Public toilets, on or off Cambridge Common, are subject of much debate

When I was in NYC the week of 15 April, I met with two of the City’s parks planners.  They were very helpful in explaining some of the ins and outs of public bathroom (the term of art is, I think, “comfort station) design, maintenance and installation in New York City’s parks.  I figured NYC has got to face many of the same issues Cambridge does and we could learn from their efforts as we try to figure out how to address the need for public bathrooms in our City.  They even have website listing their park bathrooms.  NYC Parks & Rec did a variety of surveys and found that clean and safe restrooms are near the top of the public desire list again and again.  They would like to move towards a more attractive, though still sturdy, style of bathroom with toilet seats, mirrors, stall doors, better ventilation, etc than what might be found in a “prison catalogue.”  And they really want to improve their maintenance program to tell the park community that “This is your bathroom.”  They don’t want to sink to the lowest common denominator of park and bathroom use and they feel that supporting the users they want is the best way to make sure they don’t lose everybody.  Park Division staff inspects bathrooms regularly and the results, which include review of other Park assets, are posted on the website.

It can cost up to two million dollars per bathroom complex to build from scratch, with utilities, architectural and bidding requirements, plus the sheer size of the structure (men’s and women’s room with utility room in between for supplies and so forth), making cheap bathrooms not possible.  Upgrading existing facilities is cheaper.  And there is no way around expensive maintenance.  Some parks have dedicated staff, but for most it’s travelling crews who open up the bathrooms in the morning and close them later in the day, usually around dusk but rarely later than 7 PM even at a facility where teams are playing games.  Their first priority is to build, maintain, open and close bathrooms associated with kids playgrounds (sometimes these bathrooms can also open up into the rest of the park, but they don’t want random adults wandering through the playground to use the bathroom).

Issues around ADA accessibility impact the interior design and equipment.  Staff use for ‘slop’ sinks and need for electric access to run systems but not allow folks to charge their cell phones impact design as well.

Basically- there are no short cuts or cheap ways to provide quality restrooms for the public.  It’s important to figure out what you want to accomplish and then work towards doing that but always remember both the desired user and the relevant maintenance tail when implementing these programs.

Bathroom in Central Park, stall doors don’t provide much coverage.  Not a very comfortable place to be. This bathroom has a short set of stairs leading into it, so no strollers, wheel chairs or, most likely, walkers.



Self-cleaning bathroom on edge of Madison Square Park.  Big, heavy, expensive and, while useful, does not provide a pleasant park experience.  Stainless steel “prison architecture” interior minimizes upkeep but is somewhat offputting.  Doors open on their own after 15 minutes.  Costs 25 cents.  And they are BIG on the inside as well, allowing a variety of unwelcome uses to occur in the very private interior space.



City Park bathroom near Penn Station.  Very clean, with dedicated staff for maintenance.  Opposite a small kiosk café in the park.  One user at at time.  Rules posted outside but no automatically opening doors so if someone stays in for a long time it’s a management issue.  Toilet seat has self-rolling cover.


Bathroom sign in Grand Central Station.  GSC’s bathrooms were clean, comfortable and public, but were also situated deep in the train station.  The station itself seemed to have little to no general ‘hanging out’ space for folks not associated with one of the food vendors so the use of these bathrooms may be self-restricted to folks actually using the station to go somewhere or who are there to dine or drink.

GSC restroom sign

Men’s bathroom at Central Park’s remote control sailing pavilion, which is in the same building as a café.  “Advanced Prison style” furnishings, door for the stall, constant maintenance and on-site staff characterize this bathroom.  At grade entrance seems easy for wheel chairs, strollers and so forth.


The signage is good at Central Park, letting people know where the nearest bathroom is on a regular basis.



Porta potties at Washington Square Park (I think they are building more permanent structures there).  Even on a cool day, they have a distinct odor from a pretty long ways away, are ugly, are difficult to maintain and are not inexpensive.  Plus people don’t like to use them and there is no staff space for equipment and so forth.




Interior of men’s room in Central Park.  True “Prison style” furnishings including stainless steel mirror, deep sink without fixtures (to limit unauthorized use), no stall doors, porcelain sinks on metal legs and so forth.  The picture adds a nice touch.


Bryant Park’s privately run restrooms are nice, with fresh flowers and music.  But they are privately run….


Leave A Comment...