Bittersweet relief in city’s doorless, unisex restrooms

Scenes from a city, beginning anew

In Balduck Park on Detroit’s east side, the city has been experimenting with a new type of public restroom that officials say is safer for park patrons and virtually indestructible. It features two unisex rooms with self-composting toilets. But there’s a downside, even for those folks desperate for relief: It offers virtually no privacy. There are no doors, and it has none of the accoutrements Americans have come to expect in 21st-Century restrooms, such as water faucets, sinks, hand dryers, mirrors or soap. A roll of toilet paper hangs on the wall opposite the toilet.

Part of a $2.7-million renovation of Balduck, the restroom does have a solar panel that runs the lights at night. It was designed by the staff of Brad Dick, director of the city’s General Services Department. Dick claims the restroom is both vandal-proof and super secure. “If a tornado comes along, you could run in there and be relatively safe, unless you get sucked in the toilet,” he said. The restroom has an outer wall, but inside that are open spaces that lead to the two rooms. The toilets – and anyone using them – are in plain view. And there is no way to know the toilet is being used unless you look into the rooms where they sit.

Bridge emailed photos of the restroom to Robert Brubaker, program manager of the Maryland-based American Restroom Association. While he commended city officials for providing park goers with a bathroom, no matter how rudimentary, Brubaker said he has never seen a public restroom without some sort of barrier between the public and the toilet. “It doesn’t seem to have any privacy,” Brubaker said. “I would have trouble endorsing it. There’s a thin line between privacy and security.”

Dick counters that the new restroom has proven to be a good solution to the vandalism and scrapping that frequently ruins other facilities in Detroit, sometimes even before they open to the public. The doorless approach also protects children from becoming trapped or a victim of crime, he said.
So far, the Balduck facility has passed the test: Now in it’s second season, it has no structural damage. The model is scheduled to be installed in other renovated Detroit parks.

I experimented with the experimental restroom. It was cleaner than any city restroom I have ever used. Standing there, I tried to think about the composting, and how I was contributing, in a small way, to the future well-being of a city garden. But I was always conscious that someone could unwittingly walk in on me. Conclusion: Users may need to employ the buddy system to ward off embarrassing moments.

“Most people are like, ‘Ugh, it’s not a nice bathroom,’” Dick acknowledged. “It’s not nice. It’s not pretty.” But think of the upside, he said. “It’s better than someone just whipping it out in public and going behind a tree.”

-- Bill McGraw

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Sharon Fidler
Tue, 06/16/2015 - 9:49am
Sounds like China in the 1960's, but that was "bring your own toilet paper."
Jeff Woods
Tue, 06/16/2015 - 10:17am
Believe it or not, when that restroom was first installed, vandals tried stealing all the metal inside. They also cut the locks to the pit covers. I suspect that once looking into the pits, cured them of any further destruction. That restroom was a godsend to park users. Having lived across the street from Balduck, you wouldn't believe what people did to relieve themselves. Thanks Detroit for a great improvement in Balduck Park.
Barry Visel
Tue, 06/16/2015 - 10:18am
OK, I know my example is in no way comparable, but my best dump ever was 20 years ago, at a trail campgrounds in Sequoia National Park. Only 3 walls for the toilet, but the view was to die for! (Sorry, this story brought back a great memory).
Tue, 06/16/2015 - 10:22am
If your only consideration is vandalism then this modality is just fine. How sad to think that our city is that depraved. Perhaps, part of the reason that no harm comes to these new and improved restrooms is that few use them except in an extreme emergency. Perhaps, that is the idea. As a man, I would have no problem standing over one of these stainless steel cans with my back to the public and relieving myself. Heck we have no privacy in a men's restroom at the urinal anyway. But I might pass on sitting down on one of those cold steel cans in full view unless I really had to go badly. The real issue, as I see it, is with women. Women hover. Can you imagine walking in on a woman and seeing a woman squatting there with her panties down around her ankles and everything in full view? I think not. And remember these things are unisex. I know my wife would pass. Mr Dick, much like the failed proposition to raise money to repair our roads, you need to go back to the drawing board and design a better potty!
Tue, 06/16/2015 - 10:26am
No doors, eh? . Brilliant call! . And the lawsuit filed by someone who was "unexpectedly" walked in on, will be filed in 5-4-3-2.....
David L Richards
Tue, 06/16/2015 - 10:28am
If you travel to Europe you will sometimes find basic things done quite differently. Paris has unisex restrooms (and I don't mean one person or one sex at a time). In the middle of London there is a facility (apparently for men going #1 only) where the user has his back to the public with no barrier to a view of his back while the patron does his business.
Tue, 06/16/2015 - 11:08am
When I really need to go all I care is to keep my underwear clean. It should work in those emergency's. James T.
Tue, 06/16/2015 - 11:10am
Basically, I like this idea, and I'm glad to read it's working in a park location. I wonder if having a card that reads "In Use" on one side, and "Vacant on the other, attached to a device that allows only one message to be seen at a time might provide adequate assurance of privacy. I think everyone but kids who haven't learned to read would respect that. The message needs to be printed in Spanish as well. Having a rest room that's clean and self policing is respectful of the public, and would bring our better natures into action.
Big D
Sun, 06/21/2015 - 8:21am
...would be vandalized. Also, what about Arabic, Urdu and Vietnamese?
W. B. Root
Tue, 06/16/2015 - 11:35am
I can't hardly imagine why someone wouldn't want a "buddy" standing outside anyways, considering where it's at. You going to send a small kid into a restroom in a park there by himself? The buddy system has worked for years in many questionable areas. I don't see why it's not the logical choice for privacy and safety here, also.
Tue, 06/16/2015 - 3:48pm
They stay spotless because no one wants to use them.
Wed, 06/17/2015 - 2:39pm
Dixie - I think you are absolutely correct. This is "architectural design to dissuade use".
Tue, 06/16/2015 - 8:16pm
I note that all the "This is fine!" comments above appear to be from men.
Tue, 06/16/2015 - 8:23pm
EFFING RIDICULOUS. The designer is a complete IDIOT.
Public Health P...
Tue, 06/16/2015 - 9:27pm
Desperate times makes for innovative measures. I applaud this problem solving to meet a basic human need in the face of human destruction. No composted human waste should be used on any garden - community garden or at hom, however. True composting toilets take science, design and maintenance to safely handle human waste. The unit in the picture looks mostly like a subsurface vault privy and unfortunately not in compliance with Michigan's Privy Law. A self-closimg door, screened venting plus more is necessary.Detroit's Health Department was privatized. Looks like the Park management needs to verify public health standards for protection from the spread of disease are met and Sanitary Code compliance obtained. #2 in the woods and #2 in an improperly designed or poorly maintained privy/composting toilet are a public health hazard.
Wed, 06/17/2015 - 3:45am
Why not put a half door across the bottom. And it won't take long for it to become messy if there is nothing to clean it up with. I would hate to go back to a picnic lunch after using this and not able to wash hands.
Eric Sharp
Wed, 06/17/2015 - 10:29am
My favorites are the ones in New Zealand and Australia that they call "Long Drops." They're built way up on the side of a bluff, hanging above the sea. The outgoing tide does the flushing.
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 9:39am
Why waste the money on the 3 walls at all? Just sit the toilet in the ground with nothing around it, there's no privacy anyway! How could you ever charge anyone with indecent exposure with this being ok to use?
Wed, 10/21/2015 - 11:46pm
Why not just have one designated for "WOMEN" and one designated "MALE" problem solved.