Toilets, Public

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Toilets, Public

Public toilets are cultural artifacts whose design embodies the biological, sexual, and gender values and tensions within society. Municipal public toilets were introduced in the latter part of the nineteenth century in response to growing urban population needs; for example, under the 1875 Public Health Act in Britain. Public toilets were built as manifestations of civic pride, reform, and modernity, but women's needs were given a lower priority than men's. In London, the Leicester Square toilets, built in 1900, provided twenty-seven urinals and thirteen cubicles (stalls) for men, but only seven cubicles for women (Robinson 2001, p. 5). Male street urinals were extensively installed across Paris, but little provision was made for women, for "only males are privileged to overflow on the public highway" (Chevalier 1993, p. 97). Lack of female toilet provision controlled women and resulted in their exclusion from the public realm (Gershenson and Penner 2007). Public toilets were often located down steps, preventing access for those with baby carriages (Cavanagh and Ware 2001). One objective of the suffrage movement was to improve toilet provision for women, as promoted by the Ladies Sanitary Association (LSA) (Greed 2003). A century later, men still had twice as many places to relieve themselves as women. Even if there were equal numbers of cubicles (stalls), men had urinal provision too. While women are the majority of public toilet users, men are the providers, designers, and managers of toilets, although they possess little understanding of women's toilet needs (Anthony 2001). Many women consider unisex toilets, especially automatic public toilets, impractical and dangerous installations.

Toilets are sexually contested spaces. Because of antisocial behavior in the men's toilets (cruising or cottaging), local authorities may close down both the women's and the men's toilets leaving women with nothing. Alternatively, fortress-like public toilets may be installed, with barriers and surveillance to deter misuse. While many men imagine toilets to be places of dirt, sex, and danger, many women see toilets as sociable and caring refuges that should be based on the principles of inclusive and accessible design (women chat while they urinate: men remain silent). In spite of years of feminism and equality, one may measure the true position of women by the length of the line for the toilets (Asano 2002). Demands for women's public toilets are generally seen as a joke by policy makers. If governments want to create sustainable, equal, and accessible cities, to get people out of their cars and back on to public transport, then public toilets are the missing link. People's freedom to travel, shop, and work is constrained by the bladder's leash (Bichard et al. 2004). In contrast, public toilet provision is recognized as an important component of city planning in China (Xu 2005). Ratios of 2:1 or even 3:1 female/male toilet provision exist in Japan (Miyanishi 1996). Moves towards "potty parity" in Europe and North America must be treated with caution, as the standards mainly relate to rare new toilet construction, while closures continue (Kwon 2005).


Anthony, Kathryn H. 2001. Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Asano, Yoshi. 2002. Number of Toilet Fixtures: Mathematical Models. Nagano: Shinshu University, Japan.

Bichard, Jo-Anne; Julienne Hanson; and Clara Greed. 2004. Access to the Built Environment: Barriers, Chains, and Missing Links: The Role of Public Toilets in Creating Accessible City Centres. London: Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London.

Cavanagh, Sue, and Vron Ware. 2001. At Women's Convenience: A Handbook on the Design of Women's Public Toilets. London: Women's Design Service.

Chevalier, Gabriel. 1936 (reprint 1993). Clochemerle. London: Mandarin.

Gershenson, Olga, and Barbara Penner, eds. 2007. Toilet Papers: The Gendered Construction of Public Toilets. New York: Routledge.

Greed, Clara. 2003. Inclusive Urban Design: Public Toilets. Boston: Architectural Press.

Greed, Clara. 1994. Women and Planning: Creating Gendered Realities. Routledge, London.

Kwon, Haegi. 2005. Public Toilets in New York City: A Plan Flushed with Success? New York: Faculty of Urban Planning, Columbia University.

Miyanishi, Yutaka. 1996. Comfortable Public Toilets: Design and Maintenance Manual. Toyama, Japan: City Planning Department.

Robinson, S. 2001. Public Conveniences, Policy, Planning, and Provision. London: Institute of Wastes Management.

Topp, Elizabeth, and Carol Livoti. 2004. Vaginas: An Owner's Manual. New York, Thunder Mouth Press.

Xu, Chuangyang. 2005. "Code of Practice for Management of Public Toilets." World Toilet Forum Proceedings Shanghai. Singapore: World Toilet Organization. Available from

                                            Clara H. Greed