The dignity of man
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/09/2008 (5135 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
TWO brand-new portable toilets that went up two weeks ago at the southwest corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street have developed into an interesting experiment for urban planners and students of social work. Would the neighbourhood’s indigent population, the wretched of the Earth, actually use the facilities, or do such people prefer to urinate and evacuate their bowels on the street in public? Would they treat the mobile loos with respect, or smash them in anger as symbols of upper-class snobbery?
Well, so far, so good. It turns out even poor people prefer to pee in private, and the comfort stations themselves appear to be no worse for the wear.
The results are a great relief (no pun intended) for architect Wins Bridgman, whose firm owns the land where the toilets have been strategically situated. Mr. Bridgman has complained about the smell of urine in the neighbourhood and about the pathetic sight of homeless and helpless people forced to urinate on the street because public facilities were unavailable.
Ignored by city hall, the architect joined forces with the Downtown Business Improvement Zone to install two toilets on his property at a cost of $750 for three months as a pilot project. Mr. Bridgman reports that the smell of urine on the street has vanished, along with the sight of unfortunate people degrading themselves publicly. If all goes well, he hopes to propose a private-public partnership to develop permanent public toilets at an appropriate location, possibly next to his business. The concept is controversial because of the fear that such a facility could become a centre for violence, drug use and prostitution. The risk is real, but it is not inevitable, particularly if a public washroom was well designed, situated and monitored. While the record is mixed, there are successful examples in other cities of secure and self-cleaning public washrooms.
Parts of Main Street between Higgins and the Disraeli Freeway are slowly improving, a process that should continue when the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority opens its new offices at Main and Logan next year. The goal of a public washroom, however, is not merely to clean up the street for the benefit of the newcomers, but to serve the people who rely on the services in the area, including the Main Street Project, the Salvation Army and the Siloam Mission.
It’s their dignity that is constantly at risk, and their dignity that is defiled by the lack of safe and convenient washrooms, one of the most simple and basic of human needs. The city should immediately begin consulting with the neighbourhood to see how it can provide this service in a sustainable and healthy way.