideout says, “but only for the sports fields. Not public to the person walking down the street.”

The new North Common bathroom could well cost the same amount to run, effectively doubling the cost of toilet facilities on the Common. But the key-sharing scheme, according to Rideout, will remain the same.

That means baseball teams and other sports league players who pay field fees will have keys to, and control of, the new loos. Organized children’s playgroups don’t get keys, nor members of the Halifax Skatepark Coalition, nor random handball players. And they won’t get a crack at the new bathrooms if someone with a key who wants to keep the public out comes along first and locks up shop.

While Abraham Salloum at Tony’s and other business managers around the Common certainly have the need for adequate public bathrooms on their radar, Paul MacKinnon, executive director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission, says it’s not something his members are concerned about: “It’s certainly not at the top of the priority list for things we would like to have downtown,” he says.

“I don’t think anyone thinks, ‘I’m not going to go downtown because there are no washrooms,’” MacKinnon says. “Because I think during regular business hours there are plenty around in the malls. And I think most store owners, if you’re in the store and you ask to use them, you can.”

“I’m sure if you asked wife you’d get a different story,” says Bristol-based toilet expert Clara Greed.

“There are a lot of issues here,” says Greed. “Sometimes people are wanting toilets outside regular working hours that are not in shopping malls that might be closed or in bars which might be very difficult to get into. And this thing about asking—this is very demeaning. And it creates an element of uncertainty for people who don’t know if they’re going to be able to access the toilet or not.”

Greed is convinced this is about more than inconvenience and humiliation. “It’s like the missing millions,” she says. “There would be a lot more people out-and-about who are very hesitant because they don’t know about the toilets and the facilities in a particular area.”

She also says public toilets make for a lot more people walking downtown and using mass transportation. “With increasing demands for people to leave their cars at home and go by public transport, one would imagine that better toilet facilities at transport termini and interchanges would be an obvious necessity,” Greed writes. “Cyclists face toilet problems, being out in all the elements and wanting toilets, washing places and dry areas for storage as well as safe routes. Yet the needs of cyclists are often portrayed as ‘leisure’ or as a ‘children’s’ issue. Likewise, pedestrians”—who, Greed reminds, are not people who have just parked their cars—”need back-up services such as seats, toilets, bus shelters, lighting, dog dirt-free pavements and safe and smooth-surfaced streets.”

More than that, toilets, Greed argues in her book, are a vital part of urban core revitalization in lagging downtowns: “…modern shopping mall designers do everything in their power to encourage people to stay and rest and then get their second wind to carry on shopping, including provision of ‘pamper zones’, rest areas with armchairs and good toilets. In the average high street, shoppers have to contend with limited parking, difficult access, no facilities for women with small children and virtually no toilets. The whole experience can be frustrating, exhausting and off-putting.”

The Australian National Public Toilet Map (www.toiletmap.gov.au) is a comprehensive online printable map collection showing the location of the country’s more than 14,000 public and private/public toilet facilities. You can search for toilets by postal code, territory or point of interest. You can search out details about any toilet in the database, such as hours, wheelchair accessibility and whether there are baby changing tables. There’s even a trip planner.

The Australian federal government pays for The National Public Toilet Map. The map’s official goal is to make easier the long distance travels and quick jaunts of the more than two million Australians with incontinence problems. And it’s not too shabby for the tourists, either.

How about one for Nova Scotia? Perhaps just downtown Halifax? Perhaps not.

“A lot of people come here,” says Carol Thorn, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia, “and I assume they are all finding a place to pee, because I haven’t heard any complaints.”

Thorn, who’s been head of TIANS since the middle of January, mirrors Paul MacKinnon of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission: “I get no direct complaints , nor have I ever heard from any of our members saying we needed toilets downtown.”

City-run public toilets are a great suggestion, she says, but Thorn’s organization has other things to worry about: the downward trend in tourism numbers, Americans staying home and the price of gas, among them.

This, in a nutshell, explains downtown Halifax’s public toilet situation: silence. Paul MacKinnon of the DHBC and Carol Thorn of TIANS don’t hear a peep about toilets from the business members they serve. And that means toilets aren’t a downtown issue, even though these crucial amenities have a place in the most recent Capital District Urban Design Project.

MacKinnon and Thorn speak for important downtown voices. But maybe they aren’t the only ones we should be listening to.

Jacqueline Hamilton is an urban and rural planner by trade. Two years ago, she took the helm of the Capital District Initiative in the role of manager. Hamilton is refreshingly frank about downtown bathrooms: “There’s a scarcity of public washrooms, really.

“We haven’t heard a lot about it from the community,” Hamilton says, “and, in a sense, it’s something we should be advocating for because it’s often homeless people that rely on services like that and they’re not in the vocal minority who come out to our meetings. And, certainly, from a visitor’s perspective as well—you’re not going to hear from them necessarily. But people rely on access to public toilets.”

Hamilton’s perspective isn’t just from her experience as a planner, or her awareness about the silence of marginalized groups when it comes to the demand for adequate basic services like toilets. She’s also the mother of a young child. “I’ve been out downtown with my family and it’s ,” she says. “Oh totally. It’s always on your radar: where am I going to go?”

Hamilton and her colleagues at the Capital District Initiative are currently working on a long-term project to improve downtown’s Grand Parade. “That’s an area we know is a good central location for public washrooms,” she says. One spot there that gets frequent mention is the storage area under Grand Parade that fronts on Barrington—the door with the horse mural.

But if a bathroom is going in there—or anywhere—it’s got to be done properly: on-street; 24-hour; municipal-run; tax payer-funded; clean and in working order; with abundant directional signs and posted hours; with ample women-favoured ratios to avoid lines; and with more cubicles in the men’s for those who need privacy, or for those with paruresis (AKA shy bladder syndrome, which, according to the International Paruresis Association, affects seven per cent of the public, mostly men). They should be welcoming for everyone, meaning not just one large barrier-free stall, but larger stalls generally for people with children, large backpacks, luggage and for the obese. There should be a large, separate single-toilet family bathroom with changing facilities.

Is that uncomfortable shuffling I hear? Worried about what this will cost? Hold on. There’s more.

Children need step-stools so they can reach basins to wash their hands. Potty parity activist Kathryn Anthony raves about a restroom in an outlet mall in California with large, recessed, tile shelves behind the toilets for purses and shopping bags. “And more hooks,” she says. “You can never have too many hooks.”

A separate additional single-toilet unisex bathroom is a must for fathers with young daughters, elderly disabled women with male caregivers and transsexuals.

And the bathrooms have to look good too.

Paul MacKinnon of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission says that if and when new and better public toilets come to downtown, they must be more than strictly utilitarian. “One of the things we’ve fallen into a trap with in downtown Halifax,” he says, “is having things that are purely functional. We order garbage cans out of magazines and they’re stuck to lamp poles and they work, but they’re certainly not interesting. If we put in public washrooms, they should be cool public washrooms.”

And safe too.

From a policing point of view, according to Constable Greg Beach of the Halifax Regional Police Service, that means “keeping vagrants out, people sleeping there, using drugs there, what have you.” (It’s worth mentioning, that men cruising for sex in toilets is not an issue for Halifax police—”I’ve never been called on a call like that,” Beach says.)

About all-night toilets, Beach has reservations. “If they were 24-hour, how would you—because they’re public—address the safety issues? You can’t guarantee someone’s safety while they’re in there.”

Mat Smythe, who’s homeless and always on the look-out for facilities, believes safety comes at a cost. Literally—the cost of two beat cops.

“Barrington, out on the street at 12:30, 1am, isn’t the safest place,” Smythe says. “They need two cops who are on foot who could just walk from Scotia Square up to Spring Garden, up Spring Garden and back down Barrington. And if you had them pop into the bathroom every 15 minutes, people would be less likely to do dumb stuff in there.”

Clara Greed suggests the municipality look at the idea of bathroom attendants, ideally where a paid attendant oversees the comings and goings for the men’s, women’s, family and unisex bathrooms together from one main entrance (the cliche of the in-room, besuited toilet attendant offering to towel-off users’ hands isn’t only farcically uncommon, it can exacerbate shy bladder syndrome).

Kathryn Anthony supports attended bathrooms too.

In Shanghai for the World Toilet Expo and Forum, Anthony and some colleagues went on guided tours of three newly constructed on-street public toilets. “All three were sparkling clean, beautiful and far superior to any comparable facility we would find here in the United States,” she says. “That they had attendants was part of the reason they worked so well. It wasn’t just one person, it was a few people who worked in each one and they took great pride in their work and they seemed really proud of their facility.”

These toilets were constructed, in large part, for the upcoming Shanghai World Expo in 2010. They are part of a swath of improved public services coming to the city and in league with hundreds of new public bathrooms springing up. Entrance costs one yuan (the equivalent of about 15 cents), to pay for toilet paper. Anthony loved the bathrooms, but hates the idea of paying. “I think it’s a right,” she says. “Not a privilege.”

Paying to go to the loo is illegal in Nova Scotia. And for Kevin Rideout, superintendent of contract services for HRM, attendants at Halifax public toilets are out of the question too.

Rideout is on his cell phone from the public toilets at the Halifax Ferry Terminal, which can see as many as 1.4 million visits per year. He’s fielding my questions about Halifax toilets while on a break from meeting with the new contractor taking over janitorial work for the bathrooms. During the call, a janitor near Rideout sets up signs indicating a wet, slippery floor. A moment later, someone walks through the wet area and kicks over the signs. “That’s how bad it is with these public washrooms,” Rideout says. “When the closes the washroom to clean them, people actually push the janitors out of the way. In the women’s, he puts the sign out and they don’t care.”

Rideout says the abusive treatment janitors endure would be worse for toilet attendants—”because someone doesn’t want someone standing in the washroom while you’re using it.” And, attendants would be frowned upon by the public. “You would have to have a man for the men’s, a woman for the women’s and one for the family change room. That’s a lot of cost for the taxpayer just to have someone stand there and watch someone use the washroom.”

The attended Chinese toilets Kathryn Anthony visited are more than just improvements for international tourists for the upcoming World Expo, they’re part of what’s being called a far east toilet revolution. “In many parts of Asia,” Anthony says, “they are way ahead in terms of public access to restrooms.”

The toilet revolution is typified in Shanghai where the task of enlarging and beautifying toilets and improving other public conveniences has been in the works for 10 years and has so far cost the city, according to China’s state news agency, Xinhua News, 200 million yuan (CAD $29 million). The city boasts 10,000 amenities location signs and, on average, one public bathroom every 300 metres. If that standard were upheld for the business core of Barrington Street alone, there would be public toilets at the Cogswell Interchange and (heading south) at Duke Street, at Sam the Record Man near Sackville Street, at Spring Garden Road and at Morris Street.

Shanghai is a city of 16 million; it certainly requires more toilets than Halifax. But the difference in these two cities’ approaches to public bathrooms makes it clear: Halifax definitely isn’t going through a toilet revolution of its own.

Mat Smythe thinks it’s all about money and turning a blind eye to social justice. “The government,” he says, “has a tendency to look at things like public bathrooms, like, look, this really isn’t affecting the people who own businesses, where they draw their tax base from. More well-off people are in their cars. They can drive anywhere they need to to use the bathroom, plus, they’re the type of people who aren’t going to get hassled walking in somewhere. It pretty much comes down to an issue of class.”

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