AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Don't waste money policing public urinators—invest in public restrooms instead.

New York City officials are considering downgrading public urination to a mere violation instead of a misdemeanor offense, in an effort to roll back excessive broken-windows policing. Reducing criminal penalties, however, fails to address the root of the peeing in public problem.

That would be the lack of public places to pee.

Citing people for public urination criminalizes someone for doing something that society, the state and the market effectively encourages by making public restrooms scarce. That's a hallmark of broken windows policing: punish low-level crimes that are born of necessity or, sometimes, just understandable convenience—including people hustling to sell loosies, drinking on stoops instead of at a pricy cafe's outdoor seating and, yes, those who pee where they must because there is a woeful dearth of places to urinate lawfully.

People who pee outside often would prefer to pee inside. Anecdotally speaking.

The number of public restrooms, however, is insufficient in many places. According to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's office, there are 600 public bathrooms in city parks. But considering New York's population of 8.4 million, and that those park restrooms mostly close at 8 p.m., that’s clearly nowhere near enough. It's easy to malign boozy people bathing shrubs and alley walls with their urine, but moralizing doesn't add up to an actual public policy solution: adults drink at night and, if we don't want them to pee on the street, we must provide alternatives.

Though broken windows enforcement has been criticized for unfairly targeting poor and nonwhite people, the NYPD cite public urinators citywide, especially in areas crowded with bars, according to The New York Times. As NYPD spokesperson Stephen Davis told the paper: “This is not stop-and-frisk...This is: ‘That guy is pissing in the street. You’re not supposed to be doing that. Let me see your ID.’”

As with stop-and-frisk, however, there are rationales for a renaissance in public restroom construction grounded in questions of social justice. The most obvious: homeless people who have no home in which to urinate or defecate are punished effectively for being homeless (though some, as de Blasio's office reminds me, may also be urinating on the streets because they are mentally ill).

Public restroom austerity is also sexist, exacerbating the lack of "potty parity," an upshot of architectural sexism, witnessed in long women's restroom lines at any major concert or event.

"Women might get equal square footage, but given their greater needs, they have less access at the individual level," emails Harvey Molotch, a prominent New York University sociologist who edited the the essay collection Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing.

The lack of public restrooms likewise harms women, as Tahmima Anam recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed about Bangladesh, forcing men to pee on the street but giving women no option at all.

Finally, people who suffer from inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's or colitis need restrooms as a medical necessity, and the difficulty of finding a place to go can result in suffering and humiliation. Some states have passed legislation requiring that businesses with employees-only restrooms increase access to people with a medical necessity, and New York's state legislature is considering a bill to do so now.


Public restrooms were once more plentiful, including in public transit systems. They were the result, says Molotch, of the 19th Century sanitation movement that sought to rid fetid industrial cities of diseases like cholera. But many have long since been shuttered thanks in part to crime concerns, and more generally, because of the expansion of facilities in private businesses and homes (there was also a successful nationwide movement against pay toilets, true story). Cities in particular suffered as suburbanization and capital flight helped send public services into decline.

"City cores empty out and public restrooms, many superbly managed until then, fall into neglect (along with most everything else)," emails Carol McCreary, co-founder of the Portland, Oregon, group PHLUSH (Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human).

New York mayors have tried and failed over the decades to build more restrooms, as the Times has detailed. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent nearly a decade building just three of 20 planned self-cleaning public toilets. Mayor de Blasio has two under construction and one "scheduled to be implemented in the near future."

"They had a difficult time getting them built, as have we," says Karen Hinton, the mayor's press secretary. “Sometimes the community board opposes, or the local elected officials think that there might be a better place for the site location. So it's a lengthy process to get one through, and constructed, and under way."

Hinton says that three separate sites in the Bronx have failed to secure community approval, and that a community board whose territory includes Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach has stated there is not a single acceptable site. Community Board Chairperson Theresa Scavo says that neighbors worried they would become filthy, living quarters for homeless people, or drug dens.

The American Museum of Natural History, which did not respond to a request for comment, also opposed placing one near their building, says Hinton.

The Portland Loo's defense-first design has freed it from becoming a haven for illegal activity. (Courtesy The Portland Loo/Madden Fabrication)

"We hear more voices opposing the installation of them than we do supporting them," says Hinton.

Other cities are looking at alternatives, including the Portland Loo model, which solves the security problem with "an interior design that would make tinklers want to get out of there as fast as humanly possible." That means putting a spigot outside instead of a sink inside so people don't wash their clothes in it, leaving out mirrors that could be smashed, and using only bars instead of walls at the top and bottom of the structure to make it more difficult to hide drug use or sexual activity.

MARTA, Atlanta's public transit agency, earlier this year opened a "a high-tech, hands-free, self-cleaning, vandal-resistant, loiter-proof bathroom built to address every mass transit agency concern and offer safe and sanitary service to the fare-paying public." There is a "virtual restroom attendant" with a video feed of the bathroom's exterior who buzzes people in and uses a two-way intercom to usher them out after 10 minutes.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Tenderloin Public Toilet Project (aka, PPlanter), is "a cheap and mobile street urinal with sink that doubles as a planter and was built for $2,000."

Mostly, however, elected officials don't seem too interested in solving a problem that most everyone encounters. And neither do their constituents. Restrooms are a site of social and sexual anxiety, a place where rigid gender norms are reproduced—witness the push to force trans people to use a facility that is not aligned with their gender identity. The toilet is where our most animal selves roar to the fore, sometimes unexpectedly. Shit, after all, is a bad word.

"Fear of Other," emails Molotch. "Lack of social consciousness and regard for public welfare. Fear of talking about the disgusting: shit, piss, blood."

It's also the result, he says, of an "inverse relation between economic/political/social power and need."

Those with more power need public restrooms less, and those with less power need them more. Women need to use the restroom more than men because of menstruation or childcare, and they need more space once inside because they don't use urinals. The wealthy can often pee in private businesses even if they aren't shopping, whereas people who work or live on the streets like newsstand workers, sex workers, cabbies, street vendors, and homeless people have to make do creatively.

"'Flush-and-forget,'" emails McCreary, "operates at individual, household and societal levels."

Those who want to talk about toilets are few. People like the plainly dispirited Robert Brubaker of the American Restroom Association.

"Well, we're pretty darn small," he says. "It's a subject a lot of people care about, a subject a lot of people were willing to give us verbal attaboys on." But "right now we're a minimally resourced organization" that just "keeps the website up."

The lack of public restrooms in the United States is a microcosm of a global sanitation crisis that in poor countries can mean death, as the Singapore-based World Toilet Organization* (the other WTO) points out.

"Around one billion people in our world today face the indignity of defecating in the open," according to their website. "A lack of clean and safe toilets at schools leads to higher dropout among girls once they reach puberty. Diarrhoeal diseases – a direct consequence of poor sanitation – kill more children every year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. Clean and safe toilets are prerequisites for health, dignity, privacy and education."

One of the most universal signs in cities across the U.S. (Aranami / Flickr)

Poo and pee are mostly either disgusting or funny. But in 2010, the United Nations General Assembly declared sanitation to be a basic human right. And some countries seem to take the problem more seriously. Australia has an online National Public Toilet Map, a "project of the National Continence Program," which, apparently, is part of the Australian Department of Social Services. In 2009, London Mayor Boris Johnson launched "Open London," recruiting businesses to open their restrooms to the general public.

According to The Guardian, the number of public toilets in London had declined 40 percent since 1999.

"Severe austerity cuts," according to Raymond Boyd Martin, who directs the British Toilet Association Ltd., has "resulted in many [local] councils making decisions to completely close all facilities."

Law-and-order types might worry that downgrading public urination offenses will take New York back to the crime-infested, graffiti-covered and urine-soaked 1980s. But it's unclear whether the elimination of misdemeanor penalties will have much of an effect.

As it is, few people appear to be actually getting arrested for public urination in New York. The NYPD tells CityLab that those who urinate in public can rest assured that arrests are only made if the pee-er has a warrant out or perhaps if one does not have identification—most get let go with a summons. And Jason Stern, an attorney who represents many public urinators, says that people can generally plead guilty and get a misdemeanor charge knocked down to a violation.

But a violation, like a misdemeanor, can still be a big problem because it can lead to a bench warrant for failure to appear in court—which can get in the way of jobs and travel, or get you arrested. The problem with broken windows enforcement is that it creates just too many ways for people to make contact with the criminal justice system in the first place. Once that contact is made, even at a low level, it can spiral out of control.

As with so many social problems, it is wiser to prevent them from occurring in the first place instead of using the criminal justice system to address them after they've occurred. No, America can't hold it ‘til we get there. Let a thousand restrooms bloom. Peeing is not a crime.

*CORRECTION: This post has been updated to reflect the correct name of the World Toilet Organization.

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