There are many pointed reminders of the UK’s austerity period of the 2010s, but the nations’ public toilets are perhaps one of the lesser known victims.
Since 2010, shrinking council funding has seen the closure of almost a thousand public facilities across the country – a drop of more than a fifth. In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, the number has dropped once more, and the facilities of local businesses – cafés, shops and pubs – that would usually make up the difference are similarly behind locked doors.
The situation, according to a Guardian report published earlier this month, has proved to be a distressing one. A lack of public toilets limits many people’s capacity to confidently leave their homes. And for those that take the chance and are caught short, the report warns of a “significant secondary public health risk” caused by people who have no other choice but to relieve themselves in public. The findings also state the issue is more acute for those who identify as women.
The design community has, for many years now, put forward solutions and alterations to public toilets as they exist today for women, but in the UK these ideas remain largely unadopted. But the public toilet crisis prompted by the coronavirus could just be the catalyst needed for getting these designs on the streets.
“Half of humanity has no dedicated place to solely urinate”
It’s no surprise that the designers Design Week spoke to about the problem were prompted into action after dealing with the issue themselves. MadamePee, a French brand that touts itself as “for women, by women”, began developing its female urinals in 2015 after CEO Nathalie des Isnards “realised how much the offer in terms of sanitary facilities for women was inadequate”.
“Outside of their own house, half of humanity has no dedicated place to solely urinate, while the other half had acquired this comfort 200 years ago,” madamePee’s Danielle Dong a Yakan tells Design Week.
The research and development team for madamePee began by working in what Dong a Yakan calls “the most challenging place”: outdoor events. As avid attendees of music festivals and sporting events will attest to, it’s often here that toilet queues are their longest and wait times their most uncomfortable.
This is an observation echoed by Gina Perier, the Danish architect behind another women-centred urinal solution, Lapee. Similarly born out of a dissatisfaction for facilities at outdoor events, queues for which Lapee says are usually 90% made up of women needing to urinate, Perier’s solution was inspired by the “most popular male urinals we see all over the world”, and adapted to meet the needs of women, trans women and non-binary people in an outdoor event setting.
Two different approaches to the challenge
While both innovations have a similar crux, madamePee and Lapee represent two approaches to the same problem.
As mentioned already, Lapee takes its inspiration from male urinals and as such has many of the codes and conventions associated with them – there are, for example, no doors in the design, but instead a series of strategically placed curved walls. For additional privacy, the Lapee system is designed at a height.
MadamePee, alternatively, has been adapted from a more traditional toilet stall design. It includes swing-style doors, a roof and a latch. In this way, Dong a Yakan says, the urinals “match users’ habits, rather than creating new ones”.
Both have been designed with logistics and hygiene in mind, and have been employed by outdoor events and toilet rental companies across Europe already, as per des Isnards’ and Perier’s original intentions.
“Democratising” toilet facilities
But beyond music festivals and sporting events, some cities are keen to make innovative public toilet systems a more permanent fixture. Dong a Yakan points to the city of Paris, which installed madamePee facilities in a public park in September last year – a move she says is a step toward “democratising” toilet facilities. In the wake of the coronavirus crisis and subsequent lockdown, it seems the product is more relevant than ever.
“Women have to adapt to the fact cities do not accommodate for them from a very young age,” Dong a Yakan says. “But when no restaurant is open to sneak in to pee, what solution do women have?”
Now, madamePee is in talks with “many French town councils” with the hope of having urinals for women in all major French cities soon. Such additions would solve the two-fold issue brought about by the pandemic, she says: providing toilet facilities where none currently exist or are closed, and providing a more hygienic alternative to public toilets that are in operation.
“On top of providing equal access to sanitations to women our female urinal is also a ‘no touch’ solutions to avoid unnecessary contact and reassure users,” she says. “The current sanitary crisis has also shown the importance of impeccable public spaces to avoid the spread of diseases.
“People are acknowledging the risks such a pandemic represents and while we all wish things would go back to the way they were, the general population might be more conscious of the cleanliness of their environment than before.”
Making the product “even more relevant for the future”
As Dong a Yakan states, the hygiene benefits of such designs are not to be overlooked. Where typical public toilets require frequent touching of surfaces, madamePee and Lapee have both been designed largely as “no touch” systems and both companies believe their innovations could play a key role in municipal life during and post-COVID-19.
In Lapee’s case, features directly “inspired” by the current coronavirus situation have been integrated into the design. The product is “almost a monomaterial element” Perier says, which lends itself well to being easily sprayed with water and disinfectant.
The nature of the material means it can be sanitised “everyday” without wear. And on top of easy-clean facilities, she adds that stainless steel alcohol gel holders have been introduced, to “make the product even more relevant for the future”.
“Lapee gives womxn access to a ventilated contactless urinal instead of having them to sit on a toilet, touch a door handle, a water tap or lock themselves in,” she says.
Since bringing the product to the market last year, Perier has similarly been in talks with French towns to introduce Lapee to cities streets. As is to be expected, she says, such a new concept does require some convincing, particularly within the realms of governmental procedures. Nevertheless, the urinals can be found in Rennes, France from this month, with more cities to follow in the future.
“Wherever there is a need”
In Perier’s native Denmark, cases of the coronavirus are falling and regulations have largely been relaxed. With summer around the corner, she expects Lapee could be more in demand than ever, as people continue to be cautious of the virus, but want to make the most of their time outdoors.
Additionally, the team are working to adapt the product beyond just urban settings, in particular for refugee camps. The adoption of Lapee here could “improve safety and hygiene for everyone”, Perier says.
Ultimately, she says, her interest lies in “wherever there is a need for safe and hygienic places for womxn to pee.”