City of Edmonton taking another look at public washrooms

Screen grab from i-Cup documentary of the public washroom at the corner of Whyte Avenue and Gateway Boulevard in Edmonton. Courtesy: i-Cup

The City of Edmonton is once again taking the plunge at a strategy to offer more public washrooms and improve the experience for users.

The public washroom at the corner of Whyte Avenue and Gateway Boulevard opened in 2012 and has seen mixed results.

On Wednesday at the community and public service committee meeting, Edmonton police said officers regularly come across people using the facility as a shelter, for drug and alcohol use, or just to get out of the cold.

Cherie Klassen, with the Old Strathcona Business Association, said bar patrons have been known to relieve themselves in back alleys instead of the public washroom, which is upsetting to the business community.

“[Public washrooms] are challenging things to maintain, particularly when they are being used as shelter space as well,” Mayor Don Iveson admitted, saying that’s why the city needs a multi-pronged strategy to address sanitation issues.
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READ MORE: Does Edmonton need more public washrooms? The city wants to know

After 10 years of pilot projects and research, the city is preparing a new, city-wide plan for public toilets. The new strategy will cover things like permanent structures, porta-potties at events, sanitation, maintenance, and even how affordable housing comes into play.

“I think we owe it to people who have nowhere else to go to make sure that they have appropriate facilities,” Iveson said.

“That’s where our work around supportive housing and ending homelessness is a better long-term solution than trying to accommodate people in public washrooms when it’s cold out.”

Iveson said the city needs to partner with businesses, in particular the hospitality industry, to find a sustainable solution to higher demand for public bathrooms on Friday and Saturday nights.

READ MORE: Mayor promises action after survey suggests more public washrooms needed in Edmonton’s core

Ward 8 Coun. Ben Henderson said a lot of planning went into the early operations of the Whyte Avenue public bathroom, and the city needs to revisit what those best practices are.

“You need the specific response to the specific issue you’re trying to deal with and that’s going to be different in different places in the city, because it’s different demands,” Henderson said, adding there can’t be a one-size fits all approach.

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“The kind of late-night need we would have in a Jasper Avenue or Whyte Avenue area is different from what you’re going to be seeing in some other areas.”

WATCH BELOW: Whyte Avenue’s public washrooms are attracting attention across Canada thanks to a local documentary. Su-Ling Goh chats with the filmmaker.

Some cities have self-cleaning washrooms, however Henderson said they would likely not work in Edmonton. “It’s a different climate and apparently they don’t work well in really cold weather,” he said.

Henderson said after the public washroom opened on Whyte Avenue, the city did testing in parts of Oliver and downtown to see what locations would work for more bathrooms.

“And then it just sort of fizzled. So I think the fact that we’re back looking at this question again and recognizing this is a responsibility, I think as a city, we need to be able to provide public washrooms facilities – I think that’s a good news story.”

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READ MORE: Whyte Avenue’s public washrooms attract attention across Canada

City administration has proposed spending the next 12 months identifying sites for permanent public washrooms, building relationships with businesses and community groups, looking at prototyping changes in how washrooms are managed and approaches to addressing disorder, and establishing a governance model and shared operating standards.

The community and public service committee also voted to increase the frequency of updates it gets on the washroom strategy to once per year.

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