Do you need a place to go when nature calls this winter? The city of Toronto wants to help

If you’ve ever felt the call of nature while walking through a park in Toronto, only to find that its public restroom is locked, you’ll appreciate the latest recommendation from city staff to expand access to outdoor areas this winter.

Parks Forestry and Recreation Department wants to expand last year’s program to clear paths of ice and snow and keep more park toilets in operation during the colder months, as more people turned to urban parks for recreation during the COVID-19 shutdowns.

grev. James Pasternak, who represents Ward 10, York Center and chairs the city’s Infrastructure and Environment Committee, says the plan reflects an ongoing response to the parks’ growing popularity since the beginning of the pandemic.

“What we are trying to do is reduce these barriers so that parks can be enjoyed by individuals, by families year-round,” he said.

Before the pandemic, the city typically cleared 270 kilometers of trails in and around parks during the colder months. Last year, it added another 64 kilometers.

grev. James Pasternak says the plan reflects an ongoing response to the parks’ increasing popularity. (David Donnelly / CBC)

Staff are proposing this year that the city expand it to 40 more parks and open five more public restrooms this winter, bringing the total to 148. The council is expected to discuss the recommendation on 9 November.

Access to the park’s toilets, or lack thereof, is one of the biggest barriers to park use in the winter, and ensuring that the pipes do not freeze is the biggest challenge in keeping the facilities operational in minus degrees, says Pasternak.

“People are more likely to go and enjoy our outdoor space when there is access to a laundry room,” he said.

Public toilets for everyone

The new recommendation comes amid calls from citizens and advocacy groups for more access to public toilets, especially for people with disabilities, the elderly and those experiencing homelessness.

Access should be seen as a human right, says Lorraine Lam, who works with the uninhabited population of Sanctuary Toronto. The outreach worker says this program does not fully serve those who need it most.

“If they have to have public bathrooms open for maintenance … why don’t we make them available all day, for example 24-7? Why are they only closed at 9pm or any time?”

The city’s website says that public toilets are only open from kl. 9 at dusk.

Edith Wilson, a PhD student at the University of Guelph, wrote her master’s thesis on public restrooms in Toronto. She also started TorontoToilets.org a few years ago when she noticed that the city did not have a list of available public restrooms on its website – something the city has since changed.

She welcomes the city’s efforts to expand the availability of toilets, but says that if the city really wants to serve everyone, a good first step would be to look at how it is done in Europe, where toilet assistants are at all times present to help anyone who needs it.

I just think there are more things that need to happen with toilet visits in terms of recognizing it as something that is not just for cute families who are in the park, ”she said.

“Cities and governments in general tend to be unsympathetic to the many ways that a private space in the public space can serve.”

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