Laura Norén is co-editor of “Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing .”
The public restroom, with its demand that we do something private near colleagues or strangers, provokes all sorts of fears: fear of germs, fear of bodily functions, fear of others thinking we are gross, fear of finding ourselves to be gross, fear of not fitting in and, perhaps the most politically challenging, fear of the other. But all these can be reduced through better design. Here’s one vision of the public bathroom of the future.
We could resolve the question of which restroom transgender individuals should use if we got rid of the bathroom binary. That also would help moms escorting sons, dads with daughters and people assisting elderly parents of the opposite sex. Urinals should remain in the mix — they save space and use less water than toilets — but they could be tucked away. Generally, separation should have less to do with sex than with function.
Substantial stall walls should extend floor to ceiling. Each stall should contain controls that allow users to set off sounds to mask human noises. Planners could consider piping in white noise or music throughout the space, as well.
Electronic-eye systems can be frustrating. Karate-kick maneuvers can damage flush handles. I recommend foot pedals for flushing the toilet, operating the sink and dispensing soap.
Americans, frankly, do not have the cleanest bathroom habits. For those who want to wash rather than wipe, place a flexible spigot and a small sink in the first stall.
The most accessible stall should be closest to the door and to the sinks. Each stall should contain a hinged shelf for cellphones, insulin syringes or other items. There should be a baby-changing table, with a sink, in a gender-flexible zone.
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