Advocating for public toilets: Where to go when there’s no place to go!

Bessa Whitmore and Kristina Ropke

“Nature calls, what to do? Will I be able to find a loo! A bathroom, a restroom, a porta-potty, a WC, a lavatory, the Ladies, the Gents, the facilities, an outhouse, a powder room, or a toilet. This could be me, this could be you!”

No matter what we call it, we all need to use them. But where are the toilets when we need them?

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the lack of access to toilet facilities in Ottawa. Prior to the pandemic there were some “hidden” toilet facilities available in local businesses and public buildings. But these toilets were not equally accessible for everyone, as many local businesses do not allow access to their toilets unless a purchase is made. We are dealing with a serious access issue which is hardly unique to Sandy Hill (or Ottawa).

During these last two years, our sense of locality has increased. Many of us have re-engaged with our neighbours, supported local businesses, and taken to the streets, parks and pathways to exercise, enjoy fresh air, and alleviate social isolation from being cooped up in our homes. Yet too often our time away from home has been cut short, specifically because we need to access a toilet.

The lack of access to toilets affects everyone but it presents an unsurmountable barrier to numerous community members. For many seniors, people living with disabilities, people who suffer from intermittent or chronic medical conditions, and families with young children, the need to access a toilet is even more dire. Not having a place to pee or poo results in either staying home, risking an accident, ducking into the bushes, or into the yards of residents. The lack of access to basic amenities not only affects our physical health but can seriously impact one’s psychological health, leading to an increased sense of loneliness, social isolation and depression.

And let us not forget those who are most vulnerable in our communities. For people experiencing homelessness, the search for a toilet is always part of their day. Having access to toilets and running water would do wonders for restoring their dignity, as well as reducing human waste in parks and on privately owned property.

So what can be done to improve toilet access in Sandy Hill and downtown Ottawa? See the box on the right for a few ideas.

Advocate for a range of options:

  • Stand-alone public toilets: While the City is planning two stand-alone public toilets (Sparks Street and the ByWard Market), these are expensive to build and maintain.
  • Subsidy for local businesses: Contact your local BIA and ask them to help identify businesses that would open their toilets to the public in exchange for a small subsidy in partnership with the City. This would not only expand the availability of public toilets, but it would be a particularly cost-effective approach.
  • Porta potties (in season) placed in key locations.
  • Street signage identifying the location of public toilets in downtown Ottawa (an especially modest budget item).
  • Contact the mayor and your city councillor and stress the need for more public toilets. Make it an issue in the upcoming municipal election this fall.
  • Support the GottaGo campaign: Share your stories (anonymously, if you wish) on our social media platforms (website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). Talk to your friends and neighbours about this issue. You can learn more about the GottaGo campaign at
A common sight throughout the pandemic!
Photo: Bessa Whitmore