Public toilets ‘failing to respond to need and to local context’

A national approach to public toilets is needed to increase accessibility and participation in social, economic and civic life, a Queensland researcher says.

Churchill Fellow Katherine Webber has proposed that key stakeholders able to influence public lavatory design and management (including the Australian Local Government Association and Infrastructure Australia) develop design and functionality guidelines based on principles such as:

  • public health and hygiene;
  • the need for safety and privacy;
  • inclusion and consultation;
  • ease of maintenance;
  • sustainability; and
  • clear communication around availability.

Ms Webber was in Canberra last week to brief government policy-makers on a report she prepared as a Churchill Fellowship recipient.

“I think there is legislative change required around who has that planning and provision responsibility around public toilets,” she told ABC Radio Brisbane.

She said public toilets were generally built on a site-by-site basis rather than a planned network considering accessibility, travel, and other issues.

The need for change had been underlined during the Covid-19 pandemic when several councils that had failed to provide soap dispensers in their facilities because of vandalism or environmental concerns were forced to backtrack and install them.

Anecdotal reports of public toilets being closed to reduce virus transmission prompted frustration from people with accessibility needs and concerns over access for vulnerable people.

Ms Webber travelled to the US, Canada, Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands as part of her Churchill Fellowship investigating increasing accessibility and inclusion in public toilets.

She said it was evident from her conversations and meetings with local governments, community groups, NGOs, and other groups that “barriers exist to different users in locating, accessing and using public toilets demonstrate the need for a wider application of universal design in public toilet design and provision”.