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.
Protesters have vandalized several of the city’s new range of eco-urinals for giving men priority over women.
Things are not going well for Paris’ eco-urinals. Dubbed uritrottoirs (“uri-sidewalks”), these are simple plastic boxes loaded with an odor-neutralizing bale of hay, which is later used to nourish beds of flowers. Authorities installed the cheap, lightweight public facilities on the streets of Paris last summer in busy areas in the hopes of sparing Parisian citizens and tourists both the unpleasant smell and hefty cleaning bill created by the regionally popular practice of “wild peeing” (or pipi sauvage as the phenomenon is known in French).
Over the summer, however, the uritrottoirs have faced a gender-themed backlash. At the end of August, two of the urinals had to be removed after a campaign of vandalism—specifically being capped with cement and covered in stickers and tampons. Now their continued roll-out could be under threat.
The objections are clear enough. The protesters don’t appreciate the innate imbalance in making it easier for one gender to pee in the street. “Are you a dog? So why do you piss in the street?” asks one sticker (one among other slogans that may be a little too frank to translate here). By providing facilities that can be used exclusively by men, protesters say, the city is reinforcing the notion that public spaces are a male preserve within which women’s needs are neglected or ignored. Why should male Parisians get to go, while women have to hold it in?
They have a point. When the uritrottoirs were launched, their designer postulated women could also take advantage of them by using a pee funnel, a suggestion that demonstrates how little serious thought women’s needs were given. For one, the user would have to be quite tall in order to pull off this maneuver; also, it’s hard to imagine that many woman would elect to stand at an unscreened box on a major street to relieve themselves through a cardboard cone.
There’s a wider issue too, obviously. Ideally, public restrooms designed with women in mind would include such amenities as walls, doors, and perhaps such rudiments as a hook to hang a bag on. Men (or at least those who pee standing up) require none of those things, and they can attend to their needs in far less time and can use facilities that are less-than-clean. The creators of bathroom facilities often ignore this, providing equally-sized facilities for both genders that leave women’s lines trailing off into the distance while men nip in and out quickly—a fact treated as a product of nature when it is substantially a question of design. That men not only have more easily accessible facilities, but then also feel the need to create a veritable tide-mark of pee along the walls of every urban alley only makes the pill bitterer.
This all makes a very good argument for improving Parisian toilet facilities for women. On this front, however, Paris is doing quite well: The city has 150 24-hour public bathrooms—not a bad tally for a relatively small city district. The fact of the matter is that the uritrottoirs are not really intended to augment the number of bathroom facilities for the general public. They are aimed at a very specific, very male segment of the population: drunk people frequenting busy bar areas after nightfall. And if your goal is to prevent the ammoniac reek of concentrated urine haunting your city, it makes sense to target this demographic.
Indeed, recent research into the field of wild peeing suggests that there are other motivations than mere lack of facilities that spur men—and men specifically—to relieve themselves wherever they fancy. According to science, they can also be motivated by the convivial pleasures of public urination among friends, and even the habit’s satisfyingly splashy acoustics.
That still leaves a problem. Parisian women—and women around the world—are essentially being penalized because their bathroom behavior isn’t obnoxious enough to force official action. This won’t wash. Adding a screen and a seat to a unisex urinal may require more space and cash, but that’s no insurmountable obstacle. This is one protest that the city’s authorities probably don’t want to to escalate further.