Planning for convenience: Public toilets

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British public toilets are increasingly in decline because of government cutbacks and lack of political will to provide facilities

By Emerita Professor Clara Greed…

As an Emerita Professor I am still very busy and for example, I continue to be involved in public toilet issues, both in relation to UK Toilets and globally.  To explain, ‘public toilets’ may be defined as comprising both traditional ‘on-street’, local authority public toilets and ‘off-street’ toilets to which the public has right of access, for example in restaurants, shopping malls, and department stores, which, together, are may be defined as ‘away from home toilets’ (Greed, 2003). There is also a vast range of ‘private toilets’ including work place toilets, in shops, offices, and factories; toilets in educational establishments for pupils and students; facilities in leisure, sport, entertainment and leisure facilities; and toilets associated with the transport system, in train stations, bus termini, coach stations and airports.

I continue to argue in my ongoing research and publications that public toilets should be seen as a key component of planning policy and practice. But most local planning authorities do not include toilet provision within their urban policies or development plans, and there is no legal requirement to do so, indeed toilet provision is often deemed to be ‘ultra vires’ not a land-use planning matter. But, lack of provision undermines health policies, economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability. If the government wants to create sustainable cities, and to get people back to public transport, cycling and walking, then adequate public toilets are essential: they are ‘the missing link’.  Inadequate toilet provision, undermines people’s  mobility and chances of freely accessing and moving around in the city.  

Privatised ‘franchised’ alternatives include the ‘Unisex’ automatic public toilet but many users are scared of such contraptions, and many women see them as being just fancy male urinals

But public toilets are in decline, and some local authorities have closed them all, such as Bristol in 2018. Not only is there lack of provision but historically women have less provision. Unequal toilet provision for women persists, resulting in continuing queues for the Ladies, in spite of improved levels of provision being recommended in the British Standards Guidance on Sanitary Installations (BSI, 2010) , because so few new toilets are being built. Typically women are provided with less than half the provision for men.  Even if equal floor space is provided for the women’s and men’s side of the average public toilet block, men are likely to have twice the number of ‘places to pee’ because a whole row of urinals can be provided in the same space where only a few cubicles can be fitted in.  Furthermore, women need public toilets more than men, because they have more reasons to use the toilet because of menstruation, menopause and pregnancy in addition to simple urination and defecation (Greed, 2016). 

Toilet provision is a major issue in many countries, and sanitation is a key priority in the UN SDGs and an important component of our NERC research programme. Here in this hutong (neighbourhood) of Shanghai there are local toilets but poor sanitation within homes.

Whilst the toilet situation in the UK is dire, the situation is much worse in the wider world with Globally out of 7 billion total world population, over 2 billion lack basic access to water, sanitation, electricity and of course toilets. There are more mobile phones in the world than there are toilets.  50% of the world’s people is urban now but a third of them live in shanty towns. Again girls and women are particularly disadvantaged in spite of SDG 6 which links sanitation and gender issues. Subsection 6.2 states that by 2030 the aim is ‘to achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and to end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations’

New toilet challenges are arising, particularly the need to include a wide range of types of toilet users, and the introduction of Gender Neutral Toilet facilities, or indeed the desegregation and mixing of existing facilities. Whilst everyone needs a toilet we have argued in recent research that, such changes must not be at the expense of provision for women, who already have fewer facilities, as ‘inclusion can exclude’ (Ramster et al, 2018) .

Everybody needs toilets, but it is important to make sure that this is done in a reasonable proportionate manner

I continue to do write, speak at toilet conferences (such as in Xi’an in 2018), and do toilet research. For example, I am part of the NERC research SASSI team, as a member of the Advisory Board, on ‘A systems view of Sustainable Sanitation in China’ see and also see


BSI (2010) BS 6465-4:2010Sanitary Installations. Code of practice for the provision of public toilets, London: BSI.

Greed, C. (2003) Inclusive Urban Design: Public Toilets, Oxford: Architectural Press

Greed, C. (2016) ‘Taking Women’s Bodily Functions into Account in Urban Planning Policy: Public Toilets and Menstruation’, Town Planning Review, Vol 87, No.5, pp. 505-523

Ramster, Gail, Greed, Clara, & Bichard, Jo-Anne (2018).  How inclusion can exclude: the case of Public Toilet Provision for women.  Built Environment, 44 (1), 52-77

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