Lessons from the loo: What we can learn about making cities better from Winnipeg's pop-up public toilet

The routine function of using a bathroom has been designed out of our public spaces, say Rae St. Clair Bridgman and Wins Bridgman. Winnipeg needs to work to change that — and a pilot project that saw a pop-up potty move around Winnipeg last summer suggests some ways to do that.

Welcoming and walkable cities recognize that when you gotta go, you gotta go, say architect and urban planner

The pop-up public toilet pilot ran at various locations around Winnipeg in 2018. (Jacqueline Young/Station Point Photographic)

Who among us hasn't desperately needed to find a washroom at some point and couldn't? Add in chronic health conditions, gender issues, economics, age, racism, child care, disabilities — you name it, and the need for public toilets in Winnipeg just screams for attention.

As Jenna Wirch so succinctly stated last summer on one of the Winnipeg bus shelter posters for the My Winnipeg includes Public Toilets awareness campaign (designed by BridgmanCollaborative Architecture in partnership with Jason Syvixay), we need these facilities "Cause sh*t happens."

Welcoming and walkable cities — the places we visit, where we live, work and play —  all have one thing in common. They make it a priority to provide public toilets. They recognize that when you gotta go, you gotta go. Any city without public toilets stagnates (quite literally).

No, urination and defecation are not somehow magically optional when we leave home. But such routine private functions have been designed out of our public spaces.

We try to plot our route, taking into account the closest fast food joint, the library, the nearby park, a community centre, or a local shopping centre. We're on a "bladder leash."

A poster for the 2018 'My Winnipeg Includes Public Toilets' campaign. (BridgmanCollaborative Architecture)
A range of Winnipeggers were featured in the public awareness campaign. (BridgmanCollaborative Architecture)

But many of us will certainly have faced that most demoralizing of signs, the one that says: "Bathrooms for paying customers only." 

What a sharp reprimand. "If you can't pay, you can't pee."

So why is it we continue to build public places in Winnipeg with nary a permanent public toilet in sight? (Are you listening, Memorial Park, Market Square, True North Plaza, Upper Fort Garry Park?)

When other cities, like Ottawa, have helpful public toilet maps and apps, we can do more. (Check out See also the Crohn's and Colitis Canada countrywide app GoHere.)

The pop-up toilet pilot

In the summer of 2018, the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, in partnership with Siloam Mission and BridgmanCollaborative Architecture, created a pilot pop-up public toilet business model, to explore whether people would stay longer downtown and enjoy all the amenities if there were safe, clean public toilets. 

The mobile pop-up was built on a model of social enterprise. The temporary washroom (fabricated from a shipping container) was connected to a kiosk that housed a not-for-profit training ground for young people, organized by the Siloam Mission and supported by the Downtown BIZ.

The pop-up pilot not only offered a toilet for people to use, but also included a social enterprise element, where items like newspapers, water and T-shirts were sold. (BridgmanCollaborative Architecture)

The attendants —  or ambassadors — were youths in training who ensured there was an ongoing human presence when the pop-up was open. 

The business acted as a tourism booth and sold newspapers, water and T-shirts —  but allowed anyone to use the toilet free of charge.

The entire budget for the construction, the training program, transportation and services was $100,000 (raised by a Downtown BIZ CEO sleepout).

So, what happened?

Well, the pop-up was deemed a sensation last summer.

The project was published nationally and has won an international prize (we can't say what it is yet, but an announcement will be coming later this year). The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce awarded the project partnership a 2019 Spirit of Winnipeg Award (Design and Building), celebrating the importance of public toilets in the commerce and fabric of Our Once and Future City.

Lessons from the pilot

Here's what we learned:

The pop-up public toilet was well used wherever it was located downtown.

The public and private areas around the pop-up were clean and not subject to vandalism.

People from all backgrounds and ages used the washrooms.

The design of the bright orange pop-up (which featured shipping container architecture) caught the public imagination.

The pop-up public toilet is moved into place on Graham Avenue in 2018. The pop-up's design was attention-grabbing and property owners were keen to see it come back, say Wins Bridgman and Rae St. Clair Bridgman. (BridgmanCollaborative Architecture)

Landowners were keen to invite the pop-up back.

The social enterprise approach to public toilet provision was unique.

News about the pop-up spread across the country — there was a media splash.

Despite all that, the project appears to have stalled this summer. A number of key issues haven't been resolved: funding for transporting the pop-up on-site, stable partnerships, management of the pop-up and kiosk, funding for day-to-day operations.

Here's another big "what we learned."

The scale of need for public toilets in Winnipeg is far beyond the ability, resources and mandate of one business improvement zone, non-profit organization or private business. In other cities, public toilets are built and maintained by municipal governments, just like any other public infrastructure (such as roads and sidewalks).

The pop-up public toilet pilot ran at various locations around Winnipeg in 2018, including Henry Avenue at Main Street, between Siloam Mission and the Salvation Army. (Jacqueline Young/Station Point Photographic)

If the city government will not or cannot take responsibility for funding public toilets or paying existing businesses to allow public access to their toilets, as happens across Germany with their Nette Toilette ("Nice Toilet") system, what other options do we have?

Here's one idea.

What about made-in-Manitoba public toilet sponsorships or advertising deals to generate revenue? Vancouver is one city that has explored such an approach. 

The pop-up public toilets could potentially become even more bold and entrepreneurial with advertising. To do this, the public toilets would have to be classified as a bus shelter type structure, not a building, in order to comply with City of Winnipeg signage bylaws.

A mock-up shows what advertising on the pop-up public toilet could look like. (BridgmanCollaborative Architecture)

During a day-long charrette in honour of the celebrated Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl (author of Making Cities for People), University of Manitoba architecture students designed plans for what they called an "invasion" of public toilets (fabricated from billboards) on Winnipeg streets every few blocks.

There are some other small-scale income-generating possibilities. The pop-up public toilet kiosk could feature a bike shop, a florist, a coffee shop, a needle exchange, or a tourist information booth.

During the winter, skaters along the river trail may appreciate the pop-up and the kiosk could sell hot chocolate.

The pop-up public toilet on Portage Avenue in 2018. The pop-up is only the start, say the authors — changes to policies, plans, codes and development agreements will be needed for long-term change. (Jacqueline Young/Station Point Photographic)

Of course the pop-up idea is just a short-term, temporary fix. Think of it as a weighty "urban conversation piece" to get the ball rolling.

Long term, how else can we support ready access to temporary public toilets and even permanent facilities?

Public outcry and political will hasten robust policies, plans, codes and development agreements that demand public toilets be provided in Our Fair City.

Other cities in Canada and elsewhere are doing it — so can Winnipeg.

It's time.


Wins Bridgman and Rae St. Clair Bridgman (a professor in the department of city planning at the University of Manitoba) co-direct the Winnipeg design firm BridgmanCollaborative Architecture.