Downtown Needs Bathrooms

Everyone needs to pee. This is an observation so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be stated. Yet it seems it’s not an observation that has made its way into our urban planning.

It’s really a simple equation. People need to pee – no public bathrooms = peeing in public (or worse).

Much of the world understands this. If you arrive in a town in the UK of about any size, you’ll find not only public accommodations, but signs around town directing you to where to find them. Sure, in Little Quaintown on Upper Lower Trent, this is largely for tourists, especially the rude American kind that would barge into the nearest establishment and pee without paying, but still. If you look around our fair city, you’ll notice signs saying, “bathrooms for customers only” that are a pretty good sign our local businesses aren’t terribly excited to welcome the public in to pee either.

The Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District has identified public urination as an issue and put an experimental free lavatory in Peavey Plaza in Fall 2015. Since that time, portable toilets open the public have been added to The Commons.

Defining the Problem

The fact of the matter is there are just very few places to pee that are open to the public in downtown Minneapolis, especially during evenings and weekends. What’s currently available falls into a few general categories:

Private businesses that are mostly open to all: Target. Barnes & Noble. Whole Foods. Macy’s before it closed.

Private businesses or institutions that are sort of open, but might not be for the disadvantaged: hotels, restaurants, St. Thomas campus.

Public buildings that are open during the day: library, City Hall, various other city and county buildings.

Private buildings if you know where to look: U.S. Bank Plaza (although I’m there every week day and didn’t know about them), TriTech Office Center skyway level.

Possible Solutions

Local blogger Nick Magrino has some good ideas for where additional restrooms could be added. Personally, I really like this idea from contributor Alex Cecchini:

Concept of 5th and Hennepin

The Cecchini Concept for 5th and Hennepin

I like the rest of it to address downtown public safety complaints too, but for the sake of this discussion, the idea of adding a public restroom adjacent to a light rail stop amidst quite a few nightlife venues seems like a no brainer. People complain about this intersection, including public urination, so let’s take that activity off the street.

In addition to adding new public restrooms, it would help to make existing restrooms more public. The Leamington Ramp transit center, for example, has restrooms that are technically open to the public:

There have been issues, people.

There have been issues, people.

I’m sympathetic to the security and maintenance issues, but are we pushing the marginal urinator out into the street with these restrictions? Maybe tolerating those issues is worth it (or we can find other ways to prevent them)?

Meanwhile, on the other side of downtown, I found this ostensibly public restroom in the 394 bus lobby of the B Ramp, very much closed (mid-day):



Let’s add more public restrooms downtown, but also, and in the meantime, can we make existing restrooms more available?

Adam Miller

About Adam Miller

Adam Miller works downtown and lives in South Minneapolis. He's an avid user of the city's bike paths, sidewalks and skyways. He's not entirely certain he knows what the word "urbanist" means.

16 thoughts on “Downtown Needs Bathrooms

  1. John Maddening

    Many years ago (20), I published a single issue of a zine that had info on all the restrooms one could use in DT Minneapolis, including maps and ratings*, called (in my hilarious 22-year-old wit) “Jeremy’s Guide to Downtown Dumping”. Even back then there was a problem with the number of restrooms open to the public, and though I don’t hang out there much anymore, I see it’s gotten worse.

    The #1 suggestion in the zine was to head into an older office building with unsecured elevators and head up 3-4 flights, that’s where shared unlocked restrooms often existed. Now granted, it’s easier for me (a clean-shaven, often-dressed-up white guy) to do that without being stopped or even questioned, but nowadays more and more office buildings have locked their otherwise public facilities. I had a very terse email exchange with someone in the management office of Riverplace after I arrived quite early for a meeting at and didn’t want to head into the business I was visiting embarrassingly early, only to find that all the restrooms were locked (I ended up walking down to Saint Anthony Main, where they’re not so stuffy).

    Amenities like public restrooms make downtown a nicer place to be for everyone, even those who do not have to make use of them. This should be a no brainer.

    * The best rating went to the second floor restrooms in the late, lamented Physicians & Surgeons Building, where the downtown Target now stands. Stalls of grey marble, white porcelain sinks that had design flair without being ostentatious.

  2. Lia

    Overall I agree there need to be more public restrooms downtown, but I think the security issues involved are likely significant enough to deserve more discussion. I know most users would be fine, but adding a public restroom near a few nightclubs means dealing with drunk people who have sex, vomit, and pass out there (not all at once, let’s hope). A toilet stall also seems like a nice private spot to do or maybe sell drugs, or just to take a nap, if one doesn’t have a good place to do that. Some of these things are not terrible in themselves (I sympathize with those who need a safe napping place, for sure, and vomiting is a very legit need) but they can reduce the usefulness, cleanliness, and appeal of the public restroom.

    It might help to look at how bigger cities like Paris, New York, Chicago, etc. deal with these problems. I know some places charge a small fee (which would also help defray cleaning and security costs); I think in Paris those weird pod bathrooms have a time limit before the lights go out and they begin to self-clean.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      I thought about including something about charging — for example the self-cleaning pods you mention are presumably available for purchase — but wound up leaving it out. I think the French generally charge, while, if I recall, in Germany it’s more voluntary.

      Bottom line to me, though, is that you want people to use the public restroom, especially those who are least likely to be able to pay even a small fee so they should probably be free.

      I’m not sure there’s any good guidance from American cities, as at least in my experience with Chicago, New York and DC, there’s not much in the way of public restrooms in any of them.

      Leicester Square in London might be an example, which itself gets pretty rowdy on weekend evenings, yet includes public conveniences. I think the answer is that you just have to decide they’re necessary and pay for the maintenance, security and cleaning.

      If they’re not a locked pod, most of the time European public restrooms have an attendant, which probably helps with the security issues.

    2. Rosa

      yeah, you have to have staff or the restrooms get trashed or just not used because they’re not safe.

      I’ve been a janitor in charge of cleaning sort-of public restrooms (“private business mostly open to the public”) that was football-game adjacent, and even before you get into spaces that homeless people use, event crowds are terrible and will trash everything. I’m sure bar-close folks are worse.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

        I wish I could remember what the Leicester Square staffing situation was, because a weekend pub close crowd in London’s nightlife district (well, one of them) definitely has a ton of trashing potential.

        1. Rosa

          I’d love to see stuff about it – there is a LOT of public peeing in UK cities, but also women will point out safe/staffed bathrooms for other women (and women pee on the street there more than women do here, or did when i was last there, which was a long time ago.)

        2. Barton

          The Leicester Square WC – still there – had staff. I don’t know who they worked for, per se, but they were wearing vests with Visit London and TfL (Transport for London) patches on it, so I assumed that was advertising. I recall seeing a woman during the day and a man at night. I can’t remember if these were free though.

          The public toilets around Piccadilly Square cost 50p. And, I will also point out that where London really needs the public toilets is in the Tube stations, where early morning trips mean having to hold your nose from the previous nights adventures peeing in corners….

  3. Noelle

    Minneapolis Running has a community-compiled map of public restrooms:

    Downtown is pretty scarce. It does seem like having public restrooms should be a no-brainer. Also I have been through US Bank hundreds of times and haven’t yet found those mythical public restrooms! I’ll have to go explore sometime.

  4. Julia

    I’ve had a post on this for sitting in my draft folder for a while–I’m glad to see more attention being paid. On one of the first nice days of spring as I walked downtown mid-afternoon (passing Nick Magrino, incidentally), I saw (and tweeted about) at least two people urinating in public.

    I think it’s almost impossible to fully talk about safe, accessible public restrooms without talking about two related issues.

    Firstly the implications of their absence. It’s not a neutral thing: “geez, guys, doesn’t it suck when we don’t have public restrooms?!” It’s absolutely a way of restricting (whether intentionally or passively) the public existence and civic engagement of many people, particularly those who are already marginalized or excluded, particularly those who cannot stand to pee, those who menstruate, those who are pregnant, those who have bladder or urinary control difficulties (see: children, elderly, those who have been pregnant multiple times) and those who travel with them, and those who are more at risk of being harassed or sexually assaulted. And that’s outside the clear racial and class exclusion that comes into play when you restrict or privatize “public” bathroom access, as Minneapolis has.

    Secondly, the human water cycle requires inputs. Equally hard to find in downtown Minneapolis are public water fountains. That’s a basic public health issue.

    Lastly, while I’ve been glad to see some seasonal provision of public restrooms downtown in the form of portapotties, both the DiD and the Vikings Commons Whatever Park have seen fit to gender them. Who genders portapotties?!? In 2017 Minneapolis!?!

    1. Jaime

      Gendering portapotties does seem pretty ridiculous, but actually it was a demand fought for and won by many women construction workers back when women were even less represented in the field than today. Men were known to intentionally foul up the porta potties to make women feel uncomfortable. Maybe this still happens?

      Today now that it’s more well known that more people than just men and women need to pee, there at the very least need to be gender-neutral options around.

      Kudos to Julia for this comment recognizing that the absence of bathrooms is not just an inconveninece – it’s a tool for restricting who gets to exist in public. Whether you have a disability, or are transgender, or are just poor and visibly different, if you don’t have somewhere to pee you can’t go out.

  5. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    <—- Has wet her pants as an adult due to the lack of a public restroom.

    I've found if I have a child under about age 6 and frantically ask to use a bathroom I have never been turned down. Now that mine are aging out of the magic zone I might have to start grabbing random children or drink less. I once asked to use a restroom at a business and was told no. I threatened to pee on their floor and they changed their minds.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      Statement reflecting several kinds of privilege alert: I’d just make a run for it before I asked. What are they going to do, yell at me after I say “sorry, had to go?”

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