As It Happens

Open-air urinals spark outrage in scenic Paris neighbourhood

A new set of eco-friendly, but completely exposed, urinals on the streets of Paris are provoking an uproar from locals.

'We need urinals, obviously,' says gallery manager Fabienne Bonnat, 'but not this type — not there'

A journalist poses as he stands in front of a bright red, eco-friendly urinal on the Ile Saint-Louis along the Seine River. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

Fabienne Bonnat says public urinals are direly needed in the bustling Paris neighbourhood of Ile Saint-Louis — but she doesn't understand why they have to be completely uncovered.

"That means that if, you know, a man has to do what he has to do, it's just open. So everybody who passes by will have a beautiful view," Bonnat, who manages an art gallery on the island, told As It Happens guest host Matt Galloway.

"We need urinals, obviously. But not this type — not there."

The city of Paris has begun testing 'uritrottoirs' — dry public urinals intended to be ecological and odourless — but that make some residents cringe. (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

The eco-friendly devices are bright red boxes with openings in the front and floral displays on top containing straw, which transforms into compost for use in parks and gardens. 

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Paris authorities have installed four of them in spots where public urination has been a problem, and a fifth is planned.

'An invention of genius'

Their inventor, Victor Massip, has defended his "uritrottoir" — a combination of the French words for "urinate" and "pavement."

"People urinating on the streets of France is a serious problem and we knew there was a demand for a solution, so we've come up with one," he told the Telegraph.

Ariel Weil, mayor of the fourth district of Paris, has called them "an invention of genius."

"If we don't do anything, then men are just going to pee in the streets," he said. "If it is really bothering people, we will find another location."

One urinal in particular — installed not far from Notre Dame cathedral and overlooking tourist boats passing on the Seine — is causing a lot of consternation among locals. 

"It's an open door to exhibitionism," Bonnat said. "Who likes to see that?"

Several residents have written to the town hall to demand its removal and are planning a petition.

A man stands at the public urinal as tourist barge cruises past. (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

"There's no need to put something so immodest and ugly in such an historic spot," Paola Pellizzari, 68, owner of a Venetian art store, told Reuters. 

"It's beside the most beautiful townhouse on the island, the Hotel de Lauzun, where Baudelaire lived," she said, referring to the 19th-century French poet.

A part of Parisian history 

While the project is new, there is a history of public urinals in Paris and other European cities. 

In 1800s Paris, hundreds of public urinals — called vespasiennes or pissoirs — were installed all over the city for men traveling to and from work, Raymond Morris, managing director of the British Toilet Association, told CNN

But in the early 1960s, city government start replacing the vespasiennes with public pay toilets. 

In the 1930s, more than 1,200 vespasiennes were in service. There is only one left standing. 

The last surviving vespasienne, or pissoir, in Paris is seen on the boulevard Arago on April 28, 2016. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Some have branded the new installations discriminatory, noting they are only accessible to those who pee standing up.

"They have been installed on a sexist proposition: men cannot control themselves — from the bladder point of view — and so all of society has to adapt," said Gwendoline Coipeault of French feminist group Femmes Solidaires.

"The public space must be transformed to cause them minimum discomfort. ... It's absurd, no one needs to urinate in the street."

Bonnat echoed that sentiment. 

Asked whether those in need of urinals should just hold it, Bonnat said: "Sorry to say, but women do. So why not men?"

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Fabienne Bonnat produced by Zara Syed.