The demise of the public toilet, and what one man is doing to save the day for his community.
Community activist Ben Barker lives in Southville, Bristol and is responsible for pioneering the ‘The Toilet Map of Bedminster’.
Ben also volunteers for a number of other initiatives that help make his local area more age-friendly. Ben was awarded an MBE in 2017.
The ‘The Toilet Map of Bedminster’ came about following a discussion at Bedminster Older People’s Forum and was a part of a much bigger project all about age-friendliness. We found from previously existing research that some people were not able to leave their house in case they needed to go to the toilet. So we decided to make our area, Bedminster, more toilet-friendly.
The research we had was predominantly about how this is an issue for older people, but the map is for anyone. You need a certain amount of confidence to walk in to a venue and ask to use the toilets without feeling like you have to buy something. The map is for people who don’t have that confidence. It’s ‘permission to pee’, basically.
We went and talked to shops and pubs and community centres to ask them to become part of the initiative, and we got about 20 toilets on the first map. And now it’s fairly straightforward: if you’re out and want to have a pee, there are plenty of places to do it. This is only becoming more important. When we started, we had three public toilets in the area. One closed about five or six years ago, and the other two closed last year. There weren’t that many public toilets anyway, and now there are none.
You need a certain amount of confidence to walk in to a venue and ask to use the toilets without feeling like you have to buy something. The map is for people who don’t have that confidence. It’s ‘permission to pee’, basically.
When the council said they were going to close the public toilets, they also said that they would take over the responsibility of producing toilet maps in a range of places across the city. But they still haven’t done it yet. It doesn’t make sense for us to do a fourth version of the map for Bedminster when the council should be doing it soon. So we wait.
I’ve been lucky to have an adequate pension, so that I can do things like the toilet map that are interesting to me.
My approach has always been to champion asset-based community development, although I didn’t know it was called that until recently! It’s all about supporting people to reach their own goals, whether that’s improving the local park, setting up an arts trail, establishing a coffee club for older people, or a thousand other things. It’s kept me busy, relevant and has made me lots of friends.
In 2017, I was awarded an MBE for ‘services to Bedminster’. This was thanks to support from friends and neighbours. It feels good to be appreciated, especially for something that I enjoy doing. I’m 80 next birthday, and I hope to carry on for a few more years.