Monday, March 12, 2018

Thoughts on public washrooms

Safe toilet design and access - Humanizing public spaces 
by Tarah Hodgkinson 

Awhile back I took my students to Commercial Drive, a popular commercial corridor in Vancouver, to complete a community safety audit. We visited a few park locations surrounding the main corridor, each of which had a public washroom. This isn’t unusual, but when I encouraged my students to check out the parks they reported that the washrooms were locked... ALL of them! In the middle of the day!


On one of the public washrooms there was a notice to call the city to have the doors unlocked. First call: Answering machine. Second call: They said they would arrive in 30 minutes. I couldn’t believe it! Thankfully, I wasn’t pregnant, toting around children, or anything else that might have made washroom access an emergency.

I’m happy to report that when I took another group of students to Commercial Drive this year, the washrooms were open, clean and accessible. That was a far cry from the locked doors we had seen the year prior, a much too common experience in Vancouver and many cities across Canada and the United States. This raises an important issue we often do not talk about regarding neighbourhood safety - access to clean and safe washroom facilities.


I was reminded of this issue when I visited Australia recently and discovered public washrooms everywhere, not only in Brisbane, but in the Gold Coast, Byron Bay, Sydney and anywhere else I went. For someone who drinks a LOT of water, washroom access is an important part of my daily activities. As someone who has been a caregiver for a person living with multiple sclerosis, washroom access is an absolute necessity.

Proper signage showing where to go
How could my home country, famous for being socially minded, not provide the basic human dignity of clean and accessible public washrooms as in Australia?

Public spaces aren’t created by the people who live there and too often the needs of the public, especially the needs of the disabled, marginalized or disempowered, are ignored in creating these spaces. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the design and management of public washrooms.

In some cities, public washrooms are places of increased target hardening to prevent undesirable behaviour such as drug use and sexual solicitation. For example, many of the public washrooms in Calgary have blue lights that purport to make it impossible to find a vein, a controversial strategy challenged by actual research. Others, like those on Commercial Drive, have found ways of reducing hours of operation and in some cases removing them all together.

Australian public toilets
Is locking down and removing public washrooms the way to solve illegitimate use? Could we encourage local government to invest in cleaning and checking these places on a more regular basis - such as the self cleaning bathrooms in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver? Could we provide safer alternatives for these users (similar to safe injection sites) instead of punishing the public by locking down places that address basic human needs? If other countries like Australia have figured it out, I think there is hope for Canadian and U.S. cities as well.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Unobtrusive security and alternatives to bollards - Part 2

The Canadian Embassy in Washington combines aesthetics with security
 - photo Creative Commons, Wiki 
By Mateja Mihinjac

Last week I outlined why the problem of vehicular attacks on pedestrians demands thinking beyond target hardening. These incidents cannot be simply eradicated through design, but some of the alternatives below offer possibilities for reducing negative social impacts that accompany hyper-security.


One way to avoid perpetuating fear and altering aesthetics of public spaces is to transform overt, obtrusive security to less visible (or invisible) security. Instead of fortressing our cities and increasing mass surveillance, target hardening practices can be integrated into the environment (e.g. street furniture, layout, paving styles, use of special materials).

Multiple cases of concrete bollards painted by local artists and activists show that citizens care about the appearance of their public spaces and the message they convey to their users. Other less obtrusive strategies include natural barriers such as rain gardens, ponds, bridges and Ha-Ha walls.

Simple, reinforced planters can provide security and image
Successful experiments have also demonstrated how altering pedestrian movement through playful and non-obtrusive designs such as floor markings and mirrors prompts people to use a designated safe route and foster their connection to both place and their users.

Congruent with the smart city movement, new invisible technical solutions are also possible. Sweden is now testing geo-fencing on a large scale before the country may be the first to implement this approach in a fight against heavy vehicles attacks. In the U.S., architects are designing safer schools.

Another popular option includes altering zoning practices in city centers such as special downtown zones that limit vehicle use to light-weight and slow-speed vehicles or pedestrian-only areas. Such zones have a life of their own. They provide opportunities for people to explore and enjoy them. Concurrently they help reclaim public space through reprogramming a restricted area into a positive land use. They also demand improved pedestrian infrastructure and street networks that support easy and safe movement.

Altered zoning practices can create pedestrian-only areas
The ideas about walkable and human scale design have culminated in practices such as the Barnes dance intersections. The World Resources Institute also provides a detailed overview of measures that prioritize a safe and human scale transport design.

New York's Highline Park is a pedestrian-only, elevated park above street level


Security professionals, designers and planners can balance security and socially-appropriate measures by providing safety and support connections as well as interactions between people. Obtrusive security measures divide and create barriers between people. There are better alternatives.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Rethinking bollards in public places - Part 1

Retractable anti-ramming bollards - photo by Apostoloff, Wikimedia Commons

By Mateja Mihinjac

Over the past few years, several western cities have seen an increase in attacks on pedestrians by vehicle ramming into masses of people. For example, New York's vehicle ramming last October that killed 8 people or the 2014 terror attack south of Montreal in which two Canadian soldiers were run down in a parking lot. 

In a bid to protect these soft targets, jurisdictions around the world have been installing concrete bollards and other hardened access control mechanisms. These measures intend to slow down or stop a vehicle or absorb an impact in the event of a crash. Some include:
  • Chicanes
  • Fortification through concrete bollards
  • Decorative planters, large rocks
  • Steel bollards (photo above)
  • Remote-controlled hydraulic barriers
  • Walls and hardened, bulletproof glass.

Although these design features are not new, they are instant reactionary solutions to vehicular attacks. As The National puts it: “the use of concrete blocks shows that cities have failed to incorporate effective anti-terrorist features, and are more for public reassurance”. Hyper-security measures neglect appropriateness and social acceptance. 


It might be too early to tell whether such measures prevent further attacks, but relying on obtrusive and defensive practices alone has already raised doubts about their appropriateness. Those doubts arise from feelings of false reassurance, unsightly bollards, and ugly aesthetics. Further, there are risks of displacement to more vulnerable targets and inadequate experience by designers and security officials while implementing high security, target hardening in public places.

Dressing bollards in Brisbane - beautifying a concrete block
In today’s high-risk society it is clear that something must be done to secure public safety. At the same time, target hardened solutions obsess on security at the expense of the democratic use of public spaces, what one author calls the paradox of democracy and hypersecurity.

Do these practices foster a culture of fear and alienation instead of a sense of security and kinship? We need to consider the impact of target hardened community spaces in the public realm, including freedom of movement and positive social interactions. The question is, What is the right balance?

Next week’s blog will provide some alternative practices for a better balance between security and socially-appropriate measures. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Bipolar CPTED - Inclusion or Exclusion?

Access controls with lavender - CPTED can be beautiful
by Gregory Saville

Reflecting on Tarah's excellent blog last week on the need for access control in public housing, I came across an article I wrote a few years ago that adds another dimension to the access control story. I thought I’d share…

CPTED is inclusive, but only if it is used to help residents socialize and take ownership of their common spaces. If not, the results are like the sugar-sweet candy bar; it tastes yummy and satisfies children, but if overused it leads to heart disease and, when the sugar kicks in, the kids go nuts.  

How does it work? CPTED reduces crime by dividing the public realm into semi-public and semi-private spaces. For example, architects design a landscaped courtyard in front of an apartment building entranceway so residents feel that space belongs to them. But CPTED can also exclude some groups. 

Access control fencing around hotel
Is it needed? What's the crime like outside the fence?

Developers use access control to build exclusive gated communities to keep outsiders away from wealthy, enclosed residential areas. Or the tactic called target hardening might use reinforced bullet-proof windows in bank teller areas to deter robbers. But that can also create a psychological barrier between legitimate customers and make it difficult for tellers to provide a more personal service and get to know their customers.


Sometimes CPTED can have both inclusionary and exclusionary impact. For example, back in the 1980s and 1990s, Los Angeles and Dayton, Ohio barricaded selected road entrances into high crime neighborhoods to cut drive-by shooting and drug dealing. Shootings and drug activity did decrease, at least initially. But later crime increased as criminals adapted to the barricades. Furthermore, residents complained about being more isolated, the inconvenience of the barriers, the traffic impact on nearby neighborhoods. Worse still, in Los Angeles they complained about not being invited to participate in planning.

Inclusionary public plaza in Europe - No fences required
Clearly, CPTED has a bipolar nature – inclusion vs exclusion. The devil truly is in the details! As Jacobs said in Death and Life of Great American Cities: “The first thing to understand is that the public peace …of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as they are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.”


Beware of these exclusionary triggers:

  • CPTED checklists that list details for design. Some details can help, for example, lighting. But not always. Lighting research is inconclusive! In some cases, increased lighting can attract unwanted activity, or make it easier for drug dealers to see oncoming police. Therefore lighting may cause more harm than good. It may be necessary to turn lights out to cut crime. A better alternative to checklists is CPTED guidelines with examples and photos of positive designs, and requirements for a proper risk assessment prior to CPTED tactics.
  • CPTED that controls access, such as fencing around property, but doesn’t provide alternatives for socialization. For example, when children walk down residential streets lined with chain link fences they learn they are outsiders in their own neighborhood. Children need inclusive, semi-public play areas near where they live to feel they belong.
  • CPTED courses that teach students design tactics but ignore, or pay minimal attention, to 2nd Generation CPTED. That is where exclusionary errors begin!