What can toilets teach us about accessibility?

What can toilets teach us about accessibility?

You may have seen the famous see-through public toilets in Japan. The stalls made of transparent coloured glass show the inside of a bathroom and turn opaque when locked. Challenging the privacy of what a toilet represents, these toilets aim to be inviting by showing people how clean the toilets are. But why would designers put so much effort into designing a toilet? Why should we care? 

Credits to the photographer Masatoshi Okauchi/REX/Shutterstock

When we think of inclusive public space, a toilet is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. We tend to avoid public restrooms until we need one, but they can tell us a lot about accessibility. Toilets are as crucial as wide sidewalks, ramps or seating because being able to use a bathroom translates into the ability to use a fundamental piece of infrastructure for community building, leisure and amenity in cities.

When did we start thinking of public toilets? 

Necessary hygienic regulations which are now an essential part of our everyday life were not always like this, before the widespread use of indoor plumbing and city hygiene before 1750 public toilets didn’t exist. It was until modernity, cities, and when public life became relevant that local planners enforced hygienic measures and architects decided to consider toilets in building design. European cities started discussing public hygiene as a result of diseases such as the plague, cholera, or typhoid; these transmitted faster in densely populated areas like industrial cities. It was until the relegation of women to the household, and men’s ability to move between the public and the private sphere that society segregated toilets. Social segregation also influenced the hygienic division by class, gender and ethnicity marking degrees of exclusivity, not only between men and women but also, between rich and poor, and black and white. The so-called ‘racial hygiene’ was a racist approach to hygiene where people couldn’t use the same toilets. For instance, black people had to use bathrooms located outside of buildings.

Pissoir on a wall in the city of Berlin.

Toilet infrastructure stands out as spaces where the public meets the private sphere and therefore unveils a broad spectrum of needs which designers should consider. The most evident are gender needs. 
Standing infrastructure, for instance, might be cheaper but it only considers males. Women who might need a clean seat or shelter find it more challenging to find a toilet on the street that can fulfill their needs.

The transgender and non-binary population also suffer from sex segregation. The architect Joel Sanders identified the lack of attention that other architects, designers and planners gave to the subjective experience of a gay man in public toilets, and therefore the experience of many others in the LGBTQ community who often don’t feel safe in the bathroom they are assigned.

But gender is not the only limitation in the provision of public toilets. Older people need to use a bathroom more often than their younger peers, to the extent that they could plan their routes around toilet accessibility. Besides the infrastructure older adults’ needs are more complex; they might need toilet handles, some might ride a wheelchair and need more spacious stalls too.

Toilet infrastructure shouldn’t be a luxury, since it covers one of the most basic needs, especially for the less abled bodies. Disabilities translate into a list of gadgets that fully-abled users might not even think about like adult-size changing boards, accessible seats, wide stalls, no stairs, and even running water. This lack of infrastructure silently pushes some social groups out of the public space by limiting its accessibility. The topic is not as widely discussed because of the level of privacy and individual experience it involves. 

Toilet provision around the world

Sanitation is one of the biggest challenges in developing countries. In some places, the provision of public toilets doesn’t come from the local authorities, but users rely on commerce, bars, restaurants, gas stations or public buildings to use a bathroom. This private toilet provision not only cannot guarantee appropriate infrastructure but also relies on the will of private parties to grant access making them potentially inaccessible. 
Australian cities like Brisbane, for example, have proven exceptional standards for public toilet provision. They mapped the existing toilets, added changing tables and broadened the space. 

In contrast, cities in developing countries like Mexico City don’t have public toilet infrastructure provided by the local government at all. Sanitation becomes a challenge in this city because public urination is considered a felony but local authorities don’t offer public restrooms. 

Who is talking about toilets nowadays? 

There are pressing conversations around public toilets, and there are several proposals concerning their desirable features. Proposals aim to achieve toilets which are:

  • Sustainable
  • Flexible: toilets that are easy to move 
  • Inclusive 
  • Beautiful designs
  • Safe spaces 

Stalled! is an initiative which “takes as its point of departure national debates surrounding transgender access to public restrooms to address an urgent social justice issue: the need to create safe, sustainable and inclusive public restrooms for everyone regardless of age, gender, race, religion and disability”. Their approach is to design guidelines and prototypes on how toilets can be more inclusive, this together with lectures and workshops, writings and interviews.

Nette toilette: German cities launched the “Nette toilette” (nice toilet). In this project, retailers and restaurateurs provide a bathroom for public use free of charge, for which they receive an expense allowance from the city. This way, local governments use already existing infrastructure and guarantee public toilet provision. Restaurants and shops can join the program, and the local authorities evaluate the accessibility and conditions of the provided toilets.

WeCo: The city of Saint-Étienne, France, offers the first flushing toilets which are both ecological and architect-designed, promoting the environmental transition of public sanitation. Wesco’s “flush toilets recycle the wastewater which is transformed into clean water and fertilizer or fuel thanks to energy-saving technology”. Beyond the sustainable approach, WeCo provides urban shelters with comfortable and spacious cabins. Their optimized dimensions and the absence of connection to the water network facilitate their repeated removal and assembly, making them easy to move from one place to another. 

Cities should not only ensure public toilet provision but also think of its design and scope for the use and enjoyment of public space. Denying someone access to a bathroom is denying access to cities.


George, R. (2020). Tokyo’s public toilets may be transparent – but at least they’re building some. Retrieved 16 October 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/aug/18/tokyo-toilets-may-be-transparent-but-at-least-theyre-building-some

Madanipour, A. (2003). Public and private spaces of the city. London: Routledge.

Where Do We Go From Here? – 99% Invisible. (2020). Retrieved 18 October 2020, from https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/where-do-we-go-from-here/ 

Further reading:

https://www.die-nette-toilette.de/ https://www.en.weco-toilet.com/ 




The last meeting of the Urban Clinic EDU@LabGov 2019

The last meeting of the Urban Clinic EDU@LabGov 2019

Save the date: next Saturday, 4th May 2019, Luiss University will host the last meeting of EDU@LabGov in Luiss Community Garden from 10 am to 12am.

In this occasion the LabGovers (students of the Urban Clinic of LabGov) will work to make the last adjustments to the prototype of the project that they have designed during these months. In particular, they will work on inserting the technological elements that respond to the challenges related to sustainable agriculture, energy, tech justice and many more. Furthermore, they will co-design the event in which they will present their ideas to the public!

This appointment will represent the last moment to put into practice definitively the topics they have discuss during this Urban Clinic of LabGov A.A 2018/2019.

As always, if you are interested in following their work, follow our official social networks!

This is a very last moment before the final event.

Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019: third community gardening session

Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019: third community gardening session

Save the date: next Saturday, 27th April Luiss University will host the third EDU@LabGov community gardening session in Luiss Community Garden from 10 am to 13am.

The LabGovers (students of the Urban Clinic of LabGov) will work to make the last adjustments to the prototype of the project that they have designed during these months. This session represents a fundamental moment to put into practice definitively the topics they have discussed in recent months: urban agriculture, urban gardens, healthy nutrition, innovation, technology, justice, sustainability.

The students of the Urban Clinic of LabGov have designed and created an innovative solution to the problems created by the scarcity of knowledge about the state of well being in the cities. They have created two prototypes, one material and one immaterial: a multifunctional structure that will be installed in the city (in strategic points, by starting from the urban gardens) and a digital platform. Through those two tools they will be able to start an awareness/information campaign about the relevance of sustainable models of agriculture and nutrition in the cities and its importance for the individual and collective well-being. At the same time they will investigate the state of the urban well-being by collecting big data on this issue.

As always, this is not just a didactic moment but a collaborative practice born in the walls of the Luiss Guido Carli university and the results will be exported in the city.

If you are interested in following their work, follow our official social networks!

The Last module of the Urban Clinic LabGov EDU A.A. 2018/2019

The Last module of the Urban Clinic LabGov EDU A.A. 2018/2019

The fifth module of the Urban Clinic EDU@LabGov took place on Friday the 12th and Saturday the 13th of April into the Viale Romania Campus of LUISS University. The workshop has inaugurated the fifth module of the course. The module was dedicated to “Communication”.

The workshop hosted one important expert on these themes: prof. Paolo Peverini, professor at the Department of Enterprise and Management and Political Sciences in Luiss Guido Carli University, and he is expert in Marketing Communication and new media languages. Saturday, we hosted Chiara De Angelis, expert in information architecture and user experience design , who supported the LabGovers in drafting the communication plan for their project idea.


Prof. Peverini asked the LabGovers what communication plan they had in mind for their project.

After explaining their idea, prof. Peverini focused on how difficult it is to communicate a message. So, to try to effectively develop a message it becomes necessary to make the most of the cross-media effects.
These effects show how the combined use of different media and the order of the media used to spread a message can cause a different reading of the same.

At the end of the workshop, Professor Peverini gave some suggestions to take care of the communication of our project.
He emphasized how important it is to avoid a techno-deterministic approach, which dwells exclusively on the effectiveness of the medium. In fact, for Prof. Peverini, it is much more important to take care of the substantial and content aspects of the message.


Chiara De Angelis explained to LabGovers what are the essential elements that every communication plan should have. Based on the two examples and on the points that Dr. De Angelis highlighted, LabGovers divided into three groups to develop the communication plan for their project. It is important for them to place their project: this means underlining the fact that they are trying to transform the urban gardens into innovation hubs, by developing a new generation of digital gardens and a digital platform that will allow the urban gardeners and farmers to investigate the status of well-being in the cities. Another relevant feature for their path is the focus given to sustainability and in particular to the 17 SDGs of the 2030 Agenda.

After delivering their work, the LabGovers split into groups again to work on the user stories of their digital platform.

At the end of the exhibition, the LabGovers were divided into groups in order to create a prototype of the platform through an app, which allows you to link drawings and photographs between them through hyperlinks that can be placed on the photographs themselves. The result should therefore be a model of the platform that will be developed.

The last module ends like this but I assure you that it’s not over here.

Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019: IV Module

Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019: IV Module

Save the date: on 29th and 30th March will take place the fourth module of the Urban Clinic EDU@LabGov in Luiss Guido Carli University. This fourth module is mainly dedicated to ‘Urban Experimentalism’!

On Friday 29th March the workshop will take place in the classroom 305b from 16pm to 18pm in the Luiss Campus.

The Urban Clinic will host dr. Daniela Patti, expert in the urban regeneration and in the collaborative planning and co-founder and manager of Eutropian.org Research & Action (http://eutropian.org/). She will talk about cooperation in cities and successful examples of civic cooperation. In the second part of the workshop, Labgovers will listen to prof. Lorenzo Maria Donini, expert in nutritional principles and food science from La Sapienza University. This will represent an important step in the development of the digital platform that Labgovers have designed in order to raise awareness towards the importance of food, sport and agriculture for individual and collective well-being.

On Saturday 30th March from 10 am to 17 pm in room 310 of the Luiss roman Campus will take place the fourth co-working session. The Urban Clinic will host Vincenzo Maria Capelli, agricultural entrepreneur of the gardens and boating champion from Confagricoltura. He will talk to the Labgovers about his professional experience and the connection between urban agriculture, sport, entrepreneurship. The co-working session will be moderated from Alexander Piperno, PhD Luiss in economics and from the team of EDU@LabGov to support the students in order to add new wedges to the idea that they are developing and to strengthen the sustainability model.

Stay Tuned!