John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The Portland Loo's defense-first design has freed it from becoming a beaten-down haven for illegal activity
For the residents of Portland, Ore., taking a whiz in a public toilet is not just a matter of necessity. It’s an act of civic pride.
That’s because the city is home to the Portland Loo, a unique, patented outdoor bathroom that inspires such worship in its fanbase you’d think that Steve Jobs himself had designed it. This adoration comes despite the fact that the 24-hour loo was built to be as inhospitable as possible. This toilet does not want to be loved, but in Portland, it is No. 1 (and, presumably, sometimes No. 2 as well).
The soulless receptacle for bodily waste has its own blog, Twitter account and Facebook page. When a loo hater set one ablaze last June, Facebook denizens flocked to its defense. "The Portland Loos rock! What other city can boast public restrooms that are fire proof. ;)" wrote Laura Mears, while Charlie Clint chimed in with, "I'm always sending someone to use one of these – and it's great to hear how sturdy they are! (woo hoo)."
A Yelp review of a new loo at Jamison Square, titled "Epic win!," is flush with love. "I plan on dropping a mean deuce in that thing ASAP," wrote Andrew C.
On Jan. 31, Portland officials will christen the city’s fifth loo, at NW Couch St. and 8th Ave., with an inaugural flush. With inspirational artwork furnished by students at the nearby Emerson elementary school, it could be the most popular yet. But how did these sleek compartments of metal and plastic, which may smell slightly of urine, become a cult hit among Portland’s bathroom aficionados?
Simple: They’re not as crappy as other cities' toilets.
Take, for instance, San Francisco’s self-cleaning outdoor bathrooms. They’ve been plagued with maintenance problems since they were installed in 1995. Some don’t work and others have odors that are rumored to rival that of a week-dead buffalo.
Then there’s Seattle’s disastrous deployment of automatic lavatories. The city would have been better feeding the $5 million it paid for them down the swirling gullet of a Starbucks commode. The design of the john allowed anybody to lock the door and turn it into their own private fiefdom.
With trash piling up on the floor, the self-cleaning mechanisms became useless. By the end of their run, in 2008, even drug addicts had stopped using Seattle’s toilets. They eventually wound up at bargain-level prices on eBay.
When Portland’s pols decided to try their own sidewalk-restroom experiment, they first surveyed the smoking rubble of the West Coast’s other outhouses and took careful note.
“We really looked at Seattle as what not to do,” says Anna DiBenedetto, a staff assistant to city commissioner Randy Leonard, the spiritual godfather of the Portland Loo. “We think it was the design that was the fatal flaw. Trying to be comfortable and private makes people feel more empowered to do the illegal activities that people do in public toilets.”
So in 2006, Commissioner Leonard convened an ultra-elite Loo Squad, featuring ace toilet designer Curtis Banger, to create the perfect privy of the people. The group worked nonstop – although probably not while on the can, as perfect as that would be – to forge an interior design that would make tinklers want to get out of there as fast as humanly possible.
Two years later, their hard work paid off in the world’s first Portland Loo, located in the Old Town-Chinatown neighborhood. Despite its location right next to a Greyhound Bus Station, it remains standing to this day:
Image via Google Maps
The toilet’s durability can be chalked up to its defense-first design. "I think one thing we have ahead of other toilet designs is that we’ve learned people like to do nefarious things" to public lavatories, says DiBenedetto. So the Portland Loo includes a variety of bells and whistles meant to keep in check the most degenerate of bathroom users:
• No running water inside: "Some people, if they’re homeless, use a sink to wash their laundry," says DiBenedetto. So there’s no sink, just a spigot on the outside that pours cold water.
• No mirror: People tend to smash mirrors. Perhaps even more frequently if there’s no running water within reach.
• Bars at the top and bottom of the structure: It may make the water closet look like a cage for a gorilla, but these apertures have critical importance. Cops can peep in near the ground to make sure there’s no more than one set of feet inside. The openings also help sound flow freely, letting pedestrians hear the grunts and splashes of the person inside and the person inside hear the footsteps and conversation of pedestrians. Nobody wants to stick around such a toilet for long.
• A graffiti-proof coating: No one will be tagging this latrine.
• Walls and doors made from heavy-gauge stainless steel: “It’s built with the idea that somebody could take a bat to it,” DiBenedetto says. “And if they did damage it, we could replace that part.”
So far, the most popular activity for malcontents is jamming the flush button, perhaps using some sort of special tool.
These PSYOP-worthy features are outlined in U.S. Patent No. D622,408 S, which Leonard received in the summer of 2010. The toilet has the dubious honor of being the city of Portland’s first patent.
For the first loo, the city paid an estimated $140,000. The price of subsequent ones has gone down to about $90,000*, with an annual maintenance fee of $12,000 per commode. Portland recently sold one of its loos to Victoria in British Columbia for just under $100,000. It hopes to vend more when the economy recovers.
The prospect of Portland Loos appearing on street corners all across America is exciting to DiBenedetto, who’s not just a city-paid promoter of the throne, but a happy user, too.
"Whenever I have friends in the car and we pass by one, it’s like, ‘There’s the loo!'" she says. "It’s cold and really strange inside, and there’s a sense of, 'Wow, I’m really close to the sidewalk and people can hear me peeing,' but it’s really cool."
For readers who must know more about this miraculous potty, here's the preliminary patent application:
* Correction: A city staffer originally gave an incorrect cost of $60,000.