Feature Article - October 2015
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Safe Stops

For Restroom Structures, Security Is Crucial

By Rick Dandes


You need to have sightlines to an outdoor restroom, but the best thing for safety is to locate the restroom in a place where there are people around.

Placement of restroom structures will be largely driven by the type of restrooms you're choosing: restrooms that are plumbed and wired vs. more self-contained vault toilets that can be placed pretty much anywhere. The latter is ideal in remote parks where it might be hard to get to the restroom or service it, or access to water and electricity is a challenge.

Whether you have a restroom in the Adirondacks or the desert you have the same basic requirements in terms of the restroom functionality, Tharpe and Burger said. One thing to keep in mind though: In an area like the Adirondacks you may have to winterize the restrooms and that is an extra requirement. Because in the winter, parks are generally going to be closed down. You want to make sure that pipes don't rupture.

Location and Security

While all of these factors contribute mightily to where you can best efficiently and usefully locate your restroom facility, by far the most critical factor is safety.

It wasn't always that way, explained Carol McCreary, co-founder of Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human (PHLUSH), an organization based in Portland, Ore. Traditional restrooms were built for a different kind of citizenry, she said.

"Many of our park restrooms, urban restrooms and even highway restrooms were built in the mid-20th century, and they were built for traditional families: mom, dad, two kids, with a car. That kind of family is in a minority now. Half the households in New York City are single people, one-person households. We've had a social revolution in the past 20 years, which is almost unbelievable in terms of LGBT rights. So we have people who have formerly been bullied in certain kinds of restrooms, and your park directors need to protect them. This includes transgender people in all parts of North America.

To help prevent vandalism, lighting should be recessed so that you can't knock a bulb out. The restroom of course has to be well lit. Windows should be heavy duty so that they can't be kicked out.

"If the park director isn't there yet because they are conservative, they better get there pretty fast, and I'm not saying that as a social activist," McCreary said. "I do feel we can get there having a private stall, or maybe better to call it a unisex stall, or a family restroom, a non-gendered toilet, a gender-free toilet."

McCreary suggested several location tips to keep users of public restrooms safe. First, she insisted, "If the site is chosen poorly, everything goes wrong. If you locate a restroom near a parking lot, that's fine. But make sure it's a busy parking lot with security. It can be dangerous if they don't have workers there with constant eyes on the facility. Parking lots have spaces between cars where things can happen, and most enclosed parking lots are empty at night. That can be a bad location… unless it is a commuter parking lot that might have a coffee shop in it or nearby. You need to have somebody there all day. This is all about planning. Even in a state park or a remote park, you can practice these same guidelines."

McCreary suggested that you need to have sightlines to an outdoor restroom, but the best thing for safety is to locate the restroom in a place where there are people around. "You do not want to be located up against a chain link fence in a city," she said. "Because someone can corner victims and force them into the restroom. If the structure is against a fence, you don't have people walking around it so you've decreased the eyes on the space."

Locate the restroom at a place in the park where people have to walk around it, not pushed up in a remote area, McCreary said. You need a restroom in a location that makes people with bad intentions not feel safe. And where people who have good intentions will feel safe. "Let's concentrate on making bona fide park users feel safe," she said. "As for comfort, park restrooms are never going to be super comfortable. But for me, safety is what brings the comfort that we really need."

Some great (safe) locations in parks would be at the entrance, where people are constantly entering and leaving. If it is a park that has a gate, you locate it near the gate because that is where you have a maximum of people around. In a city or waterfront park, you could locate it in the middle of the grassy area, but still you want to make sure there are nearby walking and bike paths.

In state parks, locate your concession stands near the restrooms. Explore co-locations; put a business near the restroom—kayak rentals, for example. Animate the space, McCreary said. "You want to protect everyone. You want mothers to feel safe letting their kids go to the bathroom by themselves. That is really the ultimate test." Think physical presence of people. When you are talking about sites, you can't always change the site. In some cases you bring activities to the site.

Family restrooms are the best safety measure because they imply that there is enough space for two people, such as a dad and his daughter or a mom and her 10-year-old son. "A lot of moms are really freaked out about letting their boys go into a male restroom," McCreary noted. "There is a lot of hysteria among young mothers. Hence there is a trend toward private, safe restrooms. Stalls can be very small, so small that very little can go on there … for example, illicit sex, shooting up with drugs.

"There are restrooms with several small private stalls and one of every six or seven … would be a larger one," she added. "But they are all private, and by that I mean there is a door that closes, which is secure. At the same time there is an opening where sounds can get out."