Thursday, January 10, 2008

This little Pig went wee wee ...

I like a urinal designer with a sense of humour! The excellent photo above was taken by Hans van de Vorst in the offices of AFAS, a software company from Leusden, The Netherlands. I do like their style.

Way, way back in the mists of time ... well, August 2006, we had a rambling discussion about gents' urinals (read it here). An odd subject for discussion I know but there is a science and art to these functional and important items and it's fascinating ... in the same way that a car crash is fascinating or the lifestyles of the rich and famous is fascinating. We don't really want to look, our instincts tell us not to look, but we just have to. And then we instantly regret it.

There is no good reason why urinals cannot be things of beauty. We choose our sofas, televisions, tables, chairs, kettles and mobile phones based upon a combination of criteria that include looks and function. We want them to be funky and chunky or homely and comfy. We want our stuff to look beautiful as well as to meet our needs. That extends to the suites we buy for our bathrooms; our sinks and taps and baths and bidets and bogs. So why shouldn't that aesthetic be extended to public loos?

Variation on a theme - the loos at the Sofitel Hotel, Queenstown, New Zealand.

My 'interest', if you can call it that, is purely professional. As you'll know, I spent many years as a police officer in London. What you may not know is that I spent the latter part of my career working in a new-ish branch of policing known colloquially as 'problem solving'. It's a simplistic title for a very complex subject but what it essentially entails is eschewing enforcement tactics in favour of digging deep down into the root causes of a problem and curing it from that point; it's all about developing a permanent cure rather than constantly treating the symptoms. It involves getting lots of agencies and individuals to work together as a team: some tackle the environment; some tackle the offenders; others tackle the reasons why people become victims and work to re-educate, inform, or empower them. It's a clever way of doing policing and is now working its way into the business practices of your local neighbourhood police.

Which is why I became professionally interested in urinals. Al fresco street urination is a serious problem in London (in reality, it's a national problem). It's unsanitary, it's smelly and it happens a lot. There are many reasons for this: Firstly, the increase in pub opening hours means people are drinking for longer and the binge-drinking culture means that they are drinking more. Secondly, public toilets have all but disappeared. In a 2006 report titled An urgent need: The state of London’s public toilets, the authors pointed out that 40% of all public toilets in London had closed since 1999. Some even more scary statistics for you: The capital now has just one public loo for every 18,000 residents and one toilet for every 67,000 of the city's 28 million annual visitors. Only 88 of the 225 Tube stations have public toilets and, for the 6.3 million daily bus passengers, there are just 13 bus stands with loos, and a further 18 with conveniences in a nearby shopping centre. So is it any wonder people are finding an alternative? The London Assembly is taking the issue seriously and is trying to force through legislation to create 'a statutory duty for local authorities to ensure there are adequate levels of publicly accessible toilets in their areas.'

Bali Airport. I'm sure the splashing water sounds help ...

Thirdly, and most surprisingly, is that fact that female public urination is on the rise. The most common reason given for this increase is that the queues for women's toilets are always too long (when you gotta go, you gotta go) and there are never enough of them. And so-called 'ladette' culture has young women now acting in the same boorish ways that young men always have. Fed up with their lot, some women have - literally - taken things in hand and learned how to wee standing up. Back in New Year 2005, I was with some friends in a pub in Eton. One of them went to the loo and came back looking genuinely shocked and surprised. He said that as he'd been standing there doing his business, an attractive young lady had walked in, stood at the urinal next to him, hitched up the front of her skirt and ... well, you know the rest. She then turned to him, smiled, and said 'That's the most useful thing I learned at Uni' and washed her hands. There are companies that produce helpful devices, such as the SheWee or Femmeplus, to aid with this activity and even whole websites dedicated to training this skill. And why not? 50% of the population have always been disadvantaged when caught short by the fact that they were issued with 'a sprinkler system rather than a hosepipe' (Jo Brand's words, not mine).

So, for a variety of reasons, the crafty sneak down the alley - for boys and for girls - is now a major problem and we were asked to tackle it. The obvious answer was to lay on more toilets of course and this is being addressed to some degree. Westminster Council has recently installed 'pop up' loos that are submerged underground by day but can be lifted at night to pavement level. Portable urinals have also been placed in particularly affected areas, such as alleyways and bus stops, at night. These urinals also have the advantage of being open, much like French pissoires, so they don't attract illegal activities such as drug dealing like traditional closed toilets do. That's not much help for most of the ladies however. And certainly no help for those who have disability or mobility issues.

But even when you do install a public toilet, you need to prevent the thing being vandalised by roving groups of Asbrats (see previous post) and keep the things clean and sanitary. CCTV isn't really an option for such a private personal function and few people would want to work alone in a busy public lav at night for fear of violent behaviour being directed at them. Therefore, we had to look at designing the problem out; we needed to make the facilities resilient to vandalism and, to a degree, self-cleaning.

Many public loos now have stainless steel or diamond-hard ceramic bowls and vandal-proof taps. That's a good start. It helps with the cleaning too. Gents' public toilets are generally ghastly places. Badly designed urinals encourage spillage and the average blokes' aim isn't always spot on - especially after a pint or six. Some sanitaryware manufacturers have been very clever in addressing this. The psychology of the pissoire is fascinating. Maybe it's the old hunter-gatherer instinct, but blokes like to aim at stuff. So one company prints a life-like fly into the glaze at the exact point they want the chap to aim at. Consequently, there is no spillage. Another I saw recently had a miniature goalpost and a ball to push around the drain. Yet another had a coloured dot made of thermo-reactive plastic that, when hit, revealed an image or message. There is even an interactive urinal that allows a chap to play games with his willy instead of a controller. I'm serious - look here.

Even without these gimmicks, most urinal bowls are designed with an optimum curvature to avoid splashback. So here's an interesting idea ... could we turn that on its head and use it as a deterrent against street urination? Could we, for instance, create a tile that could be attached to the outside walls of buildings that is precisely the wrong curvature? Wetting the perpetrator - giving him back what he has so generously provided - would surely make them think again? It's a thought!

Meanwhile, there simply have to be more public loos. And once we have all of these loos, why not make them attractive, clever, funny, beautiful and charming as well as functional and resistant to damage? Shops and houses are designed to look good. Electrical goods are designed to look good. Why should this one aspect of our lives be treated any differently? I maintain that people tend to look after things better if they value them. If I discovered a nice, clean, attractive loo in central London, I'd use it in preference to others and I'd be pretty damned upset if it were damaged. Whereas there are many public loos I could point out to you that I would only ever use if I was in desperate danger of seepage. And frankly, I'd be happy if they were demolished tomorrow. Ladies tend to look after their loos better than Gents (but, then again, most vandals are male) but they need better facilities too. Serious research needs to be done to address the queueing issue - is there a compromise design that could be developed that would provide ladies with a form of quick-stop urinal, such as men have, without loss of privacy or dignity? Such things have been experimented with at the Glastonbury Festival and other public events. The silly British embarrassment that surrounds this everyday bodily function hobbles us in many ways as people don't want to discuss these issues. But we must.

It used to be said that the one thing that you could rely on about the British was that they always had the best toilets. It's no longer true. The Lonely Planet guide to London now advises backpackers to avoid public loos in London and to use conveniences at fast food chains instead. And the capital's official Blue Badge tourist guides feel so strongly about the problem that they regularly smuggle tourists into the National Gallery's loos. But last word goes to Professor Glara Greed from the University of West England: 'A nation is judged by its toilets and world-wide London is seen as a dirty metropolis in comparison with other world cities.'

It's time to come out of the water closet and clean up our act.

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