Failure to launch
So, the big question is, why did the spaceship toilets fail in the first place?
Toilet provision is a thorny issue with most civic councils. On the one hand, good toilets in city centres encourage tourism and shopping, keep rough sleepers from pissing in the street and give a good impression to visitors. On the other hand, toilets are prone to vandalism, can attract criminal behaviour and are difficult to maintain in a cost-effective manner.
How do you balance the necessary against the evil?
I believe that councils go wrong when they fall into the ‘spaceship toilet’ trap. These self-cleaning tardises from Germany are a favourite with councils looking to install city toilets. They appeal to council budget-watchers because although they have a high set-up cost, they are supposed to have minimal upkeep costs. But the fact is that after a short while self-cleaning toilets don’t. Then you’re left with a room the size of 3 toilets in which only one person can relieve themselves every 15 minutes.
Wellington City Council (New Zealand) has a brilliant set of public toilets, on the corner of Lambton Quay and Featherston Street. There are 6 toilets arranged in a semi-circle and a room in which a toilet attendant sits. The attendant keeps the queue moving, mops the floors, keeps each cubicle in paper and provides general chit chat.
For many councils, taking the human element out of toilets seems to be the best option, but I think they are letting their squeamishness override their common sense. They believe that a toilet attendant is a demeaning job and they’re not willing to create it. But there are people who are good at it, just like any other job. The best toilet attendants are like good taxi or bus drivers. They’re proud of the facilities they offer, they welcome you aboard and they’re pleased to take you to your destination. In other words, they are professional.
The stigma attached to the profession of toilet attendant must end if councils are to provide good clean facilities they can be proud of.
The location of public toilets is also key. The middle of a park is always going to attract criminal behaviour. The middle of a shopping district – not behind the carpark, or hidden away down an alley – is the best location. Toilets must take up excellent real estate if they are to be excellent. At the same time, there must also be decent simple provision outside of the main shopping area for people who are making their way home or for people who have no home. But the facilities must still be on good real estate.
To ignore the human element in city centre public toilets is to commit a fatal flaw. Toilets ARE human. Expensive machines which make the human element disappear fail. Seattle has paid the price, but has it learned the lesson?