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Street wayfinder in Leeds.
Street wayfinder in Leeds.

Public toilets are vital to making our cities accessible for all. That’s why we created our city’s first ‘toilet map.’

Not having access to public toilets can stop people getting out and about in their area - so we made a tool to help.

Age-friendly champion Ben Barker writes for us on his 'Bedminster Toilet Map' - and why public toilets are key to making places age-friendly. 

'People smile when you mention the Bedminster Toilet Map, and then you can see them realise it’s not a silly idea at all.’ So said one of our mappers nearly ten years ago when we published our first edition.  

The idea arose from a discussion at the Bedminster Older Peoples’ Forum. National research had found that some people were afraid to leave their house if they were unsure of finding a toilet: an invisible disability and a cause of social isolation and distress.  Public toilet provision in our neighbourhood has always been poor and now austerity has forced Bristol City Council to close all of the city’s toilets.

 When we started the map, a few of us visited local community buildings, pubs and cafes and asked if they would be happy to be on a map. We explained that some people are confident enough to stroll in, have a pee and wander out without a purchase – but that others are less confident. We told traders that although people might not buy something that day, they might come back some other time or visit the trader next door.   

Naturally, some traders said yes and others no. Some were concerned that they would be overwhelmed with toilet seekers and would face large extra bills for cleaning. Later conversations with traders suggested that that wasn’t really a problem and some businesses have appeared in every edition of the map. Our largest complaint came from someone who asked to be taken off map 2, but too late. Apparently, two people had had sex in his toilet and he blamed this on the maps recently left at the nearby library. To me, the connection between maps in a library and overwhelming passion seems flimsy at best.

 Our first map showed 18 places, mainly in our shopping streets. A local charity funded the printing, but the design work was done for free by a graphic design student from the University of the West of England.  We distributed the map and later versions via GP surgeries, the library and local cafes. Edition 1 was followed by other to take in the rise and fall of local businesses and we are now preparing edition 5. We’ve worked with three graphic design students- good work every time – and secured printing money from local charities, often health related. For edition 4, a local printer offered a double run if we included their logo.  No brainer!

It doesn’t matter how easy it is to walk around a neighbourhood – if there isn’t provision for rest stops or public toilets, many people can’t go there at all.

The map itself is part of a wider project which is to do with ‘walkability’ in our dense, Victorian, car-soaked neighbourhood. It’s not just older people who may find it difficult to get around because of overhanging hedges, abandoned recycling bins, cars on pavements and other clutter. Our aim is that everyone - including those with disabilities, or pushing prams, for example –  should be able to move around on our footways with safety, ease and pleasure.

But walkability isn’t just to do with even pavements, or dropped kerbs. It doesn’t matter how easy it is to walk around a neighbourhood – if there isn’t provision for rest stops or public toilets, many people can’t go there at all. There have been various campaigns in Bristol in recent years introducing street seating and encouraging local shops and businesses to provide a seat and a friendly welcome to anybody who needs it, so that older people can get out and about in their community.

Bristol has been a member of the UK network of Age-Friendly Communities for a few years now, and at the end of 2018 Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees gained the city Age-Friendly Community status with the World Health Organisation. Age-Friendly Communities foster healthy and active ageing, making it possible for people to continue to stay in their homes, participate in the activities that they value, and contribute to their communities, for as long as possible. What’s important is how these principles are put into practise – one great step forward in Bristol is the Age-Friendly Neighborhood launched by Bristol Ageing Better just last week.

Short of following people around, it’s difficult to precisely measure the impact of the maps! But lots of local people have said they’ve found them useful and reassuring – and they do make people smile. We are now preparing for our fifth edition which hopefully will come out in June – we have confirmation from 11 premises so far and we’re aiming for 15-20. The ultimate goal is for no-one in Bedminster to stay isolated in their home for fear of being caught short.

UK Network of Age-friendly Communities

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