When nature calls in Beijing

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Today we’re going to cover a rather crappy subject: public toilets. In the United States, access to a restroom often requires using facilities inside a private enterprise, restricting access to patrons. Portland, Oregon and other cities around the United States are rapidly increasing the number and quality of public toilets, open to all. The results have been varied. The Portland Loo has proven itself to be an excellent public model for North American cities and the City is even getting into the public toilet business with the export of the Loo to Victoria, British Columbia.

How about answering the call of nature in Beijing? I thought it would be good to touch on the role of public toilets in Beijing (and then wash my hands of the subject). My apologies for any descent into potty humor.

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The provision of restrooms, and particularly public restrooms, is an important topic for planners. Public restrooms offer a convenience for the passerby or people in the neighborhood and improve sanitation when they are appropriately managed, creating cleaner, more livable places. Restrooms are also a social issue around the world as they are often unsafe for people to use; this is an important feminist issue because of the unequal wait times and low security standards offered in many developing countries’ public toilets. The UN is committed to creating safe, clean, and private places for people to use the bathroom and have stated that sanitation is a basic human right. While many rural areas and new additions to urban areas in China lack proper sanitation, the Chinese government has been investing in improved sanitation and education around the country. Regulations for new housing require flush toilets with full water hook-ups in every apartment. The China Academy of Urban Planning & Design has been researching access to proper sanitation as a quality of life issue.

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In Beijing, most apartments have access have private toilets. When out of the home there are more than 5,000 public toilets of varying levels of cleanliness to chose from in the city; more than most any other place in the world. While the public toilets have descended to a place of ridicule because of varying states of cleanliness, in the past they were an important part of communal living and more recently the city has been rapidly upgrading and improving the quality of public toilets.

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China has a long history with indoor sanitation that ranges from claims of some of the first flush toilets to the first mass-produced toilet papers. Development of public toilets was accelerated in 1949 by the Communist government. As Geisler (2000) notes, Communist urbanism radically changed the social and spatial order of Chinese cities. Older single family homes were torn down as newly ordered grids were laid across cities. Communal living was elevated and a huge push was made to build public toilets available to all people. In hutongs (narrow, alley-like streets) and along major roads public toilets were rapidly built. The position of toilet attendant was elevated and lauded by the leadership. Some toilets were flush toilets, others required the user to remove the waste, while others had routine pumping of a common cesspool.

The image below is a public toilet behind where we live, it is a part of a workers’ communal housing complex, is routinely cleaned, still a little messy, but it is open for all to use.

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Today, the public toilet comes in all shapes and sizes. Since the 1990s almost all toilets have been upgraded to flush toilets. From the basic neighborhood squat toilet to some very fine  facilities. Most facilities look like the image below (whipping out a camera inside a bathroom is not recommended under normal circumstances). You’ll see squat and western toilets, some level of separation, and generally clean facilities. Other places will have no physical separation while others will have some luxuriousness, even a waiting area with wicker chairs!

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Four-star system adopted to modernize Beijing’s public toilets

In 2004, Beijing made a big push (no pun intended) to improve the quality of public toilets in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics. In the lead up to the Games about 750 toilets in 150 tourist areas were upgraded with improved facilities and sanitation at a cost of over US$29M. Previous to the Games, the public toilets were often decrepit. While many toilets are still in rough shape and often lack thorough cleaning, it appears that efforts are continuing to improve the quality of the facilities throughout the city.

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This effort was guided by the creation of a 4-star rating system for public toilets and was led by the Beijing Tourism Administration. Through this leadership a 28-page Beijing Municipal Tourism Attractions-Toilet Quality Assessment Report was issued, detailing 58 inspection points required for star-rated toilets. The new requirements mandate that women’s rooms are larger than men’s rooms as women require more time in the bathroom on average. This shifted the previous 1:1 standard which fit with the People’s Revolution, but did not fit people’s needs. Wayfinding signs were improved, and in the lead up to the Olympics, all signage was required to be in Chinese and English.

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The images below detail what the ideal facilities will look like; in my experience the realities have been more grim than these images, it does seem that quality is rapidly improving, especially along the commercial streets. All images of star-rated example rest rooms are found here.

Two-star rest rooms will ideally look like this:

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Three-star bathrooms will look like this:

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and four-star bathrooms  will look like this:

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LUXURY!

Those that make the cut will be awarded these plaques:

Note that two-star through four-star bathrooms must feature one stall for people with mobility limitations, shorter urinals for boys and physically separated stalls in men and women’s rooms. Three- and four-star restrooms must also have baby changing locations and a host of sanitary features such as toilet paper, hand dryers, and soap. All star-rated rest rooms must have attendants to keep the facilities clean.

How clean you ask? Two fly clean. That is, there can be no more than two flies buzzing about a restroom. This is just one quick way for the administrators to assess cleanliness, more seriously, cleaning schedules must be kept and litter bins must be emptied.

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sfgate.com/AP Photo

According to this Chinese press post, there are five-star public bathrooms in the works! Rightfully, this post notes that people believe that this is a waste of money; perhaps wifi, a television, fish tank, and tea table are over the top.

More work to be done

While great efforts have been made to improve sanitation and access to public toilets in Beijing, there is much work to be done. Most of the improvements have been made in tourist areas and along commerical corridors. Along hutongs and in the informally settled parts of the city many people still lack access to sanitary restrooms. This is a major public health issue that must be addressed.

In most locations there remains an imbalance between the men’s and women’s facilities. While Beijing is shifting the 1:1 ratio of toilets, the national standard remains 1:1 compared to Taiwan’s 1:3 and Hong Kong’s 2:3 standards. Citizen activists are beginning to demand changes, one group has been draw attention to this imbalance through Occupy Men’s Toilets activism. While the authorities have dealt with the protestors without compassion, it appears that some changes are being made. In Guangzhou the city shifted from 1:1 allocation to a 1:1.5 allocation. Similar protests and activism are taking place around the world as women demand better sanitation and bathroom equality.

Outside of cities that situation is much more grave. It is estimated that about 460 million people in rural China are without proper sanitation. Groups like the IRC, the UN, and the World Toilet Organization (WTO) are working collaboratively with the Chinese authorities to bring improved sanitation and public health to rural areas. It seems that China is doing a good job at moving forward with modernization of infrastructure, policy that mandates improved sanitation in public and private facilities, and general education about public health issues.

My thoughts…

In a country as large, populous, and rapidly urbanizing and modernizing as China it is difficult to grasp the quality of any one intervention. Could money used to develop four-star restrooms in tourist areas be better used for basic sanitation in rural areas? Maybe. Should lower standards be adopted, allowing for lower costs and more public toilets? Perhaps. With limited information it is difficult to assess, but improving the quality of public toilets in Beijing is not just for tourism, these are public goods that serve an important social purpose. They are well used- historically overused- and because of ambitious objectives they are being better maintained and better regarded by the public.

The United States would do well to observe the provision of public toilets and consider why there are so few, why they become so vandalized and abused, and what can be done to change the way people treat these important components of urban life. While in China closed-circuit cameras abound, drug use is limited, and social order largely respected (other than on the roads), I believe the ability to provide the toilets, keep them functional, and now improve their quality has something to do with people’s understanding that the toilets are there for everyone and at some point everyone will need one, so why not respect them…

There is much more work to be done in Beijing and throughout China, but the current efforts are moving in the right direction.

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3 thoughts on “When nature calls in Beijing

  1. Connie says:

    MURP Workshop Students in 2006 did a project on public toilets in Portland. Check it out on the Toulan School website (under student projecs). The team called themselves, “Relief Works”! Access to public toilets is a serious problem, especially in the U.S. where certain social groups (age, economic class, and gender) affect access.

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  2. […] did a great post on public restrooms so I won’t go into too much detail about them.   As Colin noted in his […]

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