Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
In an effort to clean up popular sites of outdoor urination, researchers studied the mind of the man who pees in public. Their work could make stadiums and festival grounds smell a lot fresher in the future.
You may not like it, but stale urine is one of the defining urban smells across the world. Hang out around most sports events or festivals, or in any alley near a bar, and pretty soon your nostrils will be assaulted by the ammonia-tinged stench left by men—it’s almost always men—that couldn’t make it to the nearest bathroom.
Understandably, many people hate this. Police officers are mobilized to prevent it, businesses try to deter it with extra lighting or protective surfaces, and fines are levied. All of these measures still fail to halt the ever-rising tide.
But an interesting new proposal being researched at Munich’s University of Applied Science, focusing specifically on the peeing problem at stadiums, might finally show a way out. It could even create a new model urinal that could clean up popular sites of mass urination. There’s no point simply legislating against the rogue urinator, the research suggests: You have to understand his psychology.
That’s because there’s more to what Germans call “wild peeing” (“wildpinkeln”) than convenience alone, as the University of Applied Science’s Natalie Essig and her team have discovered. Conducting interviews with sports fans at Munich’s main soccer stadium, Essig found that location was indeed a factor in the choice of pee sites—drunken fans had a longish, toilet-free walk between the stadium’s facilities and the metro station. But, she says, “there are other factors.” People find the toilets dirty or smelly, and when they use the parkland around the stadium they can think “I’m ecological.”
Among drunken men, communal peeing had a social bonding factor and even, Essig suggests, works as a kind of territorial marking. The most common wild peeing sites men chose, meanwhile, were against an obstacle—a tree or wall—possibly to provide some cover, but also, believe it or not, because men that chose these sites liked the sound peeing against a barrier produced.
These findings might be calculated to raise some people’s hackles. Men put off by the smell of overused restrooms react by spreading that smell over a far wider area, simultaneously saturating the ground with such a volume of urine that plants almost drown in it. While the odd rogue urinator who chooses a green space to relieve himself will surely do no harm, there is nothing ecological at all about wild peeing on a large scale, or on anything other than porous, open ground. By acknowledging the real reasons why men give restrooms a miss, however, Essig and her team created a solution that might do a lot to make areas stricken by wild peeing altogether more pleasant. That solution is the creation of pee beds.
The pee bed prototypes would look like long, unplanted strips of flower bed. What they would actually be, however, is a form of open-topped tank filled to the brim with some sort of shielding, odor-reducing matter, possibly bark chips. As men pee into these beds, the urine seeps down into a water-filled, closed-top tank that could take up to 250 liters (66 gallons) or urine before needing to be emptied—the water neutralizing any smell.
Essig’s team is still working on prototypes due to be completed within the next year, but they believe that rather than being pumped out, these collection tanks could be fitted with filters that will make their contents safe to discharge into nearby beds in which actual plants are growing. If such beds were placed along pathways approaching a stadium—indeed, in any location whose smell signals its popularity as a urinal—then sports and festival grounds could quite feasibly make lawn-poisoning urine overflows a thing of the past.
The pee bed concept is not completely new. Paris has its own, small-scale, more makeshift answer to the problem in the form of the uritrottoir, a streetside urinal where urine is filtered into a box full of hay. What the pee bed concept brings to the table is an actual architecture of urine management, one that can be seamlessly and even attractively integrated into public space.
Such beds becoming common would still expose the public to the spectacle of rows of men relieving themselves (an exposure that Germans tend to be less bothered by than most), but this is an area in which public standards are subject to change. Even in uptight Victorian Britain, Essig notes, it was not uncommon for people of all genders to relieve themselves in the street, shielded only by their clothes. And while wild peeing was relatively rare 40 years ago, a more relaxed contemporary body culture means many people see it, at most, as a peccadillo. Pee beds seem well positioned to both respond to this changing attitude and manage the problem.
(H/T Sueddeutsche Zeitung)