In Amsterdam, these women worked for 9 years to get the city equipped with public toilets, after being fined for urinating in the street, even though the city only has 3 public toilets.

Public space seeking toilets

Who would have thought that peeing, a vital and natural need, could be punishable by law?

Or rather, what do you do when urinating in public is forbidden but no solution is offered in return?

Let’s go even further: what do you do when:

  • urinating in public is prohibited
  • a solution is offered for only 50% of the population,
  • there are no public toilets in sight,
  • bars are closed
  • and you’re a woman.

It may seem like a lot of parameters, but they come together more often than you might think. And the answer is: you do what you can.

In the case of these Dutch women who had to resort to a quick wee in the street, the result of this situation is a fine. It’s an appalling situation, which after years of fighting has led to the city of Amsterdam allocating a budget of €4 million to install public toilets, as reported in this article in The Guardian.

What you don’t have to do to get more toilets!

The article recounts how Geerte Piening found herself caught by a pressing urge one evening on her way home. There were no bars open at the time, and the nearest public toilets meant a 2km diversions, so she decided, hidden by a friend, to relieve herself in a little-used alleyway. Spotted by police officers, she was fined for urinating in public.

Outraged, she realized that the situation was anything but fair. Banning wild toileting is understandable, as long as you offer people the chance to relieve themselves with dignity and on an equal footing!

The city of Amsterdam has 35 male urinals and only 3 ‘mixed’ toilets. A low number of toilets inevitably leads to bad behavior, but above all an imbalance that penalizes 50% of the population. This inequality does not only affect women, as male urinals cannot be used by some disabled people, children or the elderly. If we’re going to provide sanitary facilities, we might as well make sure there’s something for everyone!

The taboo of cities by men, for men 

When you look at the distribution of sanitary facilities around the world, the dominance of the male urinal is obvious. In public spaces, there is a simple explanation: the systematic construction of urban areas by men for men, at a time when women were encouraged to stay at home. 

Many decades later, while women are very much present in all public spaces, the layout has not changed. Amsterdam is no exception.

Worse still, when the subject of sanitary equality is raised, it is met with a smile at best, and a thoughtless dismissal at worst. In the article in The Guardian, this is what we read with disappointment.

Taken to court, Geerte Piening’s appeal finds a simple answer from the judge handling her case. No, there is no injustice, and in any case, male urinals can be used by women, “it may not be pleasant, but it’s possible”.

A phrase that triggered a wave of reactions in the Netherlands, where many women have tried the impossible: peeing in a male urinal. An uncomfortable if not downright impossible exercise, not to mention the intimacy issues that arise in the public space.

In short, a response completely disconnected from the realities experienced by women. The issue was taken up by an Amsterdam city councilor, Ilana Rooderkerk, and gained momentum. Porta potties were set up in busy areas of the city. And then, after many years, the city decided to invest in more sanitary facilities to accommodate everyone.

What does this story tell us?

This example highlights the status quo around toilets. For Geerte Piening, it is illustrated by her resignation to comply with compensatory behavior, in this case relieving herself in the street, in the absence of facilities. 

Compensatory behavior is the solution most people accept, and it keeps the status quo in its rightful place. Most people stay within this framework and rarely leave it, or only to complain quickly.

Who hasn’t complained about queuing in the toilets, but who has actually taken concrete action?

In Geerte Piening’s case, the situation she experienced, combined with the perceived injustice and the fine she received, brought her out of the status quo, and enabled her to begin her long crusade for public toilets in the city of Amsterdam.

It’s a shame to have to go to such extremes when the inequality is so obvious. For example, there are 35 male urinals for just 3 public toilets, and it took 9 years of battles to secure investment in sanitary facilities. Why is it so complicated to offer equality in toilets?

The lack of toilets in cities

The glaring imbalance in sanitation provision in Amsterdam is not the only problem: the number of public toilets is still insufficient. In the Netherlands, there is around 1 toilet for every 13,500 inhabitants, making the country one of the least well-equipped in Europe. A good ratio would be 1 toilet per 4,000 inhabitants, which is more common in Scandinavian countries.

Access to safe, hygienic public toilets, as well as being a matter of human dignity, solves another scourge that is very present in towns and cities. Wild toileting. Urinating on the public highway is a real problem for town planning, a source of discontent for local residents, discomfort for passers-by and an image issue for local authorities.

In high-traffic areas, the nuisance is exacerbated by the heat of the summer season, which brings back unpleasant odors. But whatever the season, traces on pavements leave no doubt about the nature of the substance.

The fear of seeing a city transformed into a “giant urinal”, as reported in the media 20 minutes in an article on Paris and the competition that the city is preparing to host this summer, shows that whatever the reason for this bad behavior – crowds, New Year’s Eve, parties or the day after a weekend – the cause is always the same: when there is bad behavior, it is often due to a lack of public toilets.

What are the solutions?

According to a survey we carried out in 2021, 1 in 3 people say they want more public toilets in cities. Local authorities are increasingly equipping themselves, but the provision remains unequal. They don’t take enough account of women, who are rarely offered urinals. However, most public toilets, particularly in Paris, now have a male urinal. Why not a female equivalent?

Imagine a toilet area that is accessible, hygienic and safe, and that includes a female urinal in the same way as male urinals. That’s why we’ve created urbanPee urinals, which relieve stress points in washrooms.

Our female and male urinals urbanPee are waterless and therefore require no special connections, so they can be deployed quickly in busy areas.

Several initiatives are taking shape, such as ICI TOILETTES, which uses an app to locate the nearest available toilets. They are also developing partnerships with establishments that open their toilets to the public. An essential tool when you’re navigating the urban jungle and you’re feeling the urge!

The subject of toilets in the city can stir up the crowds, but rarely does it result in measures that move the lines.

Many will complain about the smells along the pavements, or the impossibility of locating a public toilet nearby, but it’s people like Geerte Piening who are breaking the status quo around toilets.

For these forces of nature, madamePee is also working to provide equal access to toilets in the public space. The urbanPee urinals are ready to take over the cities!