Need a place to go when nature calls this winter? The City of Toronto wants to help

·3 min read
As colder weather approaches, city staff have recommended keeping more washrooms open and pathways clear in Toronto's parks. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press - image credit)
As colder weather approaches, city staff have recommended keeping more washrooms open and pathways clear in Toronto's parks. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press - image credit)

If you've ever felt the call of nature while walking through a Toronto park only to find its public washroom is locked, you'll appreciate the latest recommendation from city staff to widen access to outdoor spaces this winter.

The Parks Forestry and Recreation department wants to expand on last year's program to clear pathways of ice and snow, and keep more park washrooms operating during the colder months as more people turned to city parks for recreation during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Coun. James Pasternak, who represents Ward 6, York Centre and is vice chair of the city's Infrastructure and Environment Committee, says the plan reflects an ongoing response to the increased popularity of parks since the beginning of the pandemic.

"What we're trying to do is reduce those barriers so parks can be enjoyed by individuals, by families year round," he said.

Before the pandemic, the city typically cleared 270 kilometres of paths in and around parks in the colder months. Last year, it added another 64 kilometres.

David Donnelly/CBC
David Donnelly/CBC

Staff are suggesting this year that the city expand that to 40 additional parks and open up another five public washrooms this winter, bringing the total to 148. Council is expected to discuss the recommendation on Nov. 9.

Access to park washrooms, or lack thereof, is one of the biggest barriers to park use in the winter and making sure pipes don't freeze is the main challenge to keeping facilities operational in sub-zero temperatures, Pasternak says.

"People are more likely to go and enjoy our outdoor spaces when there's access to a washroom," he said.

Public washrooms for all

The new recommendation comes amid calls from citizens and advocacy groups for more access to public washrooms, especially for people with disabilities, the elderly and those experiencing homelessness.

Access should be seen as a human right, says Lorraine Lam, who works with the unhoused population at Sanctuary Toronto. The outreach worker says this program doesn't fully serve those who need it most.

"If they are going to have public bathrooms open for maintenance ... why aren't we making these available throughout the whole day, like 24-7? Why are they only closed at 9 p.m. or whatever time?"

The city's website says public washrooms only open from 9 a.m until dusk.

Edith Wilson, a PhD student at the University of Guelph, wrote her master's thesis on public washrooms in Toronto. She also started a few years ago when she noticed the city didn't have a list of available public washrooms on its website — something the city has since amended.

She welcomes the city's move to expand the availability of washrooms but says if the city wants to truly serve everyone, a good first step would be to look at the way it's done in Europe, where washroom attendants are present at all times to assist everyone who needs it.

"I just think there's more stuff that needs to happen with washroom provision in terms of recognizing it as something that is not just for nice families who are in the park," she said.

"Cities, and governments in general, tend to be unsympathetic to the multitude of ways that a private space in public space can serve."

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