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/ 




Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019 – III Community Gardening

Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019 – III Community Gardening

Saturday, April 27th 2019, the third community gardening session of the Urban Clinic EDU LabGov has taken place in Luiss community garden #OrtoLuiss. This last appointment was dedicated to completing the construction of the material prototypes designed during this A.A. of the Urban Clinic by the students.

This appointment was dedicated to completing the construction of their material prototype that is an entry point in cities, and it is also equipped with technological elements. This entry point will link to the immaterial protoype, that want to raise awareness on issues such as sustainable agriculture, nutrition, diet, sport, tech justice and many more.

Labgovers split into groups to perfect their prototype and demonstrated great organizational and collaborative skills. But they still have some things to do and for this reason we will meet again on Saturday 4th May in Luiss!

The LabGovers just don’t want to leave us!

Stay Tuned!

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!

Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019 – III workshop and co-working

Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019 – III workshop and co-working

Save the date: on 15th and 16th March will take place the third weekend of the EDU@LabGov Urban Clinic in Luiss Guido Carli University!

Friday 15th March from 16pm to 18pm in the Luiss Campus, we will host a lecture of professor Christian Iaione about Urban Law and Policy, and we will hear the testimony of lawyer Nico Maravia from law firm Pavia & Ansaldo and of the dr. Paola Marzi from the Municipality of Rome, who will speak about the Regulation on the urban gardens that she wrote for the Municipality of Rome.

Saturday 16th march from 10am to 17pm, will be held the third session of co-working. It will be divided into two part. First, we will hear Pasquale Tedesco’s experience: he is an expert in environmental sustainability, sustainable and synergic agriculture and in the field of urban and social gardens. In the second part of co-working the EDU LabGov team, thanks to the guide of Chiara De Angelis and Daniela Patti, we will speak about the process of design focusing on the user journey maps. In this way, the LabGovers will analyze all the passages of their project, they will answer to the needs of the ‘personas’ (the users object of their project) and they will define the various sections and the categories of contents of the platform that they are developing.

The next meetings are very important in order to complete and improve the idea that it is taking form more and more.

Stay Tuned!

Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019 – I Community Gardening

Urban Clinic LabGov EDU 2019 – I Community Gardening

The process of the Edu@LabGov Urban Clinic’s action on the city/university territory continues with the Community Gardening session which took place last Saturday the 9th of March 2019 in the LUISS Community Garden from 10 am to 12 am.

Labgovers, at first divided into three groups, started working to the construction of three prototypes of their project, using waste/recycled. Following the project’s idea elaborated during the Co-Working sessions in class, and also thanks to the advices of agronomist and botanist, dr. Barbara Invernizzi, the students completed the structure with fruitful outcomes.

These two hours of Community Gardening represented the starting point of a process of collaborative action which aims to concretize the principles of sustainability and circular economy which are central for the Urban Clinic. Nevertheless, the self-construction Lab is still a fundamental collaboration-gym to understand the importance of respecting the timeline in a project.

The project is not over yet: others two meetings are scheduled in the LUISS Community Garden, one for the 23th of March and one for the 27th of April.

Stay tuned!

Gli appuntamenti della Clinica Urbana EDU@LabGov continuano con la seconda sessione di Community Gardening che si è svolta lo scorso sabato 9 marzo 2019, presso l’#OrtoLUISS, dalle 10:00 alle 12:00.

I LabGovers, dapprima suddivisi in tre gruppi, hanno iniziato a lavorare alla realizzazione di tre prototipi creati attraverso il riuso di materiali destinati allo scarto. Seguendo l’idea progettuale frutto delle sessioni di Co-Working in aula, ed i consigli dell’agronoma e botanica Barbara Invernizzi, gli studenti hanno completato lo scheletro della struttura con ottimi risultati. 

I principi della collaborazione, la sostenibilità e l’economia circolare giocano un ruolo cardine negli appuntamenti di community Gardening nell’orto universitario della Luiss. Il laboratorio di autocostruzione (che si svolge in parte degli appuntamenti di Community Gardening) continua ad essere una palestra di collaborazione essenziale anche per comprendere l’importanza del saper rispettare i tempi di una progettualità (allenando alla lentezza), e al fine di raggiungere obiettivi comuni.

Il lavoro giungerà a conclusione nel giro delle due prossime sessioni di Community Gardening, previste per il 23 marzo e il 27 aprile.

Restate Connessi!