Unless you're personally responsible for cleaning up our public spaces, you're out and about around 2 a.m., or you spend a lot of time in parking garage stairwells, you might not fully appreciate a certain public problem of a rather private nature.
The fact is, Charm City, like many metropolises, is rather short on public restrooms, which sometimes leaves the homeless, late-night revelers, and lots of others with no place to, er, go—especially in the, ah, wee hours—when public buildings and businesses are closed.
While the lack of loos isn't a massive problem, the use of public spaces for private duties is "certainly a daily occurrence," says Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, which is spearheading an effort to bring more public toilets to downtown. "Increasing the number of public bathrooms in the heart of downtown would be helpful to the homeless, as well as the general public," says Fowler.
For now, the job is in the hands of the Partnership's public toilet committee, which includes members from various public and private organizations and which has begun circulating a document detailing the problem and possible solutions.
"We have a long way to go to make [public toilets] a prominent feature of our city, but at least we're starting to discuss it," says committee member Sita Culman, vice president of the Abell Foundation.
To get the ball rolling, the Partnership has created a map of existing public
toilets and enlisted the help of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health to determine where more public toilets should be located. One likely spot: Hopkins Plaza. "There isn't a public bathroom in the vicinity," says Fowler. Areas around bars and nightclubs are prime considerations for public restrooms as well.
The committee already has expressed a preference for automatic public toilets, which are stand-alone modules that cost up to $300,000 for a double unit. Funding would come from public and private sources.
Still, don't expect to see high-tech toilets springing up on every corner. "I'm not sure that we need 20 automated toilets in downtown Baltimore," says Public Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein. "But I think it should be very seriously considered and it might be that a couple of well-placed units might really help."
Other less pricey efforts include encouraging city officials and businesses to ease public access to existing restrooms, encouraging parking officials to have toilets built as part of new garage construction, and constructing facilities for transit customers.
Of course, getting agreement on where to put public toilets can be difficult. "I think we have a big problem, probably psychologically, about public toilets," says Culman. "It's not an easy solution."
The committee wants to avoid missteps made by other cities: "Some cities try to take a step forward and try to create public toilets, and then there is a backlash and they retreat," explains Fowler. "We have to figure out how to do it wisely." But Fowler, for one, is confident a solution is on the horizon. "I think we can do better, for the general public, as well as the people who need the facilities the most."