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Closing the Toilet Gap

Nice public restrooms are a genuine urban amenity. Big cities can afford to build more of them. Why don’t they?

(Carrie A Hanrahan/Shutterstock)
It’s no secret that having kids changes the way we live our lives. Things we didn’t think about before now loom large in our decision-making. Playgrounds are among those things, as you might expect. But so are public restrooms.

The shortage of these restrooms has started attracting significant media attention. Earlier this year, The New York Times ran an article asking why public restrooms are so rare in America. The article noted that these facilities were once common, but this changed as the culture developed a more negative view of bodily functions during the Victorian era. More recently, in the 1970s, more were closed as cities were too broke to maintain them, and feminists complained about a lack of bathroom gender equality. At the same time, public restrooms became havens for drug use and prostitution. The absence of public restrooms might prevent homeless people from camping out in them, but it deprives them of a place to go to relieve themselves, leading to public urination and defecation. The solution may be worse than the problem.

In the past, I’ve highlighted the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel as a place that’s carried out superb planning and improvements in the public realm. One of the ways they’ve done this is by building public restrooms in their walkable districts. There are many such restrooms on Main Street, in the Indiana Design Center building just to the south, and at the City Center development. The parks department has built public restrooms near the playgrounds in many of the city’s parks. These facilities are very nice and extremely well maintained. For those of us with kids, that means we never have to worry where to find a public restroom when we need one. This is an incredible civic amenity, one all too few cities have.

One good thing about public restrooms is that they don’t cost that much to build — sometimes only a few hundred thousand dollars. In some places, it is more. In San Francisco, a notoriously expensive city, a public toilet design came in at $1.7 million each. In New York City, which is also notorious for outrageous construction costs, public restrooms average around $3.6 million each. But in most cities, sane cities, it doesn’t cost anywhere near that much.

The challenge, of course, is maintenance. A suburb like Carmel does not have a big problem with vandalism or drug use in its public restrooms. Maintenance is mostly a matter of keeping the facility clean and well-stocked. For urban centers, the challenges are bigger and more difficult.

However, even in large and expensive cities it’s possible to build and maintain high-quality restrooms. We see this in the exception that proves the rule: New York City’s Bryant Park. Nestled behind the New York Public Library in Midtown, Bryant Park is deservedly famous as one of the world’s great urban parks. One reason is that it includes magnificent public restrooms, the best in New York City. Not only are they in an ornate building, but they are handicapped-accessible and feature fresh cut flowers, art work and stylish fixtures. The restrooms hold up under a non-stop parade of visitors, thanks to essentially full-time attendants.

Bryant Park is a truly public park open to all – including the homeless – while being run by a public-private partnership that operates and maintains it at the highest level, and with an eye toward limiting anti-social and illegal activity. It is very well-funded, of course. But the real difference has been the will of the people running it to maintain a high-functioning park that is safe and inviting, something its restrooms profoundly symbolize.

The real problem in adding public restrooms to urban centers today is not a lack of funding, but a civic leadership class that is unwilling to address blatantly anti-social and often criminal activity. If every city tackled that, it wouldn’t take much money to start making major improvements in the public realm in areas like public restrooms.

While we wait, suburbs like Carmel are positioned to press down on the gas and increase the quality-of-life gap between themselves and urban cores by aggressively installing these restrooms. Maybe competition or just plain jealousy will prod big cities into elevating their public restroom game.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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