Public Toilets: A Pinnacle Of Society Around The World

Public toilets are rooms with individual stalls and sinks that are installed in outdoor spaces for people to use. Sometimes, these toilets can be located in entire buildings, managed by local governments or public agencies.

The common notion surrounding public toilets is they are unclean and unhygienic spaces that most people avoid using. But for society to progress and become more welcoming of different types of people, it’s essential to have quality public toilets for everyone.

This guide looks at the importance of public toilets and the crucial role they play toward gender equality, proper health and hygiene, and women empowerment. Keep reading for all the details and how public toilets can be made better.

What Is A Public Toilet?

Modern outdoor public toilet in city park. What is a public toilet?

Although known by different names, a public toilet is a room or a small building consisting of urinals and sinks for use by the general public. Public toilets are usually maintained and looked after by the government and referred to as restrooms, washrooms, or public bathrooms based on the prevalent language of an area.

The facilities of public toilets are used by travelers, customers, students, employees, etc., with male and female toilets separated. However, many modern installations are unisex, as in the case of single occupancy or small public toilets. 

Given how society has changed over the years, public toilets are now disabled-friendly. Moreover, the privacy or degrees of separation between male and female washrooms vary depending on the culture of a region.

In most cases, the cubicle or stall containing the toilet can be locked from the inside. Male urinals are usually mounted to the walls and seldom feature a divider between two stalls. 

Since these are looked after by commercial businesses or local authorities, it’s not uncommon to find attendants keeping public toilets clean. Some people might also tip the attendant for their services, such as in high-profile nightclubs. 

You will find that public toilets aren’t installed just anywhere and are located at strategic points, like the inner-city, factories, offices, schools, restaurants, cinemas, museums, etc. We have also seen filling stations, railway stations, planes, ferries, trains, and other vehicles of long-distance travel having public toilets for greater convenience.

Many popular outdoor events have portable toilets as well for the proper health and hygiene of large numbers of people. And because public toilets are managed by the municipality or other authorities, they require a fee. These are called pay toilets and may even contain charging turnstiles. 

Explaining The Public Toilet As A Program

While people may not give due importance to the maintenance or upkeep of public toilets, it’s crucial to note that these structures are symbolic of progress and human health. Instead of viewing them as waste bins, modern public toilets uphold every human’s right to sanitation and ensure the basic needs of every citizen are available beyond the household.

As part of this approach, the public toilet program must consider the following factors to prove useful for citizens.

  • Understanding the needs of people in public spaces
  • Mapping the number of people in an area
  • Developing effective solutions based on the area

Civil society representatives need to highlight how public toilets can be upgraded and what provisions they lack, including –

  • Making them more friendly for the elderly 
  • Affordability 
  • Accessibility 
  • Quality 
  • Safety 

Particular importance must be given to homeless people, waste pickers, etc. since their needs and how they use a public toilet will vary from office-goers. To improve public toilets and bring them up to standard, there must be proper communication between local governments and civil society. 

Public toilets help prioritize basic human rights of sanitation and water outside the house and ensure every city meets its SDG targets. Earlier, the demands for sanitation and water were considered only in terms of the household, causing public toilets to be neglected. 

This has resulted in citizens looking down upon the sanitary conditions of public toilets due to their…..

  • Limited availability 
  • Poor conditions
  • Inadequate considering modern standards
  • Challenging to access
  • Not diverse enough

The goal was to make public toilets inclusive, safe, affordable, hygienic, and accessible, for which cities had to become more friendly and responsive.

What Changes Were Brought About By The Public Toilet

For cities to change and accommodate public toilets as per modern standards, several departments had to reimagine the principles and framework of human rights about sanitation and water. This includes public service delivery, public health, and multiple regulators working together to find a solution.

Fortunately, efforts have started to pay off, and we now have more inclusive and sustainable cities, thanks to the need to develop public toilets. It has been seen that people’s desire to avoid or use public toilets is directly related to the conservation and quality of public equipment.

One section of people who are constantly forced to work in unhealthy conditions, compromising their health, are street workers. Such workers have repeatedly highlighted the lack of toilets as their main issue, spending most of their time outdoors. 

As a result, they are prone to health issues, and this can even lead to economic loss because many of these people are self-employed. It further reinforces discrimination because people with better jobs and opportunities don’t suffer from the same hygiene-related issues.

Many street workers or homeless people are reprimanded for seeking better sanitary conditions or access to clean drinking water in other places. Speaking of inclusivity, another group that is often overlooked is the transgender community, 

They don’t conform to the regular standards society follows, and more often than not, transgenders are denied entry into public toilets. Plus, the lack of effective solutions means they can be easily abused and make them feel left out when it comes to infrastructure and public policies. 

Women and girls have also been neglected, and for a long time, society failed to understand that the female sex had specific requirements and physiological needs. With the subsequent improvement in public toilets, dignity and quality of life have also improved.

Outdoor toilet. Toilet cubicle design. Paid water closet. Man and woman icon. Public toilet. Types of public toilets

Types Of Public Toilets

Public toilets may look the same and serve the same purpose, but there are different types you should know about. Each model has unique features and varies in their location, which is the basic difference.

For instance, you will find park public toilets in green spaces and parks, while public toilets are present in malls and shopping centers. We have also seen transport hub public toilets in several busy areas, such as train stations, airports, roadside restrooms, bus terminals, highways, and city streets.

Below we have highlighted 5 types of public toilets that are most common.

1. Roadside Public Toilets

Roadside restrooms are essential for a community to flourish, offering much-needed relief for passengers and drivers when traveling for long distances. Moreover, they are vital for uplifting the local community because safe and clean washrooms allow people to use the toilet outside their homes.

These toilets are located in busy areas and feature a standalone building consisting of many cubicles and individual stalls. 

2. Park Public Toilets

Park public toilets are usually well-maintained and ensure visitors have a comfortable experience. These toilets are spacious and well-lit facilities, complete with hand dryers, paper towel dispensers, soap dispensers, and other modern amenities. 

In many women’s restrooms, you will further find a baby changing station. Usually, such toilets are constructed within standalone buildings or other large facilities like visitor centers. 

3. Shopping Center Public Toilets

Shoppers who need a break after shopping for long hours can use public toilets in a shopping center. These are clean establishments that can even be accessed by disabled individuals and families. 

The toilets are positioned close to the food court or mall entrance for greater convenience. Moreover, they have signs posted on the doors, distinguishing the male and female washrooms while featuring well-lit designs. 

Best of all, shopping center toilets are cleaned frequently, which ensures they are fresh and hygienic despite many people using them.

4. Transport Hub Public Toilets

Transport hub toilets are also present in standalone buildings with many cubicles or individual stalls and positioned in busy areas. However, these toilets aren’t accessible to everyone, especially people with medical conditions or parents with young babies.

Even disabled people might find it tough to use public restrooms due to the lack of suitable amenities. The bigger issue is that these washrooms are usually neglected, mostly because of the lack of space or giving more importance to other facilities like shops or restaurants.

Hence, it’s not surprising that people availing of public transport often fail to find a safe and clean toilet when needed.

5. Portable/Temporary Public Toilets

Compared to traditional public toilets, portable public toilets are more convenient and offer several advantages. These washrooms provide greater flexibility and can be adapted to different situations or events.

Most importantly, portable toilets can be cleaned and moved to another location when needed. Local government representatives also find it easier to maintain these restrooms since the footfall is less than a traditional public toilet.

But there are some disadvantages of a portable toilet as well, including higher expenses. These toilets are costlier to set up and don’t offer the same comfort as a regular or private public toilet.

History Of The Public Toilet

There are many tales of where the first public toilet appeared, and one theory is that they were developed by the Scots in 3000 BC. Other historians have found communal toilets in Neolithic settlements, while in 1700 BC, the Greeks used clay pans connected to a water supply in the Palace of Knossos. 

We can assume that this might have been their version of a modern-day public toilet. However, the situation was different in ancient Rome since public toilets were only used by men and featured benches lining the walls, having several holes in them.

But this was highly unsanitary as there was no toilet paper or privacy, with most people using a stick attached to a communal sponge. The even bigger danger was the toilets exploding and catching fire owing to a chemical reaction between methane and hydrogen sulfide.

Public bathrooms for women only came into existence in the Victorian Era. Before that, women couldn’t venture far from their homes in case they needed to use the toilet, a situation that was termed the “urinary leash.”

The situation changed in 315 AD when Rome developed 150 public toilets, but it took some time until the first segregated toilet was developed in the Parisian Ball in 1739. This included a single-chamber box that was installed in one room for men and in another room for women. 

Meanwhile, in London, the first public toilet was set up in 1851 in the Crystal Palace when a plumber called George Jennings installed the Monkey Closets. These were the first public toilets people had seen in the UK, and they even came with a flushing mechanism.

In the USA, the first state to pass a law that made it mandatory for workplaces to hire women to install public toilets was Massachusetts in 1877. 

Other Notable Milestones

There is still some debate about when the first flushing toilet was installed, with many claiming Thomas Crapper came up with the design in the 1860s. But others point out that Sir John Harrington, who was the godson of Elizabeth I, was the original innovator 300 years earlier. 

Harrington reportedly developed a water closet, complete with a collection system and a pipe for flushing, in 1592. Only he and Elizabeth I used this kind of toilet, which might have resulted in the invention going unnoticed for several hundred years.

Later in 1775, Alexander Cummings, a watchmaker, came up with the S-shaped pipe we see under the basin though modern systems are more advanced. Moreover, Crapper constructed his new toilets in many royal palaces after being hired by Prince Edward in 1861.

However, preceding all these instances, archaeological discoveries in Northwest India have revealed drainage systems that could have been toilets. It’s impossible to say for sure, but these structures are at least 4,000 years old.  


In this section, we look at the legislation surrounding public toilets and how people are required to use them. 

Business Public Toilets

The laws laid down ensure businesses that allow customers to use their restrooms must adhere to the following provisions.

1. Number Of Fixtures

Federal laws govern the rules for employee use, while state or local governments decide the rules of washrooms for the wider public. Most US states follow the same rules mentioned under the Universal Plumbing Code and the International Plumbing Code. 

These codes help determine the least number of urinals and toilets there must be in every location. For instance, some retail stores can have 1 restroom for every 50 customers depending on the maximum capacity, while some restaurants must have 1 fixture for 75 people. 

2. Public Access

No law ensures every small business has to make their toilets accessible to the public, but doing so increases the reputation of the business. Some businesses that don’t require mandatory public access for their toilets can close their restrooms to the people and save operating costs.

But there are states like Texas, Illinois, and Oregon that have detailed their versions of the Restroom Access Law that makes toilets available to people with medical needs.

3. People With Disabilities

Restrooms with public access have to abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act, allowing these toilets to be used by most customers. Among modern amenities, these toilets must have grab bars, easily accessible flush controls, and space for a wheelchair. 

Older buildings are usually exempted from updating their bathrooms, but certain basic modifications have to be implemented.

4. Transgender Washrooms

We have spoken about the problems transgender individuals face, further compounded by the fact that many businesses don’t have unisex restrooms. In recent times, more companies have established policies that allow people to use their washrooms as per their gender identity.

But there are times when local ordinances and state laws manage how single-sex facilities are used, if at all. 

5. Other Problems

Public restrooms are allowed to be locked, but the key or code must be known to employees for easy access. Moreover, OSHA requirements mandate that all bathrooms must be clean, safe, and hazard-free without any damaged appliances.

There must also be sufficient hand paper, soap, toilet paper, electric hand dryers, and physical partitions in multi-fixture settings.

Ally’s Law

There is a law under the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 called the Ally’s Law that makes it mandatory for businesses to have employee restrooms to let people with certain medical conditions use them. Some of the prevalent medical conditions that fall under this law include – 

  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Different forms of IBD
  • Ostomy device-induced conditions
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Any other condition requires immediate restroom access
  • Pregnancy (in some states)

To be eligible under Ally’s Law, a person has to show proof of their medical condition to their employee or business owner. For instance, this can be a signed document from a medical professional stating that the person requires immediate access to a restroom.

In some cases, national organizations can issue an identity card for the same purpose, with the law varying slightly in different states. For example, some states accept pregnancy as a valid medical condition, while others only accept signed medical documents.

There are even instances when businesses aren’t required to adhere to the Restroom Access Act. As per this act, a store with less than 3 employees is not obligated to let a customer use the restroom since it increases the risk of theft.

Moreover, the law states that businesses need not change their facilities for people with medical conditions. And if a customer sustains an injury, the business can’t be held responsible unless there is gross negligence on their part. 

But in instances where a business denies an eligible customer access to their restroom, they may incur a fine or punishment.

Equality of access

Equality Of Access

Although public toilets have been around for over 2,000 years, there is still work to be done to ensure equality of access. This means creating pleasant facilities and design practices, keeping in mind safety, function, and health. 

It’s not surprising that in recent times, the major conflict of interest when it comes to trans rights revolves around the issue of restrooms. That said, it’s not just trans people who face the consequences of public toilet inequality, and human rights advocates emphasize the importance of public toilets about health, dignity, and social participation.

This is especially significant in low-income areas where providing safe public toilets can help abate the spread of diseases, even resulting in greater participation of women in society or education. High-income societies are also struggling to guarantee equality for women. 

Moreover, many countries have addressed the issue of building toilets that can be accessed by people with disabilities. But once again, more work must be done, even in developed countries where regulators fail to give due importance to this issue.

Gender Equality

People have become more aware of their needs and rights today, and so the debate surrounding gender equality in public toilets has taken a new shape in the past 5 years. Women indeed encounter more unfavorable conditions than men when using public toilets due to the lack of gender perspective among architects when creating public toilets.

Some organizations have already started awareness campaigns in top architecture studios to tackle inequality and make them aware of how women’s needs are different. However, some people counter these claims by stating that public toilets have been intentionally made this way to highlight the inequalities in society.

What architects forget is that women spend longer in the bathroom than men owing to their clothes, social responsibilities, and biological constitution. Another thing that architects don’t realize is that women need more space within a restroom, but the current area of men’s toilets and women’s toilets is the same.

Men’s washrooms are narrower, but they don’t require many facilities. On the other hand, a women’s toilet has large mirrors, baby changing stations, etc., which reduces the overall area and number of toilets per square meter.

This results in a common picture seen in many public spaces, women standing in long queues waiting to use the toilet. It further increases the time women spend in the bathroom.

The reality is that there aren’t enough public toilets, and to achieve equality, it’s crucial to use “potty parity.” According to this law, the proportion of toilets in public facilities must be at least 2:1 in favor of women. 

Public Toilets For Target Groups

Having more public toilets means people are likely to visit a place and stay there longer, including the elderly, children, and women. Having modern public toilets that are clean and safe ensures people of both genders will visit a place or go out in the evening, making people feel more secure.

Moreover, there should be changes in the design of public toilets depending on the location where they are installed. For instance, family toilets will be different from restrooms in corporate buildings since the greater focus will be on women’s and children’s needs.

It’s an open secret that cities were built keeping in mind the demands of men. To change this prevalent mindset, it’s crucial to create awareness because when women have to wait in long lines at public toilets, it can lead to problems with the digestive tract.

To guarantee the quality of life and equal opportunities, it’s time to reflect on the purpose of public toilets for society. The good news is that solutions are easily available, and maintenance or regular servicing can go a long way in ensuring cleanliness and durability.

Many companies now design self-cleaning toilets for a more inviting experience. 

Dry toilets, no water or chemicals. Design


Despite their simple appearance and structure, there’s a lot to think about when designing toilets. Here are some factors architects and designers must keep in mind. 

1. Color

Color psychology plays an important role in determining how the human brain perceives colors and affects human behavior. Most people forget that colors are a means of non-verbal communication and directly impact the mind and body.

Similarly, in toilet design, dark and light colors have their importance, with light shades proving better for delivering a clean appearance. But dark colors are linked to drama and come across as sophisticated and classy.

For the best results, fixtures should be of a lighter color, while the walls and flooring can be darker. With the right colors, the external and internal appearance of the toilet changes drastically. For instance, the exterior of the toilet can have bright colors to grab attention easily, which is better than mundane gray or white tones.

2. Structure And Form

The uniqueness of a public toilet lies in its structural form. In most instances, architects compromise with form and give more importance to function. 

But this doesn’t have to be the norm, and not all public toilets need to be inspired by a prototype cube that blends with the surroundings. You must note that the common perception of people regarding a public toilet is lack of maintenance.

However, a slightly differently shaped public toilet helps break this stigma and adds to the glamor of the street. For this, architects can use various colors, materials, and finishes. 

Best of all, it ensures that neither form nor function is compromised, but they complement each other. The function is important for serving the basic purpose of the toilet, whereas the form encourages curiosity and ownership.

3. Appealing To People

It’s hard to imagine, but with the right design ideas, public toilets can appeal to people’s senses. This aesthetic appeal can be created by thinking differently about the space to create an engaging line of thought. 

Among all the senses, the first point of stimulation is people’s vision because the first impression about a space depends on what visitors see. It helps determine whether the public toilet is fit for use, with textures and colors creating a visual perception in citizens’ minds.

The other important stimulant is the sense of smell which also affects your perception of using a public toilet. A smelly toilet, despite its unique construction, is repulsive compared to a pleasant-smelling space.

It can also be that the surroundings are unclean, in which the location of the toilet must be given proper thought. 

4. People

Knowing the target audience or people who are likely to use the toilet will allow architects to incorporate the necessary design elements. This is where demographics prove crucial since men and women have varying requirements. 

Colors, textures, changes in contrast, or volume, appeal to women and men in different ways, depending on the prevalent culture or circumstance. Toilets for men and women must be in separate spaces and not next to each other.

Moreover, washrooms must have individual facilities for tissues, diapers, sanitary pads, etc., to ensure the design is aesthetically relevant. It might also be possible to create toilets with a universal design that satisfies the needs of small girls, disabled people, pregnant women, senior citizens, etc.

5. Materials

There’s no need to use expensive materials for designing an aesthetically pleasing toilet because even basic materials, with relevant detailing, can deliver sophistication and beauty. It is also possible to use modern materials that are sustainable for greater durability and overall quality of the washroom.

6. Waste Management

Proper aesthetics in a washroom depends on the effective disposal and management of waste. Without proper waste management, public toilets lack cleanliness and hygiene, which could put people at risk of various diseases or health issues.

The waste management systems should be hidden out of sight without affecting their proper functioning. This adds to the aesthetics of a space and makes it usable for people with varying needs. 

Modern waste management ensures staff can remove waste from the system without littering the surrounding area. As a result, the stigma about washrooms is lifted, and people will perceive public toilets with healthcare and hygiene.

There can also be in-built waste management systems, such as composting pits or dry toilets.

7. Ventilation And Light

People perceive natural and artificial elements differently, so the installation and location of fixtures play a crucial role in determining the aesthetics of a space. For instance, toilets can appear healthy if there is more natural light filtering the space, which lends the feeling of comfort.

On the other hand, artificial lighting is more suitable when the day is coming to an end, and it’s getting darker outside. Using artificial lights during the day lends a feeling of isolation and seclusion. 

In the same way, having facilities for natural ventilation helps remove foul smells from a restroom and enhances ventilation inside the toilet. Without natural ventilation, people feel uncomfortable and enclosed in a small space.

Most architects forget that artificial ventilation creates a difference between the outside and inside air pressure, resulting in greater discomfort for users. 

Modern And Contemporary Public Toilet Examples

The lack of necessary provisions when designing a toilet is prevalent across the world, even in developing countries. So, here are some examples from around the globe where urban public toilets are making a difference and feature a contemporary design.

1. India


In Thane, India, a social enterprise organization commissioned an architect to design an urban public toilet for women. The uniqueness of this public toilet is that it’s built around a tree trunk and consists of 4 cubicles, complete with a resting area for women to chat and relax. 

There is a 24-hour guard and CCTV cameras installed for greater safety and protection. 

2. Norway

Toalettbygget på ureddplassen ved fylkesveg 17 i gildeskål, nordland, nasjonal turistveg helgelandskysten. Arkitekt for bygget: haugen/zohar arkitekter. Landskapsarkitekt: inge dahlman, landskapsfabrikken. ©foto: steinar skaar / statens vegvesen. Norway

On the Northern Coast of Norway, you will find a serpentine structure on the shore. This long concrete structure leads from the road to a picnic spot on the beach, and taking advantage of this, architects have designed an innovative public toilet.

Architects have created several facilities on this path, including a bike shed, barbecues, and public toilets. This reduces the need for designing other structures that affect the beauty of the surrounding landscape.

The uniqueness of this design is that it conforms to the landscape and helps enhance the natural beauty of the place.

3. Japan

Sony dsc. Japan

The island of Ibuki Jima in Japan is designed much like the local houses but with many lines running all over the structure. The slits divide the toilet into separate stalls and ensure natural light can filter in during the day. 

In other words, the building acts like a clock and shows how bodily functions are connected to natural systems. Hence, it’s aesthetically pleasing and ensures visitors have something to think about. 

4. London


In London, architects have designed a toilet as a tribute to the beloved children’s character Peter Pan, complete with pirate ships and wigwams. A dome-like structure has been built on the land, with a grassy mound covering the concrete structure. 

People can enter the public toilets through a white and curved rendered wall. Moreover, there are tube-like structures that protrude from the top of the hill, which allows daylight to filter into the colored spaces below. 

It also guarantees privacy to users and delivers a feeling similar to a Neolithic chamber. 

Row of green, blue portable chemical toilets in autumn forest at national park. Toilet conclusion

Public toilets are more than just structures of convenience and play an important role in guaranteeing equality and safety in society.

Although they serve the basic purpose of helping people relieve themselves and dispose of waste, more thought must be given to the design and overall structure. One of the most important things is increasing the number of public or portable toilets and making them inclusive for everyone.

There should be adequate facilities in the restrooms, especially for women, since their needs are different from those of men. Moreover, sufficient thought must be given to how to enhance the appeal of public toilets. If societies want to be more inclusive and promote equality, having well-structured public toilets is key!

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