Public Toilets and the Privatization of Portland’s Urban Landscape

By Samantha Shafer

On a brisk fall day, I ventured out into downtown Portland to conduct a field investigation of public toilets. I wandered the city and closely observed ten different bathroom locations.1 What follows are my observations of those sites as I attempt to understand them in terms of changing urban landscapes, private versus public space, and entitlement to privacy. Through this analysis, it becomes clear that there is a critical disconnect between the public—those served by “the public good”—and public space, a phenomenon which is visible in the structure and geography of restrooms in downtown Portland. The dissonance here can be explained by the theme of consumption as it dominates the urban landscape and reifies class disparities. To be a consumer is to be the public, but in occupying public space, one is not a part of this consumer class, and is thus fundamentally excluded from being served by the public good. In examining the case of toilets, I hope to illustrate the significance of this inconsistency for understanding the tangible outcomes of urban design and the active privatization of space.

Downtown Portland on this windy morning was a mixture of city buzz and the rustle of trees. As I walked past the intersection of NW 8th & Couch, the park was a typical vision of urban green space. To the east on this block, there was a large steel pod with louvers on the lower and upper parts of the walls: a Portland Loo. A line had formed outside the pod. I paused, then walked toward two individuals in line. I asked them if this toilet is ever locked, and the first replied matter-of-factly, “Oh yea. They lock these up at about nine or ten at night…” I asked when they were reopened, and I was told not until six in the morning. There is a dishearteningly large community of houseless2 people at this park, so I was shocked to hear that for eight hours of the night, they were left with nowhere to relieve themselves. When local businesses closed, another toilet (public or not) might not be found within reasonable distance. As night falls, bathroom options dwindle. The two people I spoke with told me that the only option left was to find a hidden space and hope for the best—between two cars, behind a tree, or over a sewer. There is no doubt that people get creative with solutions, but with the consistent presence of streetlights overhead and the surveillance of others, including the police, options for safe, hygienic facilities are hard to come by. They expressed that it is dehumanizing, unfair, dangerous. On top of all of this, the two explained to me, if one is caught urinating or defecating in the street, “in public,” they receive a ticket, must pay a fine for “public indecency,” and must register as a sex offender, a label that can severely tarnish a personal record. All this for exercising a basic bodily function.

As I hope this example makes clear, public toilets matter. And what we call public also matters. For those of us with toilets in our homes, public toilets are important to allow us to be away from home for extended periods of time—we can visit the park or peruse downtown with the knowledge that our basic needs can be met. If a public toilet is not available, the privilege of wealth means we can enter the private space of a business to use their facilities, even if it is “for customers only.” Consumers have access to spaces designated for consumption, yet if one is without the means to consume, they are excluded from these other material benefits. Houseless people exist in a strange rhetorical and physical limbo; they are not a part of the rhetorical “public,” yet are the primary users of the physical public. When city planning excludes and erases houseless people in order to satisfy the expectations of a different public, they undermine the basic needs of their most frequent users, ultimately causing the spaces to fail.

Urban historian Thomas Hanchett3, in his historical analysis of Charlotte, North Carolina, uses a lexicon of urban transformation that can be helpful here. His fundamental framework is a “sorting out” of people and spaces within the city. To sort out is to demarcate social boundaries, often along the lines of class and race. Further, this process is accompanied by a changing nature of public space and a shift in urban geography toward privatized space, as Hanchett observed in Charlotte and as we, too, can see here in Portland. This process has been a fundamental component of the changing American landscape, and it represents the values held by urban planners, city government, and commercial interests, which come to be the values that are embodied by the city itself. It is visible everywhere, and is particularly apparent in the existence or lack of public toilets around the city as it relates to issues of houselessness.

The class-based character of sorting out makes it decidedly political. Therefore, where the differentiation of space is a matter of politics and social constructions, so too are the resulting social hierarchies. In Portland, this hierarchy favors those who participate in commerce. Within the city of Portland, it is well known that there are huge numbers of houseless people and an urban infrastructure that is ill-equipped to serve those citizens. Yet in this bustling downtown, commerce is the primary means of interacting with society, and is thus inherently exclusive.

In reference to downtown Los Angeles, Mike Davis,4 American writer and urban theorist, explains that “the fortress effect emerges, not as an inadvertent failure of design, but as a deliberate socio-spatial strategy.”5 This would seem to be the case in Portland as well. As public and private spaces grow more disparate, in both aesthetic and function, it is evident that “extraordinary design precautions are being taken to ensure the physical separation of the different humanities.”6 Davis observes a militarized landscape in Los Angeles, in which a prison-military-industrial complex has so enchanted urban planners and city officials that everything from bus stop benches to city hall to the public library embraces fortress architecture and design for security. The notion of security is ubiquitous in American cities, and in Portland one need not look far to see signs of architecture of surveillance, protection, or behavior regulation. The Portland Loo serves as a prime example. With its sleek, stainless steel construction, there are few ways one could damage the structure and no small parts to steal or vandalize. Two feet of louvers that grace the top and bottom portions of the Loo create a screen, making anyone inside clearly visible to those outside—especially useful for police surveillance. Further, the pod echoes every sound, the doors can be locked by key from the outside, and police often hover nearby. In short, these are all microaggressions that target the “underclass.”7

The intention of The Portland Loo was to be “a unique solution to a universal problem.”8 While it certainly does have merit, this system also has its flaws. Given poor maintenance, fragmented privacy, and unreliable hours, these public restrooms are a far cry from the comforts of home, or even the local Starbucks. I find a symbolic resonance in the fact that the louvers at the base of the Loos are designed for surveillance. This design intervention seems to reiterate a distrust for the public, regardless of its innovativeness. Rather than actually providing security, the rift between private and public space inflames social tensions and ultimately makes people less safe, especially those people with the fewest rights, and least wealth or voice in the matter.

These public toilets would be better suited among the spartan, minimal design of a prison than in the “uplifting” public spaces that the Olmstead brothers envisioned when designing Portland parks. Yet, this minimalism is part and parcel of the park plan. The suppression of some is considered necessary for the uplift of others. It is clear that while the intention is to serve park visitors and the city’s consuming class, it is simultaneously intended to deter a specific class of ‘others.’ Professor of modern American history William Leach9 writes about the strategies of enticement of early- to mid-twentieth century department stores and storefronts to draw in consumers. Whereas stores used color, glass, light, music, and “commercialized hospitality”10 to lure in consumers, I extrapolate that there are also implicit and explicit signals in these same displays that serve as strategies of disenticement. Signs that warn, “Restrooms are STRICTLY for customers only”11 are explicit strategies of exclusion. Simultaneously, elaborate storefronts and an outward recognition of the consumerism contained within also seem meant to deter an unwanted class of “loiterers,” individuals who would take up space without consuming. While it is of course in the interest of the business to foster an exclusive enclave for its customers, the changing proportion of public to private space leaves ever less space in which to exist without infringing upon someone else’s claimed territory.

Jane Jacobs, urban critic and author of The Death and Life of American Cities, discusses the importance of mixed use spaces that attract a heterogenous public.12 The presence of many “eyes on the street” and a steady flow of people crossing paths with different destinations creates a sense of social accountability, a visible marker of use, and ultimately keeps everyone safer. “The bedrock attribute of a successful city district,” Jacobs argues, “is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers.”13 In Portland, public toilets, and public spaces more generally, are not in line with Jacobs’ idyll of a safe space. What the public toilets come to represent is a space that is only for houseless people, even though this may not be “the public” for whom the city has built them. Just as these people live a marginal existence, the facilities are treated with the same kind of neglect and are allowed to fall into disrepair. Park visitors and passersby who may use these facilities have the option to leave. They may enter the coffee shop and purchase an item in order to use the keycode-guarded porcelain throne. It is exactly this distinction, between those who may leave and those who have no place go, that makes the delineation of public space so significant.

In contrast to these other private restrooms, in Pioneer Place mall there were few visible security precautions around the bathroom area. Given that malls embody a privatized public space—a new social commons that just happens to exist on private property—as a private entity they have the power to regulate behavior and use. However, unlike Target or TJ Maxx,14 despite being centrally located within downtown, they do not need to. The mall is constantly populated by patrons with different intentions, and just as Jacobs advocated for “eyes on the street,” Pioneer Place embodies that kind of mutual surveillance among shoppers. Perhaps public-private relations here may be better off. Nevertheless, the mall bathrooms are no more of an ideal toilet situation than any other space I encountered. Limited by mall hours and actively surveilled by wandering mall security, they are not particularly welcoming. As Davis observed in Los Angeles, “Today’s upscale pseudo-public spaces…are full of invisible signs warning of the underclass ‘Other’.”15 Envisioning a houseless person walking through the expanse of the mall and past the food court to reach the restroom, I imagine that the most significant barrier to entry is an almost tangible shame and sense of otherness. Even if someone could “pass” as housed, it would be a stretch to imagine a feeling of comfort, strolling through this cathedral of commerce which reeks of gemütlichkeit16 and Sbarro.

Consumption is the hallmark of the American city, and Portland is no exception. Private spaces within this urban landscape demonstrate this consumer-oriented purpose, and contribute to the active “sorting out” of belonging and behavior. As the city becomes more oriented toward the private sphere, the survival of public space is dependent on use by the monied class. It is for this audience that public parks are constructed and to serve this public that toilet facilities are erected. Drawing from my observations of these facilities, their presence does not necessarily suggest a concern for the poor and downtrodden; in fact, just the opposite. It would seem by the design and management of these facilities that if it weren’t for the rare instance of use by those who “belong,” then we would do away with them all together. Emanating from the more private locations are signals of deterrence, especially through the fortification of the landscape, and stark, impersonal design—quite the opposite of the Olmsteadian vision. Ultimately, a spatial analysis of toilets around Portland is quite revealing of the city’s goals—and to whom it intends to cater. Though we may be numb to the inequity of cities, an awareness of place is essential. Urban transformation is grounded in a rich history, and as our spaces are sorted out, it is important to notice who is left in the cold, locked out.


1 Survey created and conducted using the Fulcrum app. Observations made on November 16, 2014.

2 I use the term houseless over homeless to emphasize that what is missing is not necessarily a home, but a house—consistent, dependable shelter and the most basic amenities. Communities exist among the houseless and to acknowledge this is to lend more agency to those individuals. This is not a settled term, however for the purpose of this essay it is the more appropriate.

3 Hanchett, Thomas W. Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975. (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1998).

4 Davis, Mike. “Fortress L.A.” City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. (New York: Verso,1990), 223-263.

5 Davis, “Fortress L.A.” 229.

6 Ibid. 234.

7 Time Magazine.”The American underclass: destitute and desperate in the land of plenty.” August 29 (1977): 14-27.

8 Official motto of The Portland Loo, signs posted on all facilities. See Appendix 6.

9 Leach, William. “Ali Baba’s Lamp: Search for Private and Public Benefit,” Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. (New York: Random House, 1993).

10 Leach. “Ali Baba’s Lamp.” 146.

11 See Appendix 8

12 Jacobs, Jane. “The Use of Sidewalks.” The Death and Life of American Cities. (New York: Random House, 1961), 29-73, 152-177.

13Jacobs. “The Use of Sidewalks”. 30.

14See Appendix 3-5

15Davis, “Fortress L.A.” 226.

16Gemütlichkeit is a German word which, though difficult to translate, “implies contentment, ease, and satisfaction, all in one.” It is often embodied by spatial pleasures such as soft music, architectural details, and a celebratory atmosphere. Leach examines this concept as it was adopted as “a commercial aesthetic intended to delight customers and put them at ease.”

17Leach. “Ali Baba’s Lamp.” 139-150.


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