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?
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.'
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.
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.
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.