Arts & Science master's students partner with Toronto Public Space Committee to take on public washroom problem

May 2, 2022 by Rebecca Cheung - A&S News

What do you do when you have no place to answer nature’s call?

It’s a problem faced by those who live, work or visit Toronto when they’re out in the city. A team of dedicated master’s students from the Department of Geography & Planning, including Alycia Doering, Sawdah Ismail, Siobhan Kelly, Emily Power and Rameez Sadafal spent months looking into the issue. Their hard work will go a long way in supporting the Toronto Public Space Committee’s mission to make the city more liveable.

The lack of public bathrooms around the city is a real and ever-present concern for many, especially for unhoused populations, families with young children and those living with incontinence.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. As restaurants and retail outlets closed or began restricting access to their bathrooms, many essential workers, including delivery drivers and public transit operators, found themselves with no place to pull over for a pit stop during the work day.

Alycia Doering.
Alycia Doering and her classmates interviewed community groups and city councillors to better understand Toronto’s public washroom problem. Photo courtesy of Alycia Doering.

“I think it’s a problem everyone in Toronto has felt, especially this past summer during the pandemic when our only options for seeing people was to gather outdoors,” explains Doering. “There are not a lot of places for people to go.”

In the summer of 2021, the Toronto Public Space Committee was eager to make headway in its GottaGoTO campaign, advocating for increased public washroom access across the city. Igor Samardzic, a member of the steering committee and a U of T alumnus, turned to his former graduate program for help.

The Department of Geography & Planning enthusiastically accepted his pitch of including GottaGoTO as a project for students in the Workshop in Planning Practice course. In this workshop, student teams partner with an external client to tackle one real-world planning problem.

“We wanted to give talented students an opportunity to make a real impact with us. This was not going to be a project where they wrote a dense report that would collect dust on a city planner’s desk,” says Samardzic, who earned his honours bachelor of arts as a member of Trinity College and his master of arts from the Department of Geography & Planning.

“It didn’t take us long to understand that there are a lot of gaps in Toronto's current public washroom network,” explains Sadafal. “It’s also a multifaceted issue. Our main challenge was figuring out how to summarize the issue so a decision maker could fully appreciate the problem.”

The students completed a rigorous review and jurisdictional scan, which involved poring over policy documents and analyzing strategies undertaken by other cities, including implementing automated public toilets and arranging agreements with commercial businesses.

“We did a deep dive into all aspects of public washroom planning,” explains Doering. “We really needed to understand all angles of the issue.”

Rameez Sadafal.
Rameez Sadafal and his teammates reviewed public washroom policies and strategies developed by other cities. 
Photo credit: Joel Clifton.

The team toured Toronto neighbourhoods, paying close attention to gaps in public washroom access. They spoke directly to stakeholders, including community groups, City of Toronto staff members and city councillors.

“I am really proud of what this group was able to accomplish on behalf of the Toronto Public Space Committee at a time when the topic is especially charged with a sense of urgency and political debate,” says course instructor Michelle Berquist, manager of area transportation planning at the City of Toronto. “This group took on a project with an ambitious scope, looking critically at the state of practice in our city and its shortcomings. It was a job well done.”

Ultimately, their efforts paid off. The students delivered a comprehensive report and presentation to the Toronto Public Space Committee in December, when the workshop wrapped, and a few students hope to continue their engagement with the GottaGoTO program in the future.

“We were truly impressed by the work, and we’re excited to have a report, backed with evidence, that we can make public and create buzz around the city on this issue,” says Samardzic.