It seems like everything is alright with public bathrooms in Kyiv: something is renovated and constructed every year, the City Administration website features a map of bathrooms in all districts, and new toilet booths are captured by TV cameras from time to time at openings of new city stairs or bridges. This is what is visible and reported by the responsible services. The reality, however, is somewhat different: most city bathrooms on the Kyivvodofond balance are not functional. And the ones that are mostly don’t provide an opportunity even to wash your hands, not to mention access to drinking water or changing tables.
In November 2019, Internationaler Arbeitskreis e.V. in partnership with the CEDOS Think Tank and with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany organized educational exchanges for urban activists from Ukraine and Germany. The project was titled the Dialogue for Cohesive Cities. To follow up on the results of the educational trips, Mistosite is publishing a series of media materials created as a part of the project and written in January 2019. In each of them, we speak about a particular aspect of (un)fairness in contemporary cities. We tried to figure out what the alternative could be, how bathroom systems function in other countries, and what exactly Kyiv lacks.
To protect yourself from the novel virus SARS-CoV-2 World Health Organization recommends washing hands often and carefully. During the quarantine in Ukraine, which started on the 12th of March, many people don't have permanent access to running water and soap. Some of them are homeless, others have to work outside despite the lockdown. An accessible public bathroom system in the city could lower the risk of getting infected for these people.
Living in search
At 26, Olesia has made a list of bathrooms on her route from home to work: she wrote down the opening hours of city bathrooms and nearby cafes in her notebook. In Maidan, for instance, there is Globus; in Kontraktova Square, there is Puzata Hata. If she feels an urge in Pochaina or Tarasa Shevchenka, she’s out of luck: there are plenty of stalls with coffee and all kinds of trinkets around, but no bathrooms. Half a year ago, Olesia was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. It means that at any moment, anywhere—at work, on the subway, or in the middle of a street—she can feel her stomach turn, and she’ll have a couple of minutes to find a bathroom.
It’s a shameful thing to talk about. You can’t say in passing over a coffee that you’re late to a meeting because you almost shit yourself again. So most of Olesia’s immediate circle don’t know why Olesia will think twice before going to a spontaneous date at the other end of the city or for a walk in the suburbs. Or to a house party in a different district, for that matter, because to get there, she needs to use a different subway line which has not been checked.
It all started in early summer: Olesia thought she had food poisoning, she got diarrhea. She took a day off, felt a little better, but the story repeated the next day, and then again and again. Her stomach could start aching when she was about to go to work, during her commute or at a business meeting.
She grew anxious to go out of her house: you never know when and where it can happen again if the day is going to end with you failing to reach the bathroom. At first, Olesia tried to eliminate various foods from her diet: maybe it’s actually an allergy to an ingredient in her daily breakfasts? The strategy didn’t work, and she started a round of checkups with doctors. The consultations and examinations took two months and a half, but none of the medicine she was prescribed helped.
«The thing is that this condition can be diagnosed only by process of elimination. It cannot be recognized from tests or examinations. My doctors finally agreed that it couldn’t be anything but the IBS and prescribed antidepressants which started to help a little bit,» says the girl.
The cause of the condition was never found: it could have been stress, it could have been germs provoked by some external factors. The condition is characterized by constant stomach pain, diarrhea, or constipation (or both). And Olesia says this produces anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. You don’t want to leave the house, you’re even scared to walk to the nearest supermarket, not to mention spending a day outside or going to a party. All of this makes the symptoms even worse.
If before, she could skip going to a bathroom because it’s dirty and unsanitary, now she’s happy even when she sees blue plastic porta-potties—if they’re not locked with a padlock. The majority of them, she says, work unpredictably: they can be closed even during the working hours, so it’s better to rely on cafes or restaurants.
A few times, when there was no cafe on the way, Olesia asked to use supermarket or drugstore bathrooms. They didn’t let her in, saying that the management doesn’t allow it, so «go look somewhere else.» Once, this «somewhere» happened to be right on the subway.
«I ran out to the Shuliavka platform and realized I needed to run to the exit now, and then run around looking for a cafe; this was in the morning, it was unclear when they opened, especially in that area. I was crying, I didn’t know what to do. In the end, I ran up to a subway worker and asked to use their bathroom, even though I was afraid that I’d be denied it, just like at the stores. But she probably responded to my tears and took me there anyway—and I hadn’t seen bathrooms like that for a long time. These are memories from my childhood: old bus stations, mold, humidity, just a hole in the floor, dirt,» recalls Olesia.
There are actually no bathrooms on the subway—and they were never in the plans. This is explained by saying that subway rides are short, and the stations need to be reconstructed to install bathroom stalls. The subway is a strategic facility; nobody’s going to install surveillance cameras in the stalls.
But we don’t actually need to fight for bathrooms on the subway, explains the activist Serhiy Shchelkunov. A few years ago, he wrote the petition to create a public bathroom network in Kyiv, which collected 10,000 signatures, but it ended there.
According to the activist, the problem is not to make bathrooms a part of the stations. The problem is that people who use the subway should be able to use a bathroom outside the station—at the exit or nearby—quickly and easily. In the fall of 2019, regulations were finally adopted to include bathrooms at the entrances or exits of newly constructed stations; but this does not apply to old stations.
«No doubt, this is the city’s responsibility, and the city should not push it onto others, like the subway system,» adds the activist.
The practice of sharing responsibility with businesses exists in other countries, too. In Ottawa, Canada, says Serhiy, businesses have no right to ban people from using their bathrooms; but there are exceptions—if there’s a sign at the entrance that the bathroom is for paying customers only. «The idea is that you must formally write it at the entrance. This requirement gives future patrons an understanding if they want to leave their money in a place where the bathroom service is provided only to paying customers.»
The official website of Kyivvodofond, which services Kyiv bathrooms, features a map of public bathrooms in different Kyiv districts. This was the first place where Olesia looked when she started checking bathrooms in her area.
«I realized that I was stuck with this problem, and I had to be prepared somehow. I calculated all the possible options: where to run if my stomach starts hurting at any of the subway stations on my way to work—which public bathrooms there are nearby, their opening hours, which restaurants there are, and their opening hours,» says Olesia.
In addition to the map, the website describes various types of bathrooms functioning in the city. For instance, there are stationary bathrooms in buildings, modular and container-type bathrooms with water and lighting, mobile stalls without water or sewerage. They exist in parks, at beaches, along tourist routes, at public transportation stations, at markets, in shopping malls, at various leisure locations such as sports complexes, bars, restaurants, theatres and so on, in education institutions, and if a festival or political action is organized, then near these, too.
The majority of the bathrooms don’t work; they are even marked on the map itself. For various reasons: a bathroom could get flooded during heavy rainfall, it could require a fundamental renovation or reconstruction, it could be open only during the summer, or it could be a subject of a criminal investigation.
«In Kyiv, new infrastructure facilities are renovated, modernized, and constructed every year; with them, new or renovated, updated public bathrooms appear. This is a constant process,» reads the official website. Actually, the process looks as follows: if a new beach is opened, it’s equipped with a bathroom. A shopping mall also isn’t going to be built without a bathroom, as well as an airport, a train station, a gas station or a restaurant.
«The problem is that bathrooms are built not as an infrastructure element, but as a part of some other facility. And, in my opinion, this is the main failure of the city administration,» says Serhiy Shchelkunov.
According to the official Kyivvodofond data, in the four years between 2014 and 2019, 13 public bathrooms in parks were built or reconstructed, another 19 were just renovated, and the first automatic modular bathroom in Kyiv was installed next to the Funicular (which, by the way, is currently not working).
«Their key problem is that they work until 8 p.m., and then from a certain hour in the morning. But what should I do the rest of the time? It’s a questionable initiative,» says Olesia. «Another issue is the conditions. In most of them, you can’t even wash your hands: either there’s no water or the taps are broken. And it’s a basic need, to wash your hands after using the bathroom.»
Also, as it turns out, it’s hard to find the bathrooms even if they do exist: «You come out of a subway station, and you have no idea where to go, what to do next. It’s especially problematic with some subway stations. For instance, in Tarasa Shevchenka or Pochayna, there are lots of booths and stalls selling all kinds of stuff, but it’s a whole quest to find a bathroom,» says the girl.
You can always go to McDonald’s
Since 2008, Kyiv has had a City Administration decree providing that everyone is entitled to use bathrooms in all restaurants, cafes, and bars, they cannot be denied entry or asked to pay for it. This decision is a kind of alternative to public bathrooms. But it cannot fully replace public bathrooms, and here is why:
First, restaurant bathrooms are not accessible to everyone. The decree leaves out several groups of people right away: the homeless, low-income people, or other marginalized groups who are not going to use restaurant bathrooms. People who never visit expensive establishments will, of course, never ask to use their bathroom. Many people have this shame and fear of rejection, and it’s an additional obstacle.
Second, this decree does not always work. «At some facilities, the staff does deny it, and then a conflict can emerge, the person has to try and persuade them or to beg, it’s additional stress,» says Serhiy.
Third, explains the activist, this transfers the city’s social responsibility to businesses. «In these cases, there need to be preferences for businesses that provide access to bathrooms; but public bathroom standards need to be introduced as well. Because not all bathrooms in restaurants are accessible to all citizens, so they exclude those who could use them but do not right away,» explains the activist.
How it could be: Berlin’s concept
Two years ago, the Berlin City Hall uploaded its open-access concept for the development of public bathrooms. The hundred-page document analyzes the demand for bathrooms in various city districts and locations, details the requirements for various types of bathrooms, explains the logic of the analysis, and presents a study of how other EU cities ensure access to public bathrooms. It even specifies detailed technical, design, and environmental requirements for each bathroom type.
The concept was developed when the contract between the city hall and the company that serviced the bathrooms was expiring. And this supposedly provided an opportunity to review to what extent the existing bathrooms perform their functions and how they could be updated. The designers called the new bathroom system «an opportunity for Berlin to improve the living conditions and the city’s attractiveness even more.»
Volunteers from Ukrainian communities in Canada, Germany, and the U.S. translated the Berlin concept in support of Serhiy Shchelkunov’s petition and published it to be accessed freely.
«Of course, the Kyiv concept can be different. But the Berlin concept can be applied in terms of approaches. They studied the demand, found out where bathrooms were needed, analyzed passenger flows, and even data on the gender distribution of users. It’s a fundamentally different approach,» explains Serhiy. «If we ask our officials why our bathrooms are where they are, we won’t get a logical answer. In turn, in Berlin, there’s detailed justification for each bathroom as to why it’s in this location in particular. It’s important in the context of how decisions are made and implemented.»
The study’s authors singled out four groups of locations in Berlin where bathrooms must be available:
- train and tram stations;
- tourist locations and routes;
- green areas and water reservoirs: parks, swimming locations, playgrounds, and even cemeteries;
- centers where people regularly gather: shopping malls, street markets, and night establishments.
We present to you several adapted theses from the Berlin concept.
Before building or reconstructing bathrooms, the whole system needs to be evaluated according to several criteria:
- Economy. We need to compare what is cheaper: to buy out the bathrooms that already exist or to build new ones; we also need to think which bathroom models are more cost-effective and whether collaboration with businesses can be established.
- Artistic value. We can’t just install plastic blue porta-potties in the middle of a historic thousand-year-old building. Bathrooms must fit with the city landscape. That is, each place must have an individually designed bathroom. Also, the bathroom must be recognizable and noticeable. For this purpose, colors, style, and logos must be designed, and a design competition must be held.
- Safety. People shouldn’t be afraid to enter the bathroom and the construction must provide safeguards against vandalism.
- Integration. Bathrooms must be accessible to all groups of users. To achieve this, we need to understand which groups there actually are and what they need. This is an important aspect: before constructing a bathroom for people with disabilities, we must ask people with disabilities what exactly they need and what their technical requirements are. This also applies to older people and homeless. The authors write: «For them, using the bathroom is also a way to socialize and be involved in public life.» This is one of the reasons why access to bathrooms must be open 24/7. They also mention a fee for using the bathrooms, proposing to set it at 50 cents. But they also propose to take into account the areas where bathrooms must be completely free or free for the homeless and other people who cannot afford to pay.
- Hygiene. The most important thing is automatic cleaning and easy service. There must be access to running water for washing hands and to additional disinfectant products. The sink must be sensor-activated; other equipment should be contactless, too, to prevent the spread of various germs. Accordingly, toilet seats must also be disinfected automatically, and the flush must activate independently. It is important not to forget that bathrooms exist not just for relieving oneself. A bathroom should be a comfortable place where people could get some drinking water or change their baby’s diapers.
- Sustainability. Saving water and power. If possible, using natural light, such as roof windows, solar, and biogas equipment. Wastewater can be used for heating systems (it was calculated that temperature in the bathroom must be between 15 and 30 degrees Celsius), but this is already going too deep into technicalities.
- Communication. There should be a communication strategy. We cannot just build bathrooms without developing a system of information and feedback. One idea is to print a bathroom map on each bathroom, another is to develop an app to trace the nearby bathrooms in real-time and to provide feedback: what is wrong, what the cleanliness situation is, and so on.
The authors, in particular, analyzed the experiences of the neighboring cities and countries. In Zurich, for instance, the city government calculated the expenses at about 2 euros per each use of the bathroom, and this amount is covered in full or in part from the city budget. The total cost of all city bathrooms exceeds 6 million euros per year, where 41% of the expenses cover staff compensations and another 24% cover rent.
Attempts to modernize the public bathroom system at the state level have also taken place in Ukraine. One of the latest updates: in the summer of 2019, the Health Care Ministry proposed new sanitation rules and norms, including an increase in the number of public bathrooms, benches, and trash cans. According to the project, bathrooms must be available in all green areas where people spend time outdoors, distances between bathrooms must be up to 700 meters, and up to 300 meters in popular areas, each bathroom must have a changing table and access to drinking water, and each stationary bathroom must be connected to the sewerage system. However, the matter did not move further than the discussion stage.