Safe Stops

For Restroom Structures, Security Is Crucial

By Rick Dandes

It's not often talked about in public outreach events or pre-design meetings, but environmentalists, architects and park administrators know that locating safe and secure public restrooms in either a remote park or downtown urban setting is a key factor in patrons' use of the park. Safety always comes first and is a top priority for any park administrator. But selecting the right location for a restroom must also be cost-effective, while providing maximum function in minimum space, along with accessibility, attractive aesthetics, and ease of maintenance.

"In general and above all, the first thing our clients are looking for is security when trying to decide where to situate a public restroom in their recreational space," said Moffette Tharpe, managing director of a Midland, Va.-based manufacturer of precast concrete buildings, including restroom structures. "You don't want to be in a dark area where people might be lurking to attack somebody that is using the restroom, particularly in a park setting."

Locating safe and secure public restrooms in either a remote park or downtown urban setting is a key factor in patrons' use of the park.

There are, however, additional drivers that factor into picking a site, Tharpe noted. Aesthetics, often glossed over when talking about restrooms, are important, he said. "You also are looking at where it is set, because generally you don't want to feature it, but rather you want to blend the restroom into the surroundings so that it looks like it fits rather than being out of place."

You'll also want the restroom to be visible because if someone is in need of a restroom, they should be able to locate it fairly easily. Then, of course, it also needs to be accessible because you have people with disabilities who also will use the restroom. It needs to comply inside and out with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

"The main thing," Tharpe said, "as a park administrator, is that you don't really want the restroom to be a feature in the park. You want it to be compatible, unless it is part of a large restroom complex, which might also have vending machines and other amenities … that's different. But I'm talking more about single or double, unisex restrooms, and a park surrounding it. Usually restrooms are set off to the side and not in the center."

Accessibility to the site is a game-changing factor, added Gary Burger, a national sales manager for a manufacturer of precast concrete restroom structures and other buildings. "You want to make it accessible to wheelchair-bound individuals. So the closer to a parking lot, the closer to the area where there are activities, the better—a playground, for example, in the case of a park. You need to make the area around it accessible, and you need accessibility to the building."

Where you place your restroom involves a lot of common sense, said Kyle Earlywine, co-owner, of a restroom company based in Vancouver, Wash. "The location has to be particular to the situation. The first thought that comes to my mind in terms of placement is a parking lot. You have to think about where the restroom placement makes the most sense for your visitors and oftentimes that will be at the parking lot, at the visitor's center or at the trail head—wherever you think that people are intuitively going to search out that restroom, where they are most able to find it, where people will most conveniently be able to get to that restroom."

But there are factors in play that may not allow you to go with the first choice of what is most convenient for the visitor. If you are thinking about installing a flush restroom, for example, you may not have easy access to utilities. It's all part of the planning process. In some locations there are utilities you can hook into, but if the utilities are in a particular spot, in order to access them you might need to put the restroom there or you need to trench and get the utilities to the restroom. Sometimes that trenching is going to cost thousands of dollar to do. If putting the restroom at a parking lot is going to cost you an extra $30,000, then it's probably not where you are going to end up putting the restroom.

Look at your possible sites, Earlywine said. "Where there is limestone or sandstone it's going to be a very difficult construction process to actually put a restroom in this location because the area is just not conducive to construction."

Is there direct access to sunlight if you want to set up solar panels? "We recently placed a restroom in an Ohio state park," Earlywine said, "and during the install, if the restroom could have been placed 50 feet in another direction, then we could have made use of our solar panel and kept it on the roof. But because the placement was in the shade we had to make a directional line underground, underneath the walkway and hook it on to a stand where the solar panel was positioned. The solar panel will still serve the restroom, but the panel will be 50 feet away. It's little things like that, if only it had been planned a bit better it would have saved the park money. Little details like that escape people sometimes when they are figuring out where to place the restroom."

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."

Vandal Proofing

From the perspective of security and availability, you'll find park restrooms locked at night or when the recreational area is closed, said Tharpe. "Many facilities have sophisticated timing systems so doors can be remotely locked and unlocked. In some cases locks are satellite-controlled.

"In the inner-city park, vandalism is a big issue," he added. "Security has to be high. A concrete restroom is solid and not flammable, and it is steel-reinforced. The door system has to be durable and rugged as well as the lock system. That would basically be the difference."

In urban areas, vandalism such as spray painting might be common, depending upon the surface of the building. Anti-graffiti coatings make it easier to remove the graffiti—a problem that must be addressed rapidly to prevent it from growing to an epidemic.

There are also maintenance and cleaning issues because inner-city restrooms are used more frequently. Restrooms should be designed with materials such as stainless-steel fixtures that can be hosed down, making cleaning simple.

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.

The whole country is moving in the direction of being self-sustaining, green. A concrete restroom by its very nature is green in the sense that the concrete is locally available, so you have the green aspect of transportation; everything is recyclable, including the reinforcing steel, most everything inside it is recyclable, and the roof is concrete so you won't have to replace shingles. You won't have to paint it because it is already stained.

"The future could bring some cool things for restrooms," Earlywine said. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made improving sanitation in the developing world one of its primary goals. Millions of dollars and some great talent is being used to innovate on restrooms in some fundamental ways so it's possible that one day their work will become relevant to public restrooms here in America.



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