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Business & Developmentby Art Cohen11:59 pmNov 19, 20100

What ever happened to public toilets?

On World Toilet Day the author asks: “How do you manage to enjoy a city if you’re constantly worrying about “holding it”?”

Above: Vintage “comfort station” (ie public restroom) converted to a community visitors’ center by Historic Federal Hill Main Street.

“For some reason which is never clear to any foreigner, American cities tend to ignore one of the simple facts of nature.”

The need to urinate is what was being referenced delicately in this article about toilet availability, published in The Baltimore Evening Sun on January 2, 1941, on the eve of the arrival of 50,000 troops on their way to fight in World War II.

To accommodate the full bladders of an earlier wave of soldiers, during World War I, Baltimore churches had opened their toilet facilities to members of the public needing restrooms.  In 1942, the City’s Advisory Engineers recommended that the City Plan Commission add seven additional public toilets (referred to as “comfort stations”) to the nine that had been constructed in or near Baltimore markets between 1907 and 1929.

Former public bath house in Pigtown is now a community center. (Photo by Art Cohen)

Former public bath house in Pigtown is now a community center. (Photo by Art Cohen)

The city’s lack of public toilets is even more glaring these days than it was back in 1941, a fact worth pondering today, World Toilet Day.  Although many American cities used to have public restrooms staffed by attendants, by the 1980’s, such tax-supported restrooms became hard to find, and they were closed by public authorities who resisted upgrading them and making them accessible to all.

Baltimore’s public comfort stations and similar facilities have gradually fallen into disuse or been converted to other uses, such as the public bath in Pigtown turned into a community center or the public “comfort station” in Federal Hill turned into a Visitor’s Center and office for Federal Hill Main Street.

The words “public toilets” bring to mind tax-supported bathrooms in public facilities such as government offices, libraries, parks, and educational institutions.  There was a time when they also included locations on busy city streets.

Recently, the definition of  “public” has broadened to mean any toilets available for public use, which includes many commercial establishments. (In 2005, WBALTV published a report on the best and worst of commercial restrooms in the Baltimore area).

Here in the U.S., such toilets have been made widely available for years by fast food establishments.  Portland, Oregon has begun a vocal campaign to expand the number and accessibility of toilets for the public.

According to Portland’s campaign, using the initials PHLUSH (“public hygiene lets us stay human”), “restrooms are as central…as sidewalks and street lights [to a] 21st century vision…[of] sustainability, urban living, childhood fitness, active aging, and vibrant public spaces.”

Portland Loo at SW Taylor and Naito (Photo by Brian Libby)

PHLUSH has focused its citizen advocacy on local political officials, planners, architects, and leaders of non-profit groups.  The PHLUSH-ers hope that their potties-for-Portland campaign can be successfully replicated in other American cities.

Another restroom group, which advocates for better restroom design, is the American Restroom Association, which is located here in Maryland.

South Korea is a world leader in a new consciousness for toilets for the public, and follows the broader definition of “public.”  In fact, the municipal government of the city of Gangnam, in one section of Seoul, Korea, offers a subsidy to businesses and even private residences that make their toilets available to the general public.  Gangnam is the third Korean city since 2008 to have been recognized internationally for its efforts to provide high-quality public sanitary facilities.

The British Toilet Association runs an annual contest for “Loo of the Year” and gives awards in 60 different categories of toilets “away from home.”  The association also grants awards for “toilet attendant of the year.”  The results of the contest are published and disseminated widely throughout Great Britain.

One of the major obstacles to the use of public toilets in the US has been the lack of information as to where they are located.  A new initiative has been developed to map the location of public toilets around the country and around the world with an attention-grabbing website called “sit or squat.”

The question remains:  How do you manage to enjoy a city, get out of your car, walk around, take in the sights, linger a while – when there are few if any public bathrooms? When you constantly have to worry about “holding it”?  And this is especially unpleasant if you have any problems incontinence due to age, illness, or disability.

Portland, Oregon seems to be facing this problem.  Perhaps it’s time for other American cities, including Baltimore, to do so as well.

It is unlikely to be a fully functional toilet, but here we see a South Korean boy on an ice toilet at Ice Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)

It is unlikely to be a fully functional toilet, but here we see a South Korean boy on an ice toilet at Ice Gallery in Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)

Golden bowls, tenor horn urinals, and much, much more. Get a load of the wacky commodes in the World Toilet Organization’s full slide show .

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