Online exclusive: Portland’s new Loo

In December of 2008, Portland opened its first one-of-a-kind solar-powered public toilet at Northwest Glisan and Fifth Avenue, to much anticipation and excitement.

In December of 2008, Portland opened its first one-of-a-kind solar-powered public toilet at Northwest Glisan and Fifth Avenue, to much anticipation and excitement. Now, a new 24-hour public toilet is due to open in the Park Blocks. It will be the fifth public toilet to open in the downtown area. There are those, like the American Restroom Association, who believe very strongly in the need for safe and accessible public restrooms and who have applauded Portland’s community-based innovation in the opening of the public toilets. With a long history of failures in the past with keeping public restrooms clean and safe, and eventually having to close them, it’s arguable whether the new toilet in the Park Blocks will be a great new service to the community or just another scary place most people will avoid.

The American Restroom Association’s website is full of information about the public restroom need in Portland, including a 140-page report on everything from restroom methodology to a photographic history. “Comfort stations” were in introduced starting in 1910 through 1930 with the start of prohibition and the closing of the city’s bars. The 1950s saw the modernization of these facilities. But beginning in the late ’70s, public toilets increasingly became targets of vandalism and illegal activity, and most were closed. It wasn’t until 2000 that they started opening again, due in part to grassroots organizations like PHLUSH (Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human) who pressured city officials to respond to public demand.

According to Steve Beaven, who reported for The Oregonian on the northwest toilet opening in 2008, City Commissioner Randy Leonard saysthese new public restrooms are “designed to be abused.” They are single-occupancy, which is what seems to encourage illegal activity more than having multiple stalls, but they are built with openings in the bottom meant to make it easier to control drug use and prostitution. Upkeep and repair is a major percentage of cost and a large part of why they close. But according to the city commissioner, Portland’s new public toilets are low-tech, metal structures, and won’t require the kind of major repair as the older, brick ones do. Many of the restrooms that were closed in the ’80s required new plumbing or infrastructure repair. Renovations were more of an undertaking than they would be with the new, sleek, metal structures. The new restrooms sound sturdy and durable, and are methodically placed in areas where they can easily be monitored. 

The need for accessible public restrooms around Portland city center is undeniable. Not only do we have a lot of homeless, we also have a thriving nightlife, shoppers, tourists and outdoor events like markets and festivals. The American Restroom Association also cites families with small children, pregnant women and the elderly as having a high level of need for accessible public restrooms. The U.S. is behind other countries in the public toilet arena. According to a recent article in the Baltimore Brew, South Korea is a “world leader in a new consciousness for toilets for the public.” But, as the article notes, “for some reason, which is never clear to any foreigner, American cities tend to ignore one of the simple facts of nature.”

There are plenty of obstacles for keeping these new public restrooms safe and clean, but Portland seems ready to take on the challenge. Through their research, organizations like PHLUSH provide resources for city planners and officials in order to keep our city’s public facilities up to date and on par with the rest of the world. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of our efforts toward public service and if the city will be enhanced by their presence or marred by their abuse.