Most people agree downtown Winnipeg needs more public washrooms. The problem has always been the expense. It costs a lot to buy, police and maintain an array of stand-alone toilet facilities.
How about this as a less-expensive alternative? Require all new buildings that receive public money to provide and maintain washrooms open to the public. Also, offer financial incentives for private business owners to keep their washrooms open for public use. And then provide prominent signs on the outside of the co-operating buildings that say: "public washrooms inside."
These are among the intriguing proposals in a report that outlines a strategy to get more public washrooms downtown. It’s one of the best reports that almost no one has read.
Examining a 51-page report about public toilets is not everyone’s idea of fun, I get that, but its contents will be appreciated by those of us weary of the never-ending talk-talk-talk about the lack of public washrooms and ready to move forward with realistic solutions.
If the report is so good, why has almost no one read it?
It’s nine years old and it was overlooked while a mayor and councillors were busy campaigning for their jobs. A draft copy was completed on Oct. 4, 2010. That was only three weeks before the Oct. 27 municipal vote in which Sam Katz beat Judy Wasylycia-Leis. A new city council set off in new directions and the report was never officially filed.
That’s about to change. The report, titled "Places To Go: Downtown Public Restroom Strategy," will be revived, the city’s community services committee decided at its Nov. 1 meeting. The committee asked the public service to review the plan’s recommendations and report back before the end of this month.
Credit for blowing the dust off the dormant report goes to the creators of Winnipeg’s seasonal pop-up toilet, the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, Siloam Mission and BridgmanCollaborative Architecture. These innovative giants created a flamboyant two-stall washroom from a renovated shipping container in 2018 and moved it to different locations downtown. It was the opposite of discreet, painted bright red with a huge "Public Toilet" sign rising about 10 metres high.
Now, the same toilet team has persuaded the relevant city committee to resurrect the 2010 strategy and, it is hoped, get on with the business of giving people a place to do their business.
Public toilets in Winnipeg will be nothing new, of course. Longtime residents will recall washrooms supervised by paid attendants at Garry Street near Portage Avenue, Fort Street near Portage Avenue, Logan Avenue near Main Street, Selkirk Avenue at Main Street and Cornish Avenue at Sherbrook Street. They were closed in the 1970s because they were unsanitary and cost too much.
The province built underground, unsupervised washrooms in Memorial Park, across from the Legislative Building, in 1973. They were closed in 2004 after complaints they were used by transients, drug users and prostitutes.
While the availability of public washrooms has changed, the biological imperatives of citizens have not. People still have to go and will avoid places, such as downtown Winnipeg, that don’t offer easily accessible places to relieve themselves. This includes families with children, elderly people and people on medications that induce frequent urination.
The report that is about to be resurrected details what public-toilet solutions have been tried by other cities, how much they cost, what worked well and what problems were encountered.
It includes a map of the most common Winnipeg spots where people go in public without the benefit of a toilet. These include recessed doorways, under bridges, back lanes and at bus stops. Many of the frequent pee places are near drinking establishments. "There is a need for highly intoxicated persons to urinate frequently," the report notes in one of its least surprising observations.
The report’s strength rests on sharing responsibility among business, government and social service providers. For example, it cites the possibility of a 24-hour public washroom in the North Main area, maintained in partnership with groups such as the Salvation Army, Chez Nous, Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg and Lighthouse Mission.
It says social service or employment programs could be tapped for toilet clean-up squads or permanent monitors of facilities.
The 2010 strategy might need updating, but it could provide a foundation for city council to address a civic problem that has been ignored for too long.
Sometimes, we just can’t wait.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
Senior copy editor
Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.