The greatest challenge for anyone involved in planning for public use facilities and areas is in the factoring for the uncertainties of the future, short and long-term. We have all heard that “you don’t build the church for Easter Sunday.” We accept that there will be times when the design will not meet the capacities or timing or attraction for everyone at every time.
This is a given, but when we can build in flexibility, we find much greater returns and acceptance of the final design. We do this with multi-purpose playing fields, multi-functional ballroom space and the transformation of streets in pedestrian areas. I would offer that we are currently presented with a tremendous opportunity to change the conventional wisdom of public restrooms in the same manner.
Planning not Politics
I am not looking to join the passionate debate on the transgender bathroom access. As a person interested in public spaces and the way they are utilized, I don’t have the luxury of philosophic discussions of right and wrong based on feelings, emotions, over-reactions and religious beliefs. It’s not that I don’t care, I do, but in my simple, straight-forward view, this topic doesn’t require this type of debate. The solution is the opportunity to once and for all address the systemic duplication based on archaic segregation.
The Unrecognized Demise of the Urinal
You may have missed it. The last hurdle in gender-neutral restrooms, the elimination of the urinal, has already begun. Yes, you can still see these relics in most bathrooms, but they have been curtailed, surrounded and isolated. Gone are the days of walls of urinals, side-by-side. Or the mile-long troughs popular in stadiums and large public use facilities. The partitioned, single-use element has become the standard that allows anyone to recognize that we are not that far from putting them into stalls. It is the urinal that defines the “Men’s Room”. I am sure that there a few readers that have had an uneasy moment when they have entered a restroom not to see a urinal and quickly stepped out to check the sign on the door. The urinal is the clear dividing line for restroom segregation, so once we are able to let go of the urinal we are only a few steps away from maximizing public use.
Events as Model
As a 30 year planner of public special events, I have had a wonderful incubator for restroom use ideas and application. I can tell you why some units are used more than others, why numbers don’t always matter and that every time I thought I had it wired, I was wrong. The saving factor is that the single-use unit (trailered or stand-alone) is universally accepted (or hated and still used) and the ADA standards are easily determined and fulfilled. That your crowd is mostly female doesn’t cause any greater line than if it were all men. Service issues are similar, because even though females on average use more paper, men can be messier, but all units are serviced the same way, same personnel on a regular schedule.
Once you begin to design standardized approaches to public restroom facilities, certain benefits will be realized. Here are a few:
- No need to calculate use based on demographics.
- No duplication of hand wash stations, signage, lighting and general access corridors
- Easier family use (Fathers with daughters, Mother with sons)
- Easier calculation/conformance with ADA standards
This area seems to be where the greatest passion exists on both sides of the political debate, but I would ask the reader to consider the following:
- Unisex restrooms (shared areas) are easier to patrol with security personnel. With separate facilities, sex-specific guards need to be available to respond to emergencies/concerns.
- Greater traffic increases safety. The potential of swifter response to inappropriate behavior is a great deterrent.
- Children can be accompanied by both parents/grandparents. Especially important with multiple children.
- Stalls, unlike urinal dividers, can be re-enforced to provide better (not complete) protection when people need to shelter in place during violent incidents.
I am asking that you, the planners, begin with relooking at the building codes. Look at them not to require that all restrooms become uni-sex, rather look to remove any language that would prohibit their implementation. Develop a set of acceptable standards that can be introduced in all large-scale public projects, like stadiums, arenas and convention centers. The fact is we are going to get there, but if we want this to move public space use forward, we need to have the planners, designers and architects figure this out before the bureaucrats and politicians.
Photo by Author.