The idea of the government studying public restroom users’ habits might sound unusual, but it’s happening in Denver as part of a community improvement effort.
The city’s pilot program collects data about public restroom use and placement to clean up a tricky problem: There are too few public restroom facilities, leading to incidents of public urination and defecation.
Perhaps the most prominent aspect of the pilot involves testing “mobile restrooms” in various high-profile areas. The two moveable trailers house stalls and a urinal as well as an attendant who monitors the space.
Each mobile facility costs about $12,000 per month to lease, and nearly half of that is allocated for the attendant, says Denver Public Works Communications Director Nancy Kuhn. The restrooms are cleaned nightly and rotated regularly to different neighborhoods according to a schedule posted online. The city actively solicits feedback about the mobile units from those who have used the facilities, including suggestions for restroom placement.
Part of the mobile units’ purpose is to help planners determine the best place to install a new, permanent restroom. “In our mind, we’re avoiding the cost of building permanent structures in the wrong places” by investing in the pilot project, says Denver Councilwoman Robin Kniech. “We know that this is an experiment [and] we know we’re learning.”
The pilot also involves reactivating existing public restrooms—such as those in parks—that had been closed or became at least partially inoperable. At some locations, that means winterizing non-heated buildings so the pipes don’t freeze, thus allowing facilities to remain open in the winter. Additionally, it can involve adding a "park host" who monitors and cleans the restrooms to alleviate concerns about safety and facility misuse. The facilities at Skyline Park, for example, added a park host and have been reactivated after closing in 2014, and permanent facilities opened to the public in late 2016 in the newly renovated McNichols Building in Civic Center Park. Four other restroom facilities—including those at the Capitol and central library buildings—have been operational for many years, but they now are posted on the project's website so citizens know that they exist and when they're open.
The restroom problem found a place on the city’s agenda in 2015 after gathering feedback from various stakeholders in 2014. During that time, officials found themselves regularly fielding resident complaints about passersby relieving themselves in public, Kniech says. Complaints increased significantly in downtown and the adjacent Capitol Hill neighborhood, which is the city's most densely populated area.
Rather than rely on a law enforcement approach that might, for example, increase ticketing for public urination and defecation, residents largely preferred examining more compassionate approaches while tackling the root of the problem, Kniech says. That root, it turned out, was an overall lack of public restroom facilities in Denver.
City employees have uncovered some unexpected facts about who relieves themselves publicly while reviewing preliminary information gathered from complaints and citations.
“We certainly started the conversation with the perception that this was an issue just about homelessness and the indigent in our community, but the data pointed differently,” Kniech says. “The majority of people cited for public urination had home addresses, which meant that they were not all homeless.” In fact, she adds, many of them were tourists and bar patrons. The pilot program benefits permanent residents and visitors alike, including sometimes underserved populations such as aging citizens or those with children.
“Public bathrooms are basic amenities, akin to street lights and bus benches that support people’s ability to move freely around the city and relieve themselves with dignity,” Kuhn says. “Everyone suffers when people are forced to relieve themselves in an inappropriate place.”
Viewing public restrooms as a municipal concern rather than placing the entire burden on private businesses highlights what Kniech considers a noticeable shift in the government’s duties. Due to that shift, she and other officials now view public restrooms as essential infrastructure.
“Public restrooms are a piece of the fabric of what urban life entails. We haven’t admitted that for a very long time, and we haven’t talked about it as policy makers,” Kniech says. “Urban living, particularly in a city like Denver that is experiencing growth and density, is really about redefining public spaces and public responsibilities.”
Because the pilot is ongoing, no firm conclusions have been officially announced. But in the year since the project’s launch, some preliminary observations and trends already have surfaced.
One idea developing from the information gathered about the mobile facilities is that restroom proximity and visibility matter, Kniech says. Data collected so far indicate people aren’t necessarily willing to walk an extra half mile to reach a restroom, so it should be in a well-traveled, highly visible location for maximum impact.
“That is what other cities do... the public restroom is right in the heart of where people are,” Kniech says. A public restroom loses its value if it’s “tucked away in some corner where no one sees it.”
Another emerging point is that neighborhood cleanliness and health improvements generally remain concentrated in the immediate vicinity of a restroom facility. One restroom, for example, doesn’t necessarily eliminate public urination eight blocks away. That takeaway could raise questions about committing to a larger-scale restroom project.
“I think what we’re learning is the impact is limited,” Kniech says. “You can’t really solve this [problem] with two restrooms… So how much can you achieve at this scale? It’s a question that we struggle with.”
The pilot is expected to run at least through the fall, and public works employees intend to share some findings with the community in December, Kuhn says. In the meantime, she says the city is stepping up its outreach to ensure everyone knows about the mobile facilities and the city’s desire for feedback.
“We hope to get to a place where public restrooms are the norm in Denver—welcomed, appreciated, and well-utilized,” Kuhn says.
Regardless of how many new restrooms Denver eventually invests in and where they are located, most leaders appear to agree on one major point: Public restroom access is now a municipal duty.
“I think the city will probably never go backwards in terms of thinking about restrooms as part of our responsibilities,” Kniech says. “But how we do it, we’re still learning.”