May 15, 2017

Where’s the toilet?

The location of a humble toilet block in a park might seem a minor issue, but it's big news in inner suburban Melbourne and highlights some larger issues

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Methven Park, Brunswick

There’s a controversy in Brunswick over the City of Moreland’s plan to site a toilet block slap bang in the middle of Methven Park (listen to 774 radio and read The Age, Pave paradise and put up a toilet block: Sit-in planned over Brunswick dunny plan). The former toilet block was demolished last week after three years of planning (!) but Council says the new facility can’t be located on or near the original site because of its proximity to a CitiPower substation:

New regulations about what can be built adjacent to such substations forced Council to identify another site.

This might seem a minor issue but I think access to public toilets is a key indicator of the quality of life in cities – see Are our trains going down the toilet? It’s especially important as the population ages, as the average housing density increases, as places attract more visitors, and as city dwellers become more mobile.

In this case, though, the story highlights another issue; what caught my attention were these paras in The Age:

The council argues that a factory on the northern side, where residents say a toilet block could (be) built may soon be demolished for apartments, making it an unsuitable (location) for lavatories.

Residents counter that this is putting the needs of future residents ahead of those in the area now.

Rather than putting the interests of future residents ahead of the interests of existing residents, this could be interpreted as Council weighting the welfare of future residents equally with the wellbeing of existing residents. Council recently told residents the proposed location “does not favour any of the current or future residents in the immediate vicinity over the other”.

It’s a small example of a perennial problem. Loading unattractive changes on to prospective development sites rather than siting them where it makes sense on planning grounds is yet another way existing residents reduce the pressure for additional housing to be built in their neighbourhood.

As I observed here, current residents feel they paid for a bunch of neighbourhood characteristics when they bought their dwelling and therefore have the right to keep the local area pretty much as it is. On the other hand, they think, future residents will buy into the neighbourhood knowing what they’re getting; something like a toilet block over the back fence from their new apartment will be compensated by a lower asking price.

No doubt too much shouldn’t be made of the impact of a humble toilet block, although I imagine it would make a park outlook from the back windows a lot less attractive for many prospective residents if it were close to their fence. Something like a public parking lot, a mobile phone tower, or a large electrical substation would be a more striking example.

The problem with discounting the welfare of future residents is the viability of any new development will be affected in some way by decisions that affect its market appeal. An unattractive public facility mightn’t make much difference in boom conditions, but when the market slows – as inevitably it always will – it could have a larger impact. It might mean that a development doesn’t go ahead. That could have important implications for dwelling supply.

As for the location of the toilet block, it seems Council is either lacking in imagination or it thinks it really is the politburo. The toilet block should be kept well away from the best part of this small park (about 120 x 100 metres). It should be sited near street parking where it’s accessible to both park visitors and travellers, particularly those who are disabled or infirm. Public toilets should be thought of as both local and district facilities.

Council should also be more forthcoming about the substation issue; in particular, whether it’s a non-negotiable constraint or, as these matters often are, a matter of additional cost. Whether it’s located nearer to existing residents or nearer the development site should come out the bottom of the process; not be fed in at the top.

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9 thoughts on “Where’s the toilet?

  1. Paul Sagi

    My guess is the substation issue is not negotiable.
    Substation equipment can explode or emit toxic smoke if a fault occurs.
    It’s a good suggestion to site the toilet near street parking to facilitate access.

  2. Adam Ford

    The problem with “discounting the welfare of future residents” is that the current residents will die eventually. “The welfare of future residents” being another term for long-run, evidence based, non-clientelistic COMMUNITY planning. Good government, they used to call it …

  3. Len

    These ‘Power Authorities’ take their title way too literally imposing arbitrary constraints above and beyond what is required under the Australian Standard.

  4. Deb Dean

    The term ‘infirm’ belongs to a different century surely!
    Accessibility for all highlights diversity of need, inclusion and exposes discrimination.
    Language is important.

    1. Alan Davies

      I already know this will be the comment of the year! It wouldn’t surprise me if the modern way the term ‘inclusion’ is used is less familiar to most Australians than ‘infirm’.

  5. Peter Hill

    Well, it’s either the dunny, or on the trees in the park!

    1. Oz (Horst) Kayak

      Maybe, the dunny should be spelt leave-at-tree instead of lavat’ry

  6. Peter Hill

    I am reminded of the 1970s BBC TV comedy series “Clochemerle” based on Gabriel Chevallier’s book. Fiction is sometimes truer than we would believe

    1. Bill Hilliger

      Yes, I too enjoyed “Clochemerle” the satire would still point out truths in today’s situation.

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