Paris Gives Compost-Generating Public Urinals a 'Dry' Run

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With Uritrottoir, French designers introduce an attractive, civilized, eco-friendly and aesthetically pleasing way for men to seek relief when they've REALLY got to go. . (Photo: Faltazi)

Unlike the “splash-back” tactics employed at frequently micturated-upon walls in San Francisco, officials in Paris have opted to take a gentler, less demoralizing and ultimately less messy approach in dissuading public urination.

While certainly not encouraging full-bladdered Parisian men to take to the streets on pipis sauvages (“wild peeing”) sprees, it does seem that authorities now kind of actually want messieurs to urinate in public, an act that the Guardian refers to as a “time-honoured if technically prohibited practice.” This being said, it's strongly preferred that all torrents and trickles are directed straight into newly unveiled public urinals-cum-planters (two for now and hopefully more to come) that use nitrogen- and potassium-rich urine to make compost, which is later used in the city’s gardens and parks.

Oui oui, Paris is using wee-wee to make its public green spaces all the more healthy and beautiful.

Resembling a sort of boxy trash receptacle with what the Guardian calls a “miniature garden” growing out of the top, the compost-generating public urinal in question is named Uritrottoir — a moniker incorporating the French words for “urinal” and “pavement.” The interior of each water-free, graffiti-proof Uritrottoir unit is stuffed with straw, wood chips and sawdust, which absorb the urine and eliminate any offending smells.

Essentially, using an Uritrottoir is akin to relieving oneself onto a dressed-up hay bale — an old school standard of en plein air peeing that's been practiced for millennia. However, old-school doesn’t necessarily mean low-tech in this case as each Uritrottoir is equipped with an electronic monitoring system that alerts “urine attendants" when it comes time to haul away the pee-soaked straw beds to a parks department-operated composting facility.

So how much pee can each Uritrottoir absorb before it needs to be relieved itself? The urinals come in two sizes, one capable of accommodating the waste water of roughly 300 gents, the other larger model able to take on 600 individual pipis — based on an average of 450 ml or 15 oz per pee session — before needing to be refreshed.

“We’re making compost, a fertiliser, so it’s a circular economy. We’re re-using two waste products, straw and urine, to make something that makes plants grow,” Laurent Lebot of industrial design firm Faltazi tells the Guardian.

Specializing in ecological urban design, Lebot and his partner Victor Massip are something of a go-to team when it comes to innovative, compost-generating public urinals. I previously wrote about L'Uritonnoir, a ingenious sort of flat-pack funnel-urinal hybrid conceived by Faltazi that’s meant to be directly wedged into hay bales at outdoor music festivals and other large-scale al fresco events.

Uritrottoir, a plant-topped waterless pubic urinal concept from France.
You may want to think twice about stepping in to smell these flowers ... (Photo: Faltazi)

Redirecting the flow at Gare de Lyon

Whereas Faltazi’s previous eco-minded public urination solution was designed specifically for mass micturition events held in rural locales, specifically festival-hosting fields and farms, Uritrottoir is tailored for urban environments. Officials with France’s public railway authority, SNCF, have installed two units directly outside of Gare de Lyon, France’s third busiest rail station and home to what the Guardian refers to as “one of Paris’s most notorious public-peeing blackspots.”

“I am optimistic it will work,” SNCF maintenance official Maxime Bourette tells the New York Times, which reports that the agency paid just under $10,000 for the pair of greenery-topped waterless urinals. “Everyone is tired of the mess.”

In addition to the units outside of Gare de Lyon, three additional Uritrottoir units are being piloted in Lebot and Massip’s homebase of Nantes, a bustling Breton city in western France. Based on the effectiveness of the test runs in Paris and in Nantes, the duo’s attractive, low-odor dry urinals could potentially become a staple in not just French cities but anywhere where men, inebriated or not, have rudely unzipped and left their mark.

Uritrottoir, a plant-topped waterless pubic urinal concept from France.
Equipped with electronic monitoring systems, the greenery-topped urinals installed outside of Gare de Lyon (and potentially more French train stations to come) will be refreshed regularly. (Photo: Faltazi)

“Public urination is a huge problem in France,” Lebot explains to the Times. “Beyond the terrible smell, urine degrades lamp posts and telephone poles, damages cars, pollutes the Seine and undermines everyday life of a city. Cleaning up wastes water, and detergents are damaging for the environment.”

One of the most dramatic examples of the damage that unchecked public urination can have on the built environment comes not from France but from Germany where the mighty sandstone walls of Ulm Minister, the tallest church in the world, are eroding due to the frequent spray of intoxicated wildpinklers. (A dearth of public restrooms in the area and a long-running annual wine festival held in the adjacent public square certainly don’t help.)

Closer to home, San Francisco, a city in which metal lamp posts have been felled by heavily acidic urine, has long struggled with public urination woes.

In addition to applying super-hydrophobic paint (the aforementioned “splash back” method) to frequently abused walls around town, the sometimes rank-smelling City by the Bay has also experimented with planter-based public pee stations and al fresco latrines located in a popular park to further discourage gents from urinating on walls, trees, shrubs and private property. With an eye towards dignity and all-too-rare privacy, additional efforts have been made to provide the city’s sizable homeless population a place to both wash up and seek relief when nature urgently calls.