Meet the Researcher Who Travels the World Studying Public Toilets

Australian social planning researcher Katherine Webber has seen some of the best and worst toilets the world has to offer.
April 13, 2021, 1:00pm
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 Image: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

It took some time before Katherine Webber consciously realized she had been collecting toilet stories for years. 

A colleague refusing to eat or drink to avoid the toilet at her workplace. An older relative never leaving the house for fear of not finding a restroom. A friend juggling breastfeeding and potty training in the bathroom stall of a shopping center. 

As she collected more and more of these stories, Webber, an Australian social planning researcher, began to analyze the connections between them, igniting a newfound passion for public toilets and the ways in which these often stigmatized—yet undoubtedly essential—spaces could be made more inclusive and accessible. 

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“My professional role is getting people to participate in the community,” she told Motherboard over Zoom. “I saw this disconnect: if people can’t access the toilets, whether it be at work, school, or a public space, they aren’t able to be actively engaged in that place. Then it dawned on me that of course if people can’t confidently access a toilet, you aren’t going to get full participation and you can’t create a truly inclusive community.” 

Following a grant from the Churchill Fellowship, in 2018 the toilet expert travelled the globe, visiting everywhere from Germany, to the United States, to India, where she hopped in and out of some of the best—and worst—public restrooms the world has to offer. 

In doing so, Webber joined the surprisingly active world of toilet enthusiasts. Websites like The Toilet Guru, for example, allow visitors to explore images of toilets in various countries, and YouTube channel Capturing Toilets showcases slow motion footage of flushing toilets with classical music playing in the background. 

Yet, while YouTube channels like Capturing Toilets are more preoccupied with “capturing the beautiful nature of the flush,” advocates like Webber are fighting to make public restrooms more equitable. 

The stakes are high. The design of many public restrooms make them unusable for people with certain disabilities, for example. Meanwhile, a lack of public restrooms means that many find themselves at the whim of private businesses, a problem for the unhoused but also gig and delivery workers, who often find themselves shut out of restaurant bathrooms. For Amazon’s delivery drivers, the combination of this and an already grueling schedule means that it’s common to resort to peeing in bottles. 

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Public restrooms have also been a highly-publicized  battleground in the recognition of trans and gender diverse people’s rights—and spaces where many of those same people suffer harassment and violence. In 2016, it was reported that nearly 60 percent of transgender Americans have avoided public restrooms out of fear of confrontation. 

“I’ve heard many stories from people who are transgender or gender diverse about the fear they experience when they have to choose which toilet to go into,” Webber said. “One quote that always stuck with me is someone who told me: ‘I have to choose between getting verbally abused or physically assaulted.’ That was the choice they had to make every time they used a gendered public toilet.”

That’s exactly why Webber travelled to Portland, Oregon to study the city’s attempts to create more equitable toilets. She pointed to initiatives like the city-sponsored All-User Restroom Challenge and the Portland Courthouse as examples where previously gendered restrooms were converted into open, non-exclusive spaces. And, portable restrooms like The Portland Loo are large enough to fit wheelchairs, baby carriages, and even a shopping cart, making them ideal for wheelchair users.

When it came to public toilet infrastructure, Webber was particularly impressed with the German capital Berlin, which recently conducted a large-scale mapping of public toilets and, in consultation with a number of citizen groups, designed a new ‘Berliner toilet’. It’s also in the process of dramatically  increasing the number of toilets throughout the city. 

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Meanwhile, in Amsterdam a number of hemp-filled urinals scattered around the city have attempted to provide a sustainable solution to the “wild peeing” problem, although there too many have pointed to the lack of female-friendly public toilets. In 2017, for example, many were outraged after a Dutch woman was fined for publicly urinating, with a judge reportedly telling her that she should’ve used a urinal instead.

Of course part of the learning process was seeing what not to do as well. While Webber encountered plenty of foul public restrooms, one that she particularly remembers was in New York City. 

“One of the worst public toilets I went to was in New York,” Webber said, laughing. “It was in a park (I can’t remember which one) and they had literally cut the doors off—I assume because people were having sex in them or something. So, if you sat down, the door was literally at your chest height, meaning that it covered your head, but not your body.” 

“There was no toilet paper and smelled absolutely horrible,” she added. “Yeah, that one really stood out.” 

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing and global travel at a standstill, Webber is sharing her expertise in Australia in the hopes of raising awareness and persuading public officials to take action and improve the country’s public toilet infrastructure. Among the things she is advocating for is a requirement for public restrooms in federally-funded infrastructure projects, and more funding for Changing Places toilets, which are specifically designed for people with disabilities. 

At times it can be an uphill battle. Proper maintenance of public restrooms requires consistent attention, upkeep and funding. Sometimes that cost is offset to loo-users. In the German Autobahn, for example, rest stops have paid toilets, and while they are certainly far far cleaner than most of their American cousins along highways in the United States, you are still paying to fulfill an essential bodily function. 

In any case, more often than not restrooms are treated as an afterthought, or forgotten entirely in construction and infrastructure projects.  

But it’s exactly that paradigm that needs to shift, Webber said, and we need to think big about how we turn public restrooms into places that facilitate community, not hinder it. 

“I think there’s a real opportunity for us to redesign our public spaces to include toilets in order to include people. And, I think if we would look more at who is excluded from our spaces, we would look at our spaces quite differently.”