Atlantic Cities

Solving the Public Poop Problem

Solving the Public Poop Problem
Flickr/Andrew Choi

Urination and defecation are human needs that the modern city handles very well, in private at least. Mass centralized sewage systems and waste treatment facilities take away our bodily waste and deal with it so we don’t have to.

But in public, cities have a much spottier record of addressing these needs.

In San Francisco, a movement to add more public restroom facilities to the city is gathering steam. Organizers would like to specifically target neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, which has a high concentration of homelessness. According to a recent article in the New York Times:

There were nearly 10,000 documented "incidents of human waste" cleaned up last year in the Tenderloin alone, according to Dina Hilliard, executive director of the North of Market-Tenderloin Community Benefit District, a neighborhood improvement effort financed by local property owners that pays for sidewalk cleaning. "This is out of control," Ms. Hilliard said of the waste.

One approach to combating the problem is to build the restroom equivalent of the city’s innovative "parklets," which are small public spaces built to fit within a few street parking spaces. "Pooplets" could provide publicly accessible toilet facilities. And through advances in composting toilet technology, these public toilets wouldn’t need to have expensive plumbing or sewage system hookups, keeping the cost at an estimated $40,000 to $50,000.

The North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit District has been working with Hyphae Design Laboratory to develop a prototype, which could be installed in the Tenderloin by summer.

The idea is gathering attention. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission recently conducted a study to determine the viability of installing composting toilets in public places within the city. Due to new technology that reduces the smell associated with human waste drying in a compost pile, composting toilets as a potential solution for the city’s shortage of public facilities, according to an article from the San Francisco Examiner. Though the report indicates that composting toilets are an option, no official plans have been made to install any such facilities. In the meantime, the need remains.

But it’s not like the city hasn’t tried to address the problem of public defecation before. In 1996, it installed 25 self-cleaning public toilet facilities throughout downtown, built and maintained by the outdoor advertising company JC Decaux. But according to a recent column from the San Francisco Chronicle, the “self-cleaning” aspect of these facilities is a grand overstatement. Most of the facilities are left messy and abused by users, making them unpleasant.

Though it’s hardly to be expected that a public restroom would meet a high standard of cleanliness, this experience offers a clue into how complicated it can be to both provide a service to meet this natural need and the make it safe and usable for all. Composting pooplets may offer a solution.

Photo credit: Flickr/Andrew Choi

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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