PORTLAND, Ore. — Pity the lowly public toilet, a redolent reminder of the failure of the best minds in urban planning to address the most fundamental of daily necessities.
Millions have been invested in the facilities for collective relief. Often, they have become targets for graffiti, trash-can fires, furtive needle activity, commercial lovemaking, emergency baths, laundries for the homeless, and repositories of castoff diapers.
Go to any city in America and ask whether it has fixed the public toilet problem, and most any city in America will hold its nose.
Here, where just about everything is greener, hipper and more carbon-neutral, it was only a matter of time before someone came up with a sustainable urban toilet. It’s called the Portland Loo, and it may be the first toilet so popular it has its own Facebook page.
The solar-powered, 6-by-101/2 -foot street-corner cabin, ingeniously stripped of much of its plumbing and privacy, has been installed at six locations around Portland, from the city’s dodgiest centers for the homeless to an upscale waterfront where stay-at-home moms take their children to play.
So well has it eased into the urban landscape that Portland is looking to build and market Loos across the continent, hoping the profits will allow for the construction and maintenance of more at home. San Diego, Vancouver, Houston, Baltimore and Seattle all have expressed interest. The first official export was installed in Victoria, British Columbia, in November.
“I’m convinced Portland is the only city in the U.S., and maybe the world, that celebrates the opening of bathrooms,” City Commissioner Randy Leonard said at the dedication ceremony for the city’s fifth Loo, as students from a nearby school, whose art adorns the exterior wall, sang “Skip to My Lou.”
“We get calls all the time,” said project spokeswoman Anne Hill. “There’s a proven track record here: It’s in, and it’s working. And there is no other solution out there that’s been successful.”
Portland officials say the Loos buck many of the conventions of public toilets: They are not installed in out-of-the-way spots where no one will see them. Rather, most are placed along sidewalks in full public view.
They are not self-cleaning, but are made of prison-grade steel with plumbing so basic that they are almost impossible to damage, and a twice-a-day check by maintenance staff seems to keep them in good working order.
The only water faucet is on the outside, making customers less likely to linger for hair-washing or laundry.
Perhaps most important, they aren’t all that private. Louvered slats from foot level to knee level and again just above head level make activity inside somewhat visible, and audible, to passersby.
“We can see your trunk, but not your junk,” the Portland Loo Facebook page posted recently, adding, “Bwahahaha.”
“As you approach a Loo, you can see what’s happening inside,” Hill said. “If it’s 2 in the morning and there’s two sets of feet in the Loo, law enforcement has cause to knock on the door and say, ‘Why are there two sets of feet in the Loo? Two of those feet need to come out.’ ”
To enter the Portland Loo with a mission in mind is to understand the Zen of utilitarian human biology. Function is all. There are no mirrors, no lavender sachets, no paper towel holders, no sink. Just four walls, a small dispenser of hand sanitizer and the reason you came: the steel, prison-grade toilet. The sounds of people chatting and laughing outside waft in disconcertingly between the slats. One feels the urge to act quickly and quietly, and move on.
The project was the brainchild of Leonard, who watched several years ago as former Mayor Tom Potter championed the idea of spending $200,000 a year to keep a restroom in City Hall open overnight to service the city’s homeless.
The problem, as Leonard saw it, was that most of the homeless hung out in Old Town, a mile away. Who, he wondered, was going to walk two miles round-trip to use the bathroom?
Leonard sat down at a table with the city’s Central Precinct police captain and a community activist from what would become the citizens group PHLUSH, or Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human. They pored over designs from other cities, especially in Europe, and architectural designer Curtis Banger came up with a peekaboo toilet powered by two solar panels on the roof and with graffiti-washable panels. The cost: $60,000 to install plus $1,200 a month to maintain.
The first installation, in December 2008, was near the Greyhound bus station in the Old Town-Chinatown area, or as Leonard puts it, “ground zero for homelessness in Portland.” The sixth, near the Portland Art Museum and Portland State University, opened this month.
City officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco say they are generally happy with the automated, self-cleaning toilets provided under contract with the French company JCDecaux, which installs and maintains them in exchange for advertising rights.
But some cities have had problems with trash building up and rendering the self-cleaning mechanisms useless. The units can also be magnets for prostitution and drug use.
“Paris never smelled like this,” San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius complained last year of the city’s 25 automated, self-cleaning toilets, suggesting the city think about the Portland Loo when the contract comes up for renewal in 2015.
Lance Oishi of the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services said officials had to shut down one of the city’s 15 public toilets, near skid row, when a pimp set up shop there. But since the suspect’s arrest, the unit is heading back toward normal operations. He said hygiene complaints had been alleviated by requiring the contractor to visit each toilet at least twice a day.
Meanwhile, downtown San Diego is relying on 10 public restrooms — only two of them open all night — and a handful of portable toilets. The city is hoping that redevelopment funds will come through to buy four Portland Loos, a purchase initially authorized by the City Council in 2010 but delayed by California’s continuing public budget troubles.
Rachel Jensen, co-founder of the San Diego homeless advocacy group Girls Think Tank, which has pushed for the Loos, said the decision was reached after activists and city leaders met with homeless representatives and realized the urgency of the sanitation issue.
“We took a poll. Essentially we asked, what are the most pressing issues facing the homeless community that we should act on here? And they said bathrooms,” Jensen said.
“For a population that is by definition not housed, we thought the first priority would be housing, and it wasn’t,” she said. “They said, ‘Until we have somewhere to go to the bathroom, we’re not even human. We’re like animals.’”
Portland’s Loo hasn’t been without controversy. Residents near Jamison Square Park fought bitterly against the toilet there until it went in, after which opposition seemed to melt away. A group of conservative taxpayers this year filed suit against the city, arguing that the toilets were costing more than the city claims and that city water funds aren’t meant to be spent on an international toilet marketing campaign.
PHLUSH co-founder Carol McCreary, on the other hand, says the city hasn’t built enough new Loos. She says it’s also time for Portland to venture further: The group is encouraging city officials to look at comfort stations in La Jolla and Venice Beach that feature private cabins and unisex outdoor hand-washing facilities.
The idea is to move past the traditional, multi-stall concept of men’s and women’s rooms, which often leave women waiting in line, fathers confused about where to take their young daughters and transgender people simply nervous.
“When I was a kid, men and women didn’t go to the same hairdresser or the same gym. But that’s all changed. We think most Americans would be quite comfortable washing their hands, even grooming, next to a person of the opposite sex,” McCreary said. “Why not?”
Murphy was recently on assignment in Portland.