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Hostile Design in the Built Environment

Transcript for Stop #3: 400ish Trinity Street | The Portland Loo

ASHLEY: Y’all, I’m so excited to tell you about what this stop has in store for you. Here on Trinity Street near 4th is one of Austin’s very own Portland Loos! 


KATILIN: Is that a [dramatic pause] bathroom?


ASHLEY: Yes! Never in my life have I been so excited about bathrooms, but I’ll never look at them the same way again. The Portland Loo is a marvel of defensive design. It’s got graffiti-proof wall panels, and a special coating that makes it easy to clean. The open grating makes it easy to see how many people are inside, while still providing privacy. The handwashing station is outside, so there’s no lingering inside. And the Portland Loo also uses blue lights to prevent IV drug users from locating veins.  


KAITLIN: Alright, I’ve pulled up the Portland Loo website, and there’s some stuff that’s worth sharing. It says, “We know that you want a lavatory that integrates well with the environment, while also discouraging crime and destruction. The City of Portland wanted the same thing, and the city personnel knew well the history of nightmare issues that had occurred with other city toilets open to the public 24/7. That’s why, when designing the Portland Loo, we took the time to get it right with ingenuity and input from police, fire, park staff, engineers, and more.”


ASHLEY: The Portland Loo doesn’t disappoint. When a city is looking to make a public restroom available 24/7, they’re making a really inclusive choice. Sure, it benefits everyone to not have to deal with human waste on the sidewalks, but it addresses the needs of so many. Think about the unhoused population who may not have other options. People out and about after the bars close. Tourists walking around the city. An experience you and I know all too well - parents potty training their kids who literally have to plan their trips around access to public restrooms.


KAITLIN: So, a public restroom benefits so many people, and yet, there’s all this effort that has to go into making sure it's not destroyed. 


ASHLEY: Unfortunately, people seem to want to make it so that we can’t have nice things. Austin piloted the public restrooms before installing the Portland Loos. They tested to determine the best location, approximate usage and misuse of the facilities. The test helped them learn there is a need for public restrooms, and that people will definitely use them, but also the few who misuse them can wreak havoc on providing this well-meaning service to all. And the Portland Loo helps them combat those issues so we can all enjoy the benefits they bring. Part of this initiative also included providing clean drinking water to people with the installation of water fountains downtown. To tell us more about the public restrooms and water fountains, we are honored to have talked to Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo.


KATHIE TOVO: Hi, I'm Kathie Tovo and I represent District 9 on the Austin City Council which includes most of downtown. Austin is fortunate to have in its downtown, a diverse array of vibrant businesses and a really active entertainment district. Our downtown is also home to the highest number of individuals experiencing homelessness in Austin. And so many people work and play and live in the downtown area, and all of them need access to clean public restrooms and drinking water. The public restrooms and the water fountains that we now have in our downtown area are very new additions to our urban landscape. Getting the Portland loos in place in particular took a very long time. Though some community partners had begun researching the issue a few years prior, it wasn't until 2016 that the city council addressed the need and passed a resolution I brought forward to create a restroom pilot program.


Providing access to free 24 hour public restrooms is not only a matter of basic human dignity. Public restrooms are also critical in maintaining safe and sanitary public health standards. And the need was really clear. Spots in downtown, especially in the area of 6th Street often bore evidence that people without better alternatives were using the streets instead. And various tests suggested that water quality was being impacted.


During the restroom pilot program, city staff moved portable restrooms on a trailer to different places in the downtown area to help identify which areas of the permanent restrooms would get the most use. I will say not everyone was immediately excited about the idea of having public restrooms and the Portland loo model became very important to help and gain that more widespread community support. The Portland loo is designed to be durable and relatively low maintenance. And unlike the closed door temporary restrooms, the Portland loo doesn't require an onsite attendant and cuts down, to a large extent on cleaning requirements.


And because it's designed for an urban environment, it's designed in ways to discourage illegal activities and to keep users safe. So I'm hopeful that Austin can avoid some of the problems that other cities have experienced, problems that I will say have sometimes led to public restrooms because of a range of issues that included city staff transitions, delays in ordering and other challenges, it took a long time, years, for the staff to get the Portland loos ordered and in place.


But downtown is now home to three Portland loo, public restroom units. There's one on Trinity Street between 4th and 5th Street, on Brazos between 4th and 5th Streets and on 6th Street at I-35. And these are areas with lots of foot traffic from people who live and work and visit our downtown, whether they're walking to their car after a night on 6th Street, or attending a convention at the Convention Center in the Palm District, or living unhoused in the downtown area.


From time to time over the last several years, different community members had voiced hard for installing public drinking fountains in some of our spaces. Austin's 2009 Downtown Design Guidelines, the City of Boston Code, the 2016 Age-Friendly Action Plan, are all examples that called for installing drinking fountains in our public spaces. And beginning in about 2018, the city council also heard testimony at several of our meetings from a community advocate who is experiencing homelessness and spoke powerfully for the need for water fountains.


As we all know, Austin summers are long and hot. The impact of climate change is very real and access to fresh drinking water particularly during those scorching summer months is really vital to life and health. After I brought a successful resolution to council to install additional drinking fountains in some key downtown locations, the Austin Water Utility and its leadership worked really quickly to get them installed. And downtown now has two water fountains adjacent to the restrooms at 4th in Trinity and 6th in Brazos. And these were put in place just prior to the pandemic and they've been extremely valuable resources.


The water fountains also include an option for filling a water bottle, and they have a feature on the base that allows pets to drink. And I'm very hopeful that we'll see more of these fountains installed throughout the downtown in the years to come. Downtown's public restrooms and drinking fountains are important. These amenities serve a variety of individuals, including visitors, employees, patrons of downtown businesses, individuals experiencing homelessness, those who are using bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, families with children, and late-night crowds. And as our city continues to grow and change, we need to expand these sorts of amenities and to make sure that everyone in our community can access these resources.


KAITLIN: For more details about the public restroom and water fountain initiative in downtown Austin, we talked to Matt Macioge, the Operations Director at Downtown Austin Alliance.


MATT MACIOGE: Welcome to one of the three Portland Loos installed in downtown Austin.   Approximately a year and a half ago, the City of Austin’s Departments of Watershed Protection, Public Works and Austin Public Health partnered with Downtown Austin Alliance to do a pilot project to assess the need and to develop locations for public restrooms. The goal of the project was to prevent human waste on our sidewalks, prevent it from polluting our waterways, and provide a dignified solution to basic human need.


The pilot used existing data to select key areas.  The group evaluated level of pedestrian traffic, proximity to the watershed and areas where sanitation teams had abated human waste. Safety was always a concern when we began to select locations for the project.  We looked for well lit and highly visible locations.


The pilot had approximately one hundred and twenty users each day covering a very diverse set of demographics.  The initiative decreased waste in a quarter mile vicinity of the pilot’s locations by approximately 60%. The success of the pilot led to installation of three permanent Portland loos, located on 6th Street between the frontage road of IH-35 and Sabine Street, 4th Street and Trinity - this location at Brush Square, and the final location at Sixth Street and Brazos Avenue.


The permanent restrooms were designed to weather the elements and an urban environment. The fixtures are stainless steel, easily cleaned and meet ADA standards.  The units provide all the basic needs, including a hand sanitization station both inside the unit and a hand wash station outside the unit. As we move through the pandemic, the handwashing station helps to address other public health needs by providing a location where people can wash their hands.  From 6:00 a.m. until 11 p.m. Downtown Austin Alliance Ambassadors ensure the restrooms are cleaned and restocked on an hourly basis.  The same team helps track the metrics from occupant counts to incidents and reports all maintenance issues to our corresponding city partners. The restrooms remain open throughout the evening. However, they are not restocked during that time. 


The restrooms address an essential human need. Recently, the city of Austin added water fountains in the proximity to the restrooms to ensure that everyone had access to clean potable water, especially through the summer heat of Austin, which often reaches triple digits. The fountains include a recharge station, accessible fountain and even one for our furry friends walking their owners downtown on a regular basis.

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