Corp Comm Connects

Toronto is a city flush with parks. So why aren’t there more public washrooms available?
Oct. 17, 2022

This August Trisha Keyes-Bevan was surprised to find the washrooms near a wading pool at Campbell Avenue Park locked on a Sunday afternoon.

Keyes-Bevan lives in the Junction Triangle and frequents nearby parks with her grandson. “It’s really frustrating, especially for a young child,” she said. “I mean, what do you do when they have to go?”

Stories in the “Can’t we do better” series

That has become an all-too-common question in Toronto, especially with people flocking to city parks during the pandemic for socially distanced outdoor activities. Those who rely on public parks as their backyard found themselves in search of clean, unlocked public washrooms and working drinking fountains to stay hydrated.

In total, the city has 448 public washrooms for its three million residents, including 155 in community recreation facilities. Of those in public parks, only 48 are open year-round, with 140 only open from May to October.

According to a city spokesperson, many of the park washrooms are seasonal washrooms -- some built as early as the 1950s -- and were not designed or constructed for winter use and lack insulated plumbing and sufficient electrical heating.

It doesn’t help that when they are open, their operating hours are also limited. Park washrooms are open from around 9 a.m. until dusk, though in busier summer months the city says it tries to keep some open until 10 p.m.

Access to park facilities ended up in city council this year, with councillors passing a motion in June to speed up the opening of water assets in parks, including drinking fountains and public washrooms “with a goal of opening facilities as soon as it is possible after the risk of frost has passed, but with a target of the end of May at the latest.”

No mention was made of extending their hours.

Council also directed the parks, forestry and recreation department to give an update on plans to winterize park washrooms during the 2023 budget process.

It currently costs $1.4 million a year to activate the facilities, and $3 million for all the city’s water assets, which include outdoor pools, splash pads and community gardens.

While the issue affects everyone, it is more difficult for others.

Nikki Sutherland was living in a tent outside Sanctuary in 2020 and recalls having to wake her partner up in the night to feel safe and sheltered while she went to the bathroom in the bushes or an alley.

“It’s demeaning almost, having to go outside like an animal. We have feelings too,” Sutherland said.

Coun. Gord Perks, who voted in favour of opening washrooms and fountains earlier, said every neighbourhood should be a place where people can walk around and get a drink of water or use the washroom if they need to.

“It’s just basic human biology. Every neighbourhood, every day of the year, every hour of the day,” Perks said.

Cadence Guo, who lived in the city from 2013 until 2021, said she would often stop drinking water three hours before a walk in case she’d need to use the washroom.

“Otherwise, if I have to go to the bathroom somewhere, there’s no public bathrooms along my route,” Guo said.

Guo contrasts this with her visits to China, where she said there are public washrooms in every neighbourhood, even smaller rural areas.

As for drinking fountains, though the city aims to have them on by spring, it can sometimes not happen until well into the warmer weather.

The city has more than 700 public water fountains in parks. But fountains that are attached to seasonal washrooms are only turned on as buildings are opened -- mid-May and operational to mid-October. This year, only 60 per cent were working at the end of May.

Keyes-Bevan said she contacted her councillor when she noticed the drinking water fountains weren’t operational yet -- in June.

“It’s disconcerting because you have to hydrate a lot and then you go out and what’s the point of the washrooms if they’re not available?”