Downtown Minneapolis Utilizes Portable Sanitation to Expand Restroom Access

The 100 Restrooms Project adopts a multiprong approach to provide relief for visitors in search of a bathroom.

Downtown Minneapolis Utilizes Portable Sanitation to Expand Restroom Access

This Satellite | PolyPortables Freedom restroom was placed by Biffs in a downtown plaza location.

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As many people will attest, finding available public restrooms in large cities is often difficult. Even municipal buildings aren’t always open to the public, and many businesses only allow paying customers to use their restrooms.

But cities like Minneapolis are proactively trying to address this issue, spurred by concerns about public urination and general convenience for residents and visitors alike. In fact, a program called the 100 Restrooms Project, sponsored by the city and the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District, is using portable restrooms to augment its permanent public restrooms, says Ben Shardlow, director of urban design for the district.

“We do an annual perception survey that asks thousands of residents, visitors and downtown employees about their concerns,” he says. “For the first few years, litter was the top cleanliness concern. But about six years ago, public urination became the No. 1 issue with a bullet.

“But it’s not just about public urination,” he adds. “It’s also about people coming downtown and having a good experience. … Virtually everyone will need to know where restrooms are located. It’s a basic hospitality gesture, just as you’d tell guests in your own home where the restroom is.”

Implemented last October, the project features wayfinding signage that lets the public know where the nearest bathrooms are located, portable restrooms in areas with limited public-restroom availability and an opt-in program for private businesses willing to let the public use their bathrooms, he says.

The ultimate goal: 100 restrooms available for public use. Currently, the count stands at 31, Shardlow says.

Shardlow recently spoke with Pumper about some of the challenges the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District faces while trying to get to 100 restrooms — and what role portable restrooms could play.

Pumper: Why not just build more permanent public restrooms?

Shardlow: They’re very expensive. There are horror stories from cities like Seattle that bought five high-tech, self-cleaning toilets for $5 million, then sold them for scrap about four years later. (News reports show the commodes were hot spots for drug use and prostitution.) So it’s possible to throw a lot of money at this issue and get poor results.

And in New York City, officials approved funding for dozens of permanent public restrooms without identifying suitable sites. They struggled for years to find suitable sites and only managed to install a handful. They received a lot of pushback from concerned neighbors and business owners who didn’t want them built in front of their stores. They said restrooms would prevent pedestrians from seeing their stores and would also cause loitering problems.

Pumper: You first ran a pilot program with portable restrooms — how did that go?

Shardlow: We did that in fall 2015. We put three single restrooms next to Peavey Plaza (a 2-acre downtown park) for a month — one for men, one for women and one that was Americans With Disabilities Act compliant. They featured vinyl wraps with graphics.

We wanted to determine if people would use them and if any safety or maintenance concerns would emerge. They were highly used, and we didn’t have any safety or maintenance concerns, such as drug use or anti-social behavior. We were happy with the results because we had heard a lot of horror stories about portable restrooms from facilities managers. The pilot program gave us useful information we could take to our stakeholders, rather than just speculate on what might happen.

Pumper: How many portable restrooms do you currently have in downtown Minneapolis?

Shardlow: We have three all-gender ADA units (Satellite | PolyPortables) in three different locations. They’re serviced daily by Biffs. (The company is based in Shakopee, just south of Minneapolis.)

Pumper: Were the portable restrooms well received by the public?

Shardlow: Yes. About 58% of respondents to a survey expressed support for portable restrooms. But people also expressed concern about how well they’ll be maintained and about nuisance issues.

Pumper: Where are the 28 public permanent restrooms located?

Shardlow: They’re generally located in publicly owned buildings, such as the public library, city hall, county office buildings, city-owned office buildings and so forth. They’re not secured — people don’t need a code to get in. But many of them aren’t open all the time.

Pumper: Are you trying to get business owners to participate in the program?

Shardlow: Yes, but we’re just starting the conversation. We’re asking business owners if they’re willing to put signs in their windows, saying their restrooms are open to the public. We have a prospect list we’re working through. We know we’ll get a lot of noes, but we feel it’s good to at least ask and see which business might be willing to let people use their bathrooms before spending significant amounts of money on other solutions.

Pumper: Do you want to add more portable restrooms to get to your 100-restroom goal?

Shardlow: Yes, but we don’t have the financial resources to do so right now. Paying for daily service adds up quickly. And even if we didn’t have financial constraints, we don’t have enough people to staff the restrooms.

Other cities have found that the best practice is to pay someone who’s in charge of greeting people. This basically lets people know that the restrooms are staffed, which helps prevent safety and nuisance behaviors, like people using them for shelter, for example.

These restrooms are in sleepy corners of downtown, so paying someone to sit there for 24 hours a day doesn’t seem like a good use of resources. It’s a conundrum, which is why it’s important to work toward other solutions, too.

Pumper: Is there a way to work around that staffing issue?

Shardlow: The real magic solution is putting portable restrooms in places that are already staffed and have a lot of activity, so people know the restrooms are somewhat supervised. It’s better if those attendants can do a reasonable level of multitasking, not just sit there and wait for three people an hour to use a portable restroom. But it’s a ground game. You need to look at individual blocks and businesses to find the right solutions.  

Pumper: Is signage an important part of the program?

Shardlow: Yes. We use sidewalk signs made from printed foil with metallic backing, not vinyl. They’re more durable than vinyl floor graphics, but they’re also not designed to last forever. They can be problematic, too; the snow covers them in winter, for instance. And if you ever change the location of a portable restroom or if a building with a public restroom closes or changes its business hours, then you need to change the signs to reflect those things.

On the other hand, it’s clear from feedback that people generally don’t know we have 28 (permanent) restrooms downtown. Signage raises awareness of locations. … We don’t want to put people in the position of guessing where restrooms are located. We understand there’ll always be people who disregard the resources we put out there, but most issues with public urination stem from people who don’t know where restrooms are located. 

Pumper: Any lessons learned while trying to tackle this problem?

Shardlow: I’d encourage other communities to approach this by first starting a dialogue — take an incremental approach to a broader, long-term challenge. They need to appreciate that in order to build community support; you first have to study the issue and share feedback. That’s how you build political will and community support for the right solutions for your city.

Pumper: Do you see portable restrooms as part of the solution?

Shardlow: Portable restrooms certainly are a tool in the toolbox. We’re still trying to learn how to use them in the service of reaching our broader goal, which is improving access to public restrooms, period. 


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