A cleaner Brussels starts with better public toilets

A cleaner Brussels starts with better public toilets

VUB master’s thesis explores how public toilets make a city more inclusive and attractive

The shortage of public toilets is regularly denounced in the media, as is the antisocial behaviour that occurs in them. For her thesis in criminological sciences, VUB master’s student Lien Maes studied, under the supervision of Prof Lucas Melgaço, the importance of public toilets, the specific forms of nuisance they attract and how that nuisance can be prevented.

Maes: “Public toilets contribute to cleaner, more inclusive and user-friendly cities and help prevent urinating in public. Brussels would therefore be well advised to invest in them.

She received the N-Brussels Thesis Award from BSI, the Brussels Studies Institute, for her thesis.

The importance of the public toilet

A first finding of the study is that public toilets play an important role in personal hygiene. They contribute to cleaner cities in the fight against public urination and make cities more user-friendly and inclusive: the distance one can travel in the city is increased by the presence of public toilets.

Brussels has a shortage of public toilets, and that is problematic, says Maes, “since they serve to meet our basic needs within the public space. A number of groups are particularly affected by the shortage: the homeless, the elderly, women, people with disabilities, tourists, and so on. This shortage has already been put on the map by various local projects, such as the Pispot festival and the ‘open toilets’ of the non-profit Corvia in Brussels or the actions of Plasactie. There are also a considerable number of apps to help people find the nearest toilet, such as WC ASAPP, Freepee, Toilet Finder or High Need. But often the low number of public toilets is justified by the fact that public toilets are a nuisance.”


The second finding of the study is that there are various forms of nuisance in Brussels’ public toilets. This concerns both behaviour such as drug use and nuisance caused by litter, graffiti, urine odour, vandalism, etc.

Maes: “These forms of nuisance result in the limited number of toilets available becoming inaccessible to many.”

Cleaner city with crime prevention: toilet staff and maintenance

Maes showed in her study that crime prevention techniques can be applied to public toilets, for example by creating more visibility or by the presence of a toilet attendant. In addition, regular maintenance and quick repairs help prevent nuisance.

Maes: “By repairing the toilets more quickly in the event of a defect, the city sends out a signal that these are important facilities. Since public toilets are expensive, alternative paths should be explored, such as opening toilets in public buildings or setting up a network of existing toilets by traders. This network now exists and was an initiative of the citizens' initiative Hartelijke Handelaars.

The research

For this study, the “public” toilets managed by the city of Brussels were observed. Toilets that are considered to be publicly accessible but are located in semi-public spaces such as train and underground stations were not included. Several methods of qualitative data collection were used. Maes conducted non-participatory observations and a participatory observation, totalling eight hours. She conducted semi-structured interviews with the people in charge of the Brussels public toilets and brief interviews with other respondents (e.g. traders with a business near one of the public toilets). She carried out 16 interviews in total.

Link to a video about the research: https://www.facebook.com/BrusselsStudiesInstitute/videos/484425406585041/


Lien Maes

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