Where to go, when there’s no place to go?

The ‘Downtown Ottawa Public Washroom Map’ was created by Andrew Hall

By the GottaGo! Core Team

More than ever, COVID-19 has made clear that a network of clean, safe and accessible public toilets is fundamen­tally a public health issue.

Recent media attention to truckers, taxi and Uber drivers, bus drivers, garbage collectors, delivery persons, journalists, photographers and any­one doing essential jobs that involve moving around the city, has high­lighted this problem. What are they supposed to do when the public toilets that do exist are all closed during this pandemic? Normally, these people use public toilets or facilities at cafes and restaurants, but these are now closed.

The homeless have always had a problem, but it’s worse now that there is “no place to go.” There’s also the need for water for handwashing, some­thing we are told to do frequently. For many homeless people, access to clean running water and disinfectants is not a given. They may need to walk sev­eral city blocks or further to reach the nearest public restroom.

And then there’s the rest of us. While being told to stay home, we’re also encouraged to go out for walks to get exercise and fresh air. What to do when we need a toilet? Can we tell a small child to “hold it” until they get home? Must such walks be unavailable to those with chronic diseases such as Crohn’s and colitis that require readily avail­able facilities? Menstruating women caught short? Older adults whose blad­ders require more frequent attention?

In the Glebe, the NCC opened Queen Elizabeth Drive for walk­ers and bikers, a positive move. But there are no public toilets – facilities at Pat­terson Creek and the Canal Ritz, for example, are closed.

The banality of the subject means we don’t often consider public toilets as a basic human right, as they should be. Arguments exist for the human right to shelter, food and water in the city, but what about toilets – they are something everybody needs.

“Why is building and maintaining roads considered an unquestionable necessity and legitimate expense, but having public toilets is deemed a superfluous luxury?” asked André Picard in the Globe and Mail. The answer is not to refuse to build public toilets, it is to value and maintain them as any other public infrastructure.

In Canada, con­tinues Picard, we behave as if urin­ation, defecation and menstruation are not routine bodily functions, but are some­how optional if we are away from our homes. Toilets need to be considered a number one (and number two) prior­ity of urban design; they are essential for an inclusive, healthy society. We design, construct and maintain public spaces such as roads, sidewalks and parks, but act as if people using those spaces will never need toilet facili­ties unless they are attending an event such as Canada Day, where you have to contend with a long lineup to use a porta-potty that requires you to hold your breath.

What’s the most intimate way you engage with your city’s architecture? When you go to the toilet. Real cities give people places to pee.

The GottaGo! Campaign has been pressuring the City of Ottawa and the National Capital Commission for a network of clean, safe and accessible public toilets since 2014. Though there have been some notable successes (e.g. public toilets in the node stations of the LRT; porta-potties at some splash pads and sports fields), our pleas have been pushed aside as too expensive, an “extra” compared with other infra­structure.

And here we are, in the midst of a historic pandemic. Maybe this is what it takes to get some serious attention paid to public health, including toi­lets. A crisis can be an opportunity, so now is the time for all of us to advocate for a network of public toi­lets that include running water and soap for handwashing.

For centuries, we have known that sanitation is key to a healthy popu­lation. For example, the 2007 World Health Organization report entitled Evolution of Public Health Security concludes that from the 7th century onwards, quarantine, sanitation and immunization have been the three main advances in strengthening pub­lic health. Yet for decades, we have ignored this issue in terms of the avail­ability of public toilets in Ottawa.

Please help us in advocating for a network of public toilets in the city we call home. For details, please visit our website at ottawapublictoilets.ca.

The GottaGo! campaign core team is Bessa Whitmore, Lui Kashungnao, Eric McCabe, Kristina Ropke, Alan Etherington, Zeinab Mohamed and Nick Aplin

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