Like the title of the famous children’s books says: Everybody poops. So why is it so hard to find a place to go? There are surprisingly few public facilities in Dallas where people can take care of this basic biological function. This lack of access to public restrooms isn’t just an inconvenience; it is an issue of equity. For caretakers, for people with chronic illnesses, for people who are pregnant or menstruating, for people who are unhoused, it’s a matter of dignity, of basic hygiene, and of comfort.
In the United States, there is a long history over the fight for public restrooms. At one time, pay toilets were fairly common, but the practice of charging (which disproportionately impacted people who used bathroom stalls and not urinals) was challenged by activists. The ensuing decommissioning of public pay toilets in the 1970s and ’80s was intended to be followed by free facilities for all, but due to factors like the hollowing of downtowns across America, the gutting of major cities’ budgets, and fearmongering and paranoia about crime and disease, the desired public facilities never materialized.
Decades later, some cities have realized that going to the bathroom is a need that can’t just be ignored, so they have developed programs to install freestanding toilet structures in public locations: In Portland, the Portland Loo is a bare-bones approach designed to take abuse. In the fall of 2022, the New York City Council passed the “bathroom bill,” which is intended to identify locations across the city for new public restrooms to be built. Before the pandemic, San Francisco held a competition to design a new freestanding public restroom prototype for the city. In many cases, these new programs are intended to replace existing freestanding facilities that are in various stages of disrepair.
In Dallas, where there isn’t a program for freestanding public restrooms, parks and other public facilities are the main source for publicly available restrooms. However, in the Trust for Public Land’s 2023 City Parks Facts, Dallas was listed 104th out of 105 cities in terms of the provision of restrooms in public parks. According to their study, there are 20 permanent freestanding restrooms and 142 semipermanent restrooms, for a total of 1.2 restrooms per 10,000 people. San Antonio, with a comparable population, has 3.6. St. Petersburg, Florida, has the greatest coverage with 6.5 public restrooms per 10,000 people. Yelp and Google reviews of Dallas’ parks show that the facilities that do exist are frequently locked or inaccessible. If you count the restrooms in the 25 branch libraries across the city, there’s slightly better coverage. And while libraries cover many more needs in a community than providing books, they are not designed to be the city’s primary public restroom option. They are also not open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, leaving many hours without any public options available.
What this means is that, generally speaking, you’re dependent on private businesses if you have to go. People have created crowdsourced guides on sites like Freepee or Yelp, directing people to businesses like McDonalds or Burger King. My go-to in downtown Dallas has always been The Joule hotel — it’s clean and has nice soap and great lighting. But really, you shouldn’t have to frequent a place of business to address a basic need. And businesses aren’t always so keen on letting you, sometimes denying their restrooms even to paying customers. In August, there was a well-publicized incident at Serious Pizza where the civil rights of a customer with a disability were violated when he was denied access to the restroom, even after he provided documentation of his disability.
There are examples of progress being made that provide beautiful, local precedents. Until recently, Main Street Garden was the only downtown park with public restrooms. That’s no longer the case now that Harwood, Carpenter, and Pacific Plaza parks have opened. Sarah Hughes, vice president and project director of Downtown Dallas Parks Conservancy, told me that the restrooms are an important design feature of the new parks. She says: “[These parks] are considered neighborhood parks for downtown; however, the users of these public spaces extend beyond those who live or work in Downtown Dallas. Out-of-town visitors, tourists, and, yes, the unhoused population, use these parks. Not everyone who visits a park will have access to a private restroom in a residence or business. Everyone who visits may need access to restroom facilities at some point, for a number of reasons. Restrooms may not be the most glamorous or celebrated feature in parks, but they are both a public amenity and a necessity for public health in cities.”
The Carpenter Park pavilion, a small structure that houses restrooms and other park-related programs, was designed by Dallas-based Shipley Architects. Despite the permanent shadow cast over it due to its location under Interstate 345, the design creates a bright and inviting space. “The restrooms are accessed off a central breezeway that connects both sides of the building to the surrounding park,” says architect Dan Shipley, FAIA. “It seemed important that this connection not be hall-like but rather feel like the park itself extended into the building. With openings at each side, you are looking through the building and seeing a park on the other side instead of looking into a dark hole.” He also notes that, in the interest of acoustical connection, there are no doors. “A parent will feel more secure knowing their child’s voice could be heard from inside either restroom,” he says. “Natural light was important to help make the restroom interiors friendlier.” Many of these design elements included by Shipley — natural daylight, activation of the space with other programs, using materials that are attractive and durable — echo design recommendations made in a 2020 report produced as part of the 2018-2019 Forefront Fellowship at the Urban Design Forum by Julie Chou, Kevin A. Gurley, and Boyeong Hong. In the report, they provide a host of design, safety, maintenance, cost, and technology recommendations, as well as guidelines for siting new public restrooms based on a triangulation of existing restrooms, public urination complaints, and street homelessness reports.
There are many opportunities that Dallas could look to if it wants to continue to build on the success of the new downtown parks. In Tokyo, 16 “starchitects” were invited to redesign existing public restrooms throughout the Shibuya neighborhood. An innovative program like that could be a great complement to the “architectural petting zoo” that is the Arts District. Research about and design propositions for public infrastructure like this could be a great collaboration with a Texas-based architecture school.
Anyone who has been on a downtown Dallas Facebook group page knows that lots of people have lots of opinions about the downtown bathroom situation. Allowing concerns about safety and crime, similar to the ones that thwarted plans for free toilets in the ’70s and ’80s, to prevent progress on this issue would be cutting off the nose to spite the face. As shown in the design of the new downtown Dallas parks, there are ways to address safety through design. Hughes tells me: “Safety is absolutely a concern. The facilities are no longer contributing to the public good if the fire department has to kick down the door on a regular basis to rescue someone, and then the restrooms remain locked until funds are available for monitoring and/or redesign. In response to this feedback, each park’s respective design team configured restroom buildings that can be opened and closed according to park hours, and the restrooms themselves include privacy stalls rather than full-length doors. This enables security and/or health professionals to intervene in an emergency situation.”
But, more importantly, it’s not a matter of “either/or” but rather “yes, and.” Yes, we need more public restrooms, and abundant affordable housing, and more permanent supportive housing, and readily available mental health care, and… and… and…. Folks working on issues of public space in Dallas recognize this. Evan Sheets, the vice president of planning and policy at Downtown Dallas, Inc., commented, “I think that as it relates to our unhoused population, the conversation gets much bigger and more comprehensive focusing on a full suite of wrap-around services provided by multiple organizations and entities.” As the city continues to grapple with issues of inequity, it needs to reframe how it thinks about public infrastructure to meet the daily needs of its residents. For designers, advocating for this reframing not only advances the goal of a better quality of life for all, but could lead to the creation of exciting new design opportunities.
Lizzie MacWillie, AIA, is an architect and urban designer. She is the current assistant director of the J Max Bond Center for Urban Futures and a former director at buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, a Dallas-based community design center.