Cambridge looks to provide public restrooms in city’s squares

Originally published March 4, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.

It’s hard to find a place to go to the bathroom in Harvard Square, according to nearly 850 residents, employees, business owners and visitors who responded to a survey on public toilets. A summary report of findings from three surveys and interviews was released by the city on Feb. 13.

Conversations about establishing a public toilet began as early as 2001, but didn’t gain momentum until June of 2012 after former Councilor Minka vanBeuzekom submitted a policy asking the City Manager’s Office to look at expanding the number of Cambridge parks, specifically parks with sports fields, that have public toilets.

That fall, representatives from Youth on Fire, a homeless shelter for youth based in Harvard Square, encouraged the city to convene a working group on public toilets, which it did in the fall of 2012, said Susan Feinberg, a Cambridge Public Health Department spokesperson who served on the committee.

“Topics discussed were the needs of homeless individuals in Harvard Square and specifically the need for a toilet facility that would remain open overnight in the Cambridge Common,” Feinberg said.

The group conducted a series of interviews and surveys in 2013 and met with people in several other U.S. cities, including Boston, New York, Portland and Seattle, about their experience operating automatic public toilets and restroom facilities. According to the Public Health Department, the city is considering purchasing and installing one or more free-standing permanent public toilets, such as the Portland Loo, which is open 24 hours a day every day and features a compact, stainless design that is powered by solar panels and is coated in an anti-graffiti spray.

Overwhelmingly, respondents said Harvard Square was where they experienced the greatest need for a public toilet with 79 percent of respondents choosing that location over other areas in Cambridge, like Central or Porter squares. The second most common response was along the Charles River, with 50 percent of respondents saying they need a public toilet there.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they were more likely to visit a restaurant, bar or café if they were in need of a toilet, followed by city buildings and shopping malls or arcades. More than half of the respondents though said they were not aware that most city buildings have free public toilets.

Roughly two-thirds of respondents also said they had difficulty accessing public toilets in Cambridge, and most frequently named the Cambridge Common as a difficult place to find a public restroom. Three-quarters of respondents pointed to Harvard Square in general as a commercial square in Cambridge where they had difficulty accessing a public restroom.

The summary report published in February is a compilation of the results from three surveys targeted at community users, businesses and human services organizations. More than half of the respondents, or 58 percent, said they live in Cambridge. Another 27 percent said they are either a student or work in the city. One percent of the respondents were tourists, and the rest were frequent visitors.

Feinberg said the city manager had already included a Harvard Square pilot toilet in the city’s fiscal 2015 budget, which will be submitted to the council for approval in April.

“The location that best met (the) criteria was the General MacArthur Square,” Feinberg said. “It’s an island near the Old Burying Ground between Harvard Square and the Cambridge Common.”

City staff is also working with private developers in Kendall and Central squares to secure access to toilets around public spaces, such as Charles Park on Rogers Street in East Cambridge, Feinberg said.

In the meantime, the working group will submit other formal recommendations to the city manager this spring, and Feinberg said the City Manager’s Office plans to host a public meeting this spring to get feedback on the proposed location of the Harvard Square toilet.

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