San Francisco's Plan for Turning Parking Spaces Into Public Toilets

san francisco public toilet located on a city street

Migrated Image / Timomcd / Flickr

The parklet movement has gotten popular in San Francisco. If you aren't familiar with parklets, it's when businesses turn the parking spaces outside their storefront into pleasant public seating areas. Walk down Valencia Street in the Mission District and you'll see at least five, and a lot more are popping up around the city.

The idea has taken such hold that the city is looking to use the same concept for public toilets, turning parking spaces into eco-friendly restrooms. It's not unusual to see, and smell, some unpleasant piles when walking down some streets in the city. In fact, one of my street photographer friends recently tweeted that she'd become unfortunately adept at photoshopping poo out of her pictures.

It's a problem, no doubt, and much of it is because there are few public restrooms. You have to be a paying customer at a business, or cough up $0.50 to open the door of the big green toilets that are really only found along Market Street. For those living on the street, finding a convenient bathroom is not an easy task.

But San Francisco is innovating around the idea of eco-friendly public toilets that could solve a serious health issue.

Bay Citizen reports, "An innovative plan would replace some street parking spaces with environmentally friendly public restrooms -- facilities that do not flush or connect to the sewer system. Instead, human waste would be collected and someday possibly composted to add back into the ecosystem as plant fertilizer."

I'm not sure how innovative it is since this is basically a port-a-potty, but perhaps the innovation is all in the beauty of the design, making "parklets" into "pooplets". The idea is officially called "the ecological toilet project."

Rather than simply being ugly port-a-potties parked along the street, these will be a little more complicated, and a lot more expensive, costing an estimated $40,000-$50,000 each.

The restrooms are the vision of Hyphae Design Laboratory of Oakland and its founder, Brent Bucknum, who helped create the celebrated living roof at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. The science behind them is already used in developing countries: solid and liquid wastes are separated, reducing smells and the risk of disease. No toxic chemicals are used, making it possible to eventually transform waste into plant nutrients (although initially, in San Francisco, it would be trucked to waste treatment facilities).

The article also notes that the designers are considering translucent walls so the silhouette of whoever is inside can be seen. While they note that this could help police see if any illegal activity is taking place, personally I wouldn't want to glimpse any activity taking place inside a toilet, thanks very much.

Another aspect of the plan we're interested to hear more about is the effect of turning parking spaces into slots for toilets. The parklets are only slightly controversial, though I think most people don't mind giving up a handful of parking spaces for pleasant sidewalk seating -- most of the parklets are decorated, have greenery or other elements that make sitting, or even walking by, a visually nice experience. If the same level of care is used for transforming parking spaces into restrooms, perhaps public toilets could actually help beautify a city, let alone clean it up, and encourage more people to walk or use public transportation since parking spaces will be even more scarce.