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Canberra Today 4°/8° | Saturday, April 13, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Everyone has a public-toilet story

Churchill Fellowship recipient and public-toilet enthusiast Katherine Webber.

“WE all use them. Everyone has a public-toilet story,” Churchill Fellowship recipient and public-toilet enthusiast Katherine Webber tells reporter DANIELLE NOHRA. “If we’re lucky we can laugh about it, but for some people they can’t laugh about it because there can be really serious consequences for not being able to access a toilet.” 

PASSIONATE about how people access public spaces, Katherine Webber looked at the lack of public toilets in community spaces in Australia as part of her Churchill Fellowship, which saw her on a global tour in 2019 to study how other countries manage public “loos”.

She says public toilets are essential to support the access and participation of people in their communities, whether that be going to the shops and spending money at their local shops, participating in government activities, socialising and participating in physical activities.

It also helps to improve public health and personal health and hygiene, she says. 

“Without public toilets or without the knowledge that people feel that they can confidently access a safe and secure public toilet, it actually reduces how people are willing to go out and participate so not knowing if you can find a toilet, you may not go to that place,” she says. 

“If you can’t find a toilet, you’re not going to stay for very long because you might have to rush home at any point. 

“It really impacts parents with children, it impacts older people, people with disabilities.”

The provision of public toilets can support economic activity, too, she says.

“If you know that you’re going to be able to access a public toilet, you’re going to stay there or you’re going to visit there more often,” she says.

“On the flip side, if you don’t know that there is one, some people are less likely to feel confident to go out into that space.” 

When it comes to building the toilet facility, Katherine says there are key features that should be considered, such as having them as part of the urban fabric, useability and accessibility. 

“I’ve been to many toilets, which are not incorporated as part of that public space, where you have to grab a key, you’ve got to go around the back of the building and down a corridor, it might be dark, there’s three steps,” she says. 

“Location and access is a really key component, cleanliness and the maintenance of it is really important, but then also the useability, so that will then come down to who are the different users in that space.

“So for me, an able-bodied, cisgender female, it might be important that there’s a sanitation bin.

“A parent might need a space that they can take a child of the opposite gender into, so parent’s rooms can be really great for that.

“There’s a variety of different types of toilets that we often need to be providing across our cities and suburbs.”

She says most governments don’t take responsibility for public toilets, nor do they legally have to. 

Based in Queensland, Katherine says she’d like to see legislation illustrate the need for public toilets nationwide and make someone responsible for them (for example, local governments).

“There is not the legislative requirement for local governments to provide public toilets and so there’s not a requirement to look across a whole suburb, a whole city or local government area to say: ‘Where are our public toilets provided and where are the gaps?’” she says. 

She’d also like to see government-funded infrastructure projects include the requirement to undertake a “toilet-needs assessment”.

“If you think about new infrastructure being built – whether it be roads, community facilities [or] town centres, if each of them had a toilet-needs assessment, we’d be seeing more toilets being built,” she says.

Mystery of disappearing public toilets 

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Danielle Nohra

Danielle Nohra

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