Feature Article - November 2007
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Dirty Business

What Your Restrooms Say About Your Park

By Dana Carman

The Three M's: Maintain, Maintain, Maintain

Keeping it nice, however, can be easier said than done in some cases. In a survey conducted by the San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council (SFNPC), 42 percent of those surveyed cited cleanliness as the single biggest problem with San Francisco park restrooms. Sixty percent of those surveyed rated their overall park restroom experience as very unpleasant or unpleasant.

According to the SFNPC, maintenance problems that result from of lack of staff are a huge issue. Park restrooms are such an issue in San Francisco, in fact, that a joint initiative was undertaken by the Recreation and Parks Department and the SFNPC to create a Restroom Task Force, through which the survey was conducted.

Not every parks and recreation department has the staff necessary to keep a restroom facility in tip-top shape. For each facility you have, there's the opening and closing before and after the parks open and close, the cleaning, and keeping the area secure enough that vandals will be deterred. How can you achieve all that?

Elias feels he's found a good solution: security cameras. At some of the facilities Elias oversees, the bathrooms must stay open later than he can staff, so those facilities stay unlocked, but not unwatched. At any bathroom that remains unlocked, cameras are placed around the area, and according to Elias, it's a relatively low-cost way to keep vandalism down as the costs to secure the building are low compared to what it could cost to repair if damaged.

According to Isabel Wade, executive director of the SFNPC, some restroom research into what other cities' best practices are uncovered another idea on how to maintain restrooms when staffing is an issue: outsource it to a local organization.

"In Portland, they have restrooms serviced by a disability group," Wade said. She also doesn't think the one-size-fits-all approach works when it comes to restroom facilities.

"In Santa Cruz, I saw they had a lot of port-o-potties screened by trellises that grew attractive vines on them, or they had a frame on the side with a lovely poster," Wade said. "If you made them as attractive as possible, that would certainly work. Parents are often happy just to have a port-o-potty. Let's look at other options."