City News

Opinion: Public toilets are crap

Public Toilet, Kendrick Park, Tempe. Photo: Alec Smart


Ask the average Sydneysider about the universal Emerald City experience and you will inevitably have to listen to rhapsodies about the beaches and the harbour, then several rants about real estate prices, traffic and rude people on the inadequate public transport.

Almost everyone in Sydney can regale you with rat tales – whether anecdotal, apocryphal, or apocalyptic – recalling wily rodents, often in plague proportions, ransacking garbage, mugging cats and making mischief.
Similarly, when questioned on public toilets, those same Sydneysiders will apprise you of many more unpleasant encounters with pernicious premises that left them and their buttocks cold.

From graffiti-strewn buildings bereft of toilet paper, to cubicles with broken locks, taps that won’t yield water and shattered lavatory seats that even Redback spiders are loathe to sit upon, Sydney folk assert a surplus of privations in their public privies.

And yet there is a causal relationship between the two – excessive rats and execrable loos – and the blame often lies with local authorities, from their disposal of waste to social care policies.
We thought our grandparents banished vileness when they improved Sydney’s central slums and destroyed outside water closets used by multiple households emptying bedpans into communal drains. Yet, incredibly, 21st century sewage management sometimes retreats into Victorian vulgarity.

This past summer I’ve lived nomadically all over Sydney in a camper van, from Cronulla in the south to Blacktown out west and Collaroy in the north, but mostly beside Eastern Suburbs’ beaches and alongside Cooks River.
Although I’ve been privileged to enjoy cleansing showers at my weekday office, when parked beside a park, beach or river, I’ve had to occasionally respect the call of nature, which often exposed me to the aforementioned loathsome loos.

And while it is admirable that local authorities are providing pleasant parks with free gas barbecues, sun shades, communal seating, off-leash dog-walking areas and safe children’s play zones, as well as nicely mown grass, cycle tracks, skateboard ramps and meandering footpaths, it is perplexing how public lavatories can be the antithesis of the aforementioned delightful community attractions.
‘Enjoy a barbecue in the great outdoors’, they seem to say, ‘but keep your legs crossed if you need to respond to nature’s call; wait until you get home, because our foul facilities leave a lot to be desired.’

In 2014, City of Sydney Council’s Public Toilet Strategy set out commitments to upgrade five public toilet facilities and construct nine new ones, and SCC continue to maintain a high standard of care and control of the 54 public toilets they directly supervise out of the 117 in the City’s local government area.
Yet step outside of this zone into surrounding neighbourhoods and the standard of care deteriorates, often drastically. During my nomadic travels I’ve found beach facilities usually well maintained, so too those in popular tourist destinations, where care and comfort is frequently out-sourced and serviced by professionals.

Sadly, this isn’t always the case with toilet blocks situated at recreation grounds, typically the most disgusting.
The worst, in my personal experience, include three in the inner west: Wicks Park in Marrickville; Kendrick Park in Tempe; and Camdenville Oval in St Peters, all of which are so awful they make you extremely reluctant to park your bottom on the toilet seat.

The latter of the three, Camdenville, in vying for my Worst Lavatory in Sydney, doesn’t have a seat on the men’s toilet – it was wrenched off weeks ago – and the cubicle door is so low anyone entering the toilet can see the wretched inhabitant in all his abject misery, undoubtedly hovering, thighs tensed, unable to park his butt on the seat-less receptacle.

An Inner West Council parks & gardens official informed me that Camdenville Oval is scheduled to be landscaped and revamped, with help from adjacent WestConnex construction contractors who are currently busy digging holes and cloaking the neighbourhood in plumes of dust.

While the impending works might excuse the woeful condition of the children’s play area, which will eventually be replaced with fun new equipment, this week the Council is warning park users of an impending herbicide spray to counter bindies in the grass, yet it appears no one in authority has thought to inspect the atrocious toilets for months. Could they at least not try to keep them clean?
The lack of attention given to the loos seems to be a stunning oversight, considering the fact they’re used daily by young children in the playground and kids playing soccer on the sports field.

And this brings me to my final gripe: soap. Where is it?!
Every public health utterance in existence states washing hands with soap is the most effective way to control spread of disease and infection.

During my travels around Malaysia I was dismayed that soap was non-existent in every public restroom I visited.
In a Malacca pay-toilet, I instructed the supervisor to find me a bar of soap, annoyed I couldn’t properly cleanse my hand after using his facility. My suspicion that Malaysia was a soap-less country was confirmed when he returned with a bottle of shampoo after unsuccessfully scouring neighbouring markets.
And yet in Malaysia public toilets consist of a hole in the ground with a tap and hose alongside. Users cleanse their posterior with cold water whilst scrubbing with their left hand, as the right is reserved for eating food (Malaysians don’t use cutlery).

But here in Australia, many well-maintained lavatories across Sydney, such as Centennial Park, share this unbelievable lapse in hygiene by not providing soap.
How difficult is it to install wall-mounted canisters that dispense liquid soap, which can be refilled by the same attendants that top up toilet paper?

What is the drama about letting us have soap?

Why do our Councils not want us to have comfortable bums and clean hands?

We need to get to the bottom of this.

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