by Tarah Hodgkinson
Awhile back I took my students to Commercial Drive, a popular commercial corridor in Vancouver, to complete a community safety audit. We visited a few park locations surrounding the main corridor, each of which had a public washroom. This isn’t unusual, but when I encouraged my students to check out the parks they reported that the washrooms were locked... ALL of them! In the middle of the day!
WHAT WAS THIS ABOUT?
On one of the public washrooms there was a notice to call the city to have the doors unlocked. First call: Answering machine. Second call: They said they would arrive in 30 minutes. I couldn’t believe it! Thankfully, I wasn’t pregnant, toting around children, or anything else that might have made washroom access an emergency.
I’m happy to report that when I took another group of students to Commercial Drive this year, the washrooms were open, clean and accessible. That was a far cry from the locked doors we had seen the year prior, a much too common experience in Vancouver and many cities across Canada and the United States. This raises an important issue we often do not talk about regarding neighbourhood safety - access to clean and safe washroom facilities.
I was reminded of this issue when I visited Australia recently and discovered public washrooms everywhere, not only in Brisbane, but in the Gold Coast, Byron Bay, Sydney and anywhere else I went. For someone who drinks a LOT of water, washroom access is an important part of my daily activities. As someone who has been a caregiver for a person living with multiple sclerosis, washroom access is an absolute necessity.
How could my home country, famous for being socially minded, not provide the basic human dignity of clean and accessible public washrooms as in Australia?
Public spaces aren’t created by the people who live there and too often the needs of the public, especially the needs of the disabled, marginalized or disempowered, are ignored in creating these spaces. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the design and management of public washrooms.
In some cities, public washrooms are places of increased target hardening to prevent undesirable behaviour such as drug use and sexual solicitation. For example, many of the public washrooms in Calgary have blue lights that purport to make it impossible to find a vein, a controversial strategy challenged by actual research. Others, like those on Commercial Drive, have found ways of reducing hours of operation and in some cases removing them all together.
Is locking down and removing public washrooms the way to solve illegitimate use? Could we encourage local government to invest in cleaning and checking these places on a more regular basis - such as the self cleaning bathrooms in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver? Could we provide safer alternatives for these users (similar to safe injection sites) instead of punishing the public by locking down places that address basic human needs? If other countries like Australia have figured it out, I think there is hope for Canadian and U.S. cities as well.