News that New York City is soon to have luxury restrooms – pricey, but potty heaven nonetheless – in Midtown, set me thinking about the state of play here in Port au Prince. Many, who aren’t au fait with the Haitian capital, might well wonder – where do you go when you’ve got to go?
The answer, for the most part, is that you don’t. You try and leave home with a relatively empty bladder and try not to think about kidneys and suchlike while out and about. If you’re visiting someone in an office with a loo, you jump at the chance to use it, howsoever indelicate it may sound. If not, you keep the mind focused on your business (the one at hand, not the other) and try not to drink anything till you get home. Bear in mind that the state of the roads (or lack of) generally means the shortest journey can be a long voyage.
Public loos are a grave necessity. This is not about offering princely comforts to people passing through but about basic conveniences for Port au Prince residents. All too often, the man on the street (and more surreptitiously, the woman) will use for a public toilet the wide open spaces or the roadside. In a way, I suppose, these are truly ‘public’ toilets, but privacy is obviously at a premium and it’s a risky business for women.
To my mind, the point about Port au Prince’s lack of ‘potty parity’ with many other cities is the so-called Linfen lesson. For years, Linfen, in China, was cited as one of the world’s worst cities to live. Then, from 2008, it began to pull itself up by its bootstraps – or rather faucets and flushes – with a ‘toilet revolution’. In 2012, it won the UN-Habitat’s international best practice award for the Asia and Pacific region.
Linfen’s strategy was simple. From 12 bad, practically unusable public toilets in a city of 600,000 people, it went to 200 retrofitted, well-designed restrooms.
It’s worth noting that public toilets can often be the making of a city. India does rather badly on this front, with some estimates putting Chennai at just about 700 when it needs at least a hundred-times as many. This is, unfortunately, the case with many Indian cities.
Sometimes, of course, a remarkable public loo can take a city to unexpected heights. Such as to this ‘Survey of Gorgeous Public Restrooms Around the World’. The listing reminds us of the supreme importance and lure of well-maintained loos. So much so that the Royal Institute of British Architects hosted a UK-wide competition (appropriately named Flushed with Pride) to revive the Victorian tradition of the great British public toilet.
Interestingly, the Survey names some relatively little known cities and locations simply for the glory of their public conveniences. These include 17 freestanding huts that look vaguely like origami cranes in Hiroshima Park, a long toilet that frames a tree in a poor part of Alabama and two headless-crustacean-shaped bathrooms in Wellington.
But probably the most innovative and mimic-worthy, especially for Port au Prince, might be the P-Tree. Cleverly designed by a Dutch team Aandeboom, it does what it name indicates – ie, providing tree-mounted urinals as a (very) public loo.
Low-cost and low-maintenance, but ‘potty gender parity’ they are not. That said, one has to start somewhere.