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.
Welcome to the “Nice Toilet.”
There are few things more frustrating than struggling to find a public restroom when you’re desperate. Hunt for a city-run facility and too often you can’t find anything nearby (and if you do, the chances are it’s a dump). Dive into a café or bar and you either have to go through the charade of pretending you’re a customer or hope that staff are too busy to stop you. None of this is meant maliciously, of course. Public restrooms are expensive to maintain, while few employees relish cleaning up after people who aren’t even contributing to their wages. Still, you can’t help wishing there was some sort of solution.
In Germany, it looks like there may be one that really works. The country’s Nette Toilette (“Nice Toilet”) system has created a compromise between public and private restrooms that makes such obvious sense it’s hard to believe that other countries aren’t doing it already too. It works like this. German cities pay businesses a monthly fee of anything from €30 to €100 ($33 to $110) a month to open up their restrooms for the general public. These businesses then put a sticker in their window to let the public know they’re welcome to use the facilities even if they’re not buying. First launched in 2000 and now including 210 member cities (including some in Switzerland), the network is a private one that charges participating cities a modest fee to use their branding. Sixteen years in, it’s still on a roll. At the end of October, the network announced that it is expanding to Munich, which will be its largest urban area yet.
The advantages of the scheme are obvious. By creating the Nice Toilet network, many German cities have hugely increased the number of publicly accessible restrooms without having to pump in major investment. It’s estimated that the city of Bremen, for example, has managed to create a restroom network that, if it had been run exclusively by the city, would have cost €1.1 million ($1.2 million) to run. Instead, it costs the city just €150,000 ($165,000) annually — a sum that covers the €100 per month the city pays participating businesses to keep their restrooms open. So popular has this stipend proved that Bremen now has Germany’s best ratio of public restrooms to residents. Each Bremen public toilet shared by an estimated 3,210 people, a statistic that makes Frankfurt’s ratio of 22,000 people per toilet (the worst in Germany) seem pretty risible.
Still, not everyone is in love with the concept, and in some towns with limited options or tighter regulations it has failed. The small Swiss city of Rheinfelden, for example, found that too many participating restrooms were in bars that banned children, that the facilities were not all open for enough of the day and caused some insurance concerns. Meanwhile, some Munich businesses are grumbling that providing public toilets is not their stock in trade — a somewhat unnecessary complaint given that the scheme is not compulsory. Still, the network seems to have had no trouble finding businesses ready to open their restroom doors, possibly because, aside from the small fee the city pays them, the scheme gives them extra footfall that can help push up their profits. In cities that are frankly bursting for relief from their public restroom drought, it’s pretty hard to find a flaw in this sensible, affordable compromise.