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UCLoo Festival 2013


Remembering the 2013 festival of technologies, ideas and debate about sanitation in London


Archive for September, 2013

London loves loos: the Loo Tour

By ucesbar, on 23 September 2013

A couple of members of the project team recently took the London Loo Tour, in preparation for the UCLoo Festival taking place 19th November – 3rd December at UCL’s Main Quad (please donate – just £5 or less will help – to make sure this event happens:  http://spacehive.com/ucloofestival2013 But hurry – we must reach our fundraising target by 17th October!)

We started at Waterloo Station where Rachel the Loo Tour Lady was easy to spot, toilet plunger in hand. Originally starting her loo research as a student trying to avoid fee-charging public toilets, Rachel now runs weekly walking tours around the City and will soon be branching out into additional areas, including a special Bloomsbury Loo Tour during the UCLoo Festival (booking info below: details of the UCLoo tours to be announced soon).

The Loo Tour Lady

The Loo Tour Lady

As one of the few public amenities in London allowed to charge a fee for use of their toilets, I was surprised by my own visit to find the Waterloo Station ladies’ room somewhat grim. Our guide informed us that it costs upwards of £20,000 per year to maintain a public toilet facility, but we were unable to determine how much the toilet fees amount to.

The second stop, and a much more spectacular one, was the Jubiloo public toilets at the Southbank Centre. Built for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and designed by architect Mark Power, the toilet costs 50p per use (compared with the station’s 30p charge) and has full-time attendants (hard to miss in their Union Jack waistcoats!) It also makes use of rainwater to flush toilets and wash floors.

To pay or not to pay? This is an essential question that constantly comes up in toilet politics. Rachel explained that boroughs are not, in fact, obligated to provide public conveniences – and many don’t these days. Our next stop was across the Thames near Embankment Station, where we came to an example of a public convenience which was privatized by Westminster in 2012 – like all conveniences in that borough – and also charges a princely 50p. On the up side, it was one that offers facilities for those with a range of disabilities and includes a hoist for wheelchair users.

The Urilift

The Urilift

Just around the corner outside Embankment Garden, we stood on top of the mysterious “Urilift” –one of three urinals, also provided by Westminster, that rise from the ground in the evenings to offer an alternative option for late-night male revellers.

Another, more permanent example of a street urinal was the Butterfly, outside of Charing Cross Station. The slick stainless steel design offers minimal privacy but hopes to prevent weeing on the street.

Butterfly urinal outside Charing Cross Station

Butterfly urinal outside Charing Cross Station

Next we visited the underground toilets at St. Paul’s, Covent Garden. Rachel expanded on the difficulties of providing public conveniences for women in the Victorian Era. She particularly mentioned one case: a proposed toilet for women in Camden Town, which was championed by none other than George Bernard Shaw (then a local vestryman) for many years. Female toilets were highly controversial (many people thought they were an ‘abomination’ and would be filled by flower girls cleaning their watercress) and the most successful were the ones that were discretely located underground. Toilets for gentlemen were far more appreciated elements of the cityscape. The gentleman’s loos at the Royal Exchange even had a sonnet dedicated to them.


Toilet politics

Toilet politics

Just off Covent Garden, we traversed the narrow Brydges Place alleyway. As prime territory for late-night weeing, it’s estimated that the streets of London are subjected to 10,000 gallons of urine per year; one contributor felt the need to apologise.

Next stop was the underground Cellar Door Cabaret – a bar and nightclub built inside a former men’s toilet. Once visited by Oscar Wilde and Joe Orton, the location now hosts only two cubicles, making use of “Smart Glass” which turns from transparent to opaque when the door is locked. We stopped for refreshments (and a toilet break) before continuing the walk. Nearby, another piece of toilet history was viewed at the mint green Star Yard urinal; maybe the only cast-iron Victorian model remaining in the City.


Ornate washbasin in The Knights Templar pub

Ornate washbasin in The Knights Templar pub

The cramped quarters of the urinal was in stark contrast with the enormous, lounge-like ladies’ loo in The Knights Templar pub, our next visit, which contained multiple chambers; bronze and tiled hand-washing facilities and even couches. Other pub stops included a Community Loo Scheme participant; Ye Olde London is one of 75 establishments paid £600 each yearly by the City of London to allow the public to make use of their toilets without needing to make a purchase. Unfortunately, the sign in the window was barely noticeable, and the scheme doesn’t seem especially well-publicised.

Our second-to-last stop was the free toilets of St. Paul’s Cathedral, winner of the Loo of the Year Award in 1995 despite the continued use of original plumbing. And finally, the tour ended on a high note at the rooftop patio of One New Change. Although we didn’t see any noteworthy toilets, the beautiful view across London was a perfect spot to contemplate the rich history of loos in London.

One New Change patio

One New Change patio

With impressive historical knowledge and a great sense of humour, Rachel’s Loo Tours are well worth a visit. You can book yours at:


There will be special UCL campus and wider Bloomsbury tours available to book during the UCLoo Festival, taking place 19th November to 3rd December.

For more photos and to see a short video of the Loo Tour Lady explaining the idea behind her project, please visit our Facebook and Twitter accounts: www.facebook.com/ucloofestival @UCLooFestival.

Toilets, Gender and Urbanism

By ucftbj0, on 17 September 2013

This blog entry makes the case for why toilets are relevant to discussions of health, gender and urbanism, and argues that toilets are just as relevant to a so-called developed world city like London as they are to a developing world city like Nairobi.

I should start off by acknowledging that toilets are not nearly as invisible in public discourse as they were a decade ago. One reason for their new visibility is the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, which in the year 2002 set the target of halving the number of people without basic sanitation – currently estimated at 2.6 billion people – by 2015. This goal still looks very far away (indeed, this is supposedly the most off-track of all MDG targets) largely because sanitation has always been an unloved and underfunded cause in comparison to its sexier and cleaner companion: water. Nonetheless, the sanitation field has lately been energized by the arrival of important new champions from WaterAid to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who have seriously invested in their drive to Reinvent the Toilet.

The reason for the new interest in sanitation is obvious: every day, thousands of children under five continue to die due to faecally transmitted diseases, deaths that improved sanitation could do much to prevent (studies suggest that improved sanitation could create a 30% reduction in child mortality). Sanitation is also much more cost-effective than most other interventions, which is why toilets are often referred to by NGOs as ‘the cheapest medicine’ – every dollar invested is said to return $3 to $34 in terms of improved productivity.[1] But apart from these arguments, other justifications are also emerging ­­that emphasize the environmental and social benefits of sanitation. And study after study proves one thing: few social groups benefit more from improved sanitation than women.

The Global WASH Campaign aims to "mobilize support for bringing sanitation and hygiene to the global agenda."

There are many explanations for why clean, secure toilet facilities with running water help create safer and more equitable societies for women. Below are some of the main ones:

  1. clean safe toilets ensure better female health – not going to the bathroom can create medical problems like urinary tract infections, resulting in missed days at work and school
  2. clean safe toilets reduce female labour ­– it is usually women who carry water for household needs, including personal cleansing
  3. clean safe toilets limit exposure to sexual violence – when women, particularly in slum areas, travel long distances to find a toilet or defecate in the open (usually at night), they are vulnerable to assault and harassment[2]
  4. safe clean school toilets greatly increase the chance of young women staying on in education after puberty and the onset of menstruation.

In other words, the provision of toilets positively contributes to female health, safety, and dignity in many ways. This recent realization has helped secure stronger support for toilets in international development circles ­– this year the UN finally officially recognized 19 November as World Toilet Day.

It fascinates me, however, that this discussion about the global sanitation crisis focuses almost exclusively on what is happening ‘out there’: in Southeast Asia, India, and Africa in particular. What about our own situation here in the Global North? Of course, we are blessed with (almost) universal sewerage coverage – most of us will never know the indignities of outdoor defecation. But this doesn’t mean that we can afford to be complacent about toilets, particularly if we’re women. Toilets are important for women here, for the same reasons they’re important for women in the developing world: the lack of clean, safe ‘away-from-home’ options negatively affects female health and mobility, especially at times when women are pregnant or menstruating. This does not seem to be a surprising or controversial fact to point out. Indeed, women’s organizations in London have been very vocal about this issue since at least the 1870s.[3]

Westminster public paid toilets

Westminster public paid toilets

Yet, overall, our cultural views towards toilets in the UK might still be characterized as ambivalent — even schizophrenic. On the one hand, we clearly do value toilets on some level: Victorian London’s pioneering sewer system continues to be recognized as a source of great national pride and in our own homes, bathrooms are larger and more lavish than ever. Yet the trend toward private comfort contrasts sharply with the general condition of public facilities; 50 percent of UK public toilets have been closed since 1995. Many of those that remain have been privatized and charge fees – most loos in Westminster now cost 50p. It constantly surprises me that there is not more public awareness — or outrage — about developments, which so obviously degrade the quality of our street life.

This is ultimately why it is important that, sewers or no, we should not exempt cities in the Global North from current debates about sanitation. It is only by looking at sanitation cross-culturally that we may come to consider our own situation far more critically than we have done thus far. At the very least, surveying the sanitation field globally will remind us that it is incredibly short-sighted to take toilets for granted, as few public amenities do more to create healthy, livable, age-friendly, and equitable cities.

*Please donate to UCLoo Festival – just £5 or less will help – to make sure this conversation happens:  http://spacehive.com/ucloofestival2013 But hurry – we must reach our fundraising target by 17th October!

Additional reading:

  • Maggie Black and Ben Fawcett, The Last Taboo: Opening the Door on the Global Sanitation Crisis (London, 2008)
  • Rose George, The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste (London, 2008)


[1]        United Nations University, Sanitation as a Key to Global Health: Voices from the Field (2010), p. 11. Available at: http://inweh.unu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/2010_Sanitation_PolicyBrief.pdf

[2]         See, for instance, Amnesty International, “Risking rape to reach a toilet: Women’s experiences in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya” (7 July 2010). Available at: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AFR32/006/2010. This has also been emphasized in the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council’s dramatic postcard publicizing the problem. (See image above.)

[3]         See Barbara Penner, ‘A World of Unmentionable Suffering: Women’s Public Conveniences in Victorian London,’ Journal of Design History xiv/1, (2001), pp. 35-52.

Composting Toilets and the Coast Guard: an unlikely love story

By ucft590, on 10 September 2013

The hull of a steel deck barge is one of the last places I would like to be in the sweltering August heat in Virginia. Yet this is where I found myself during the summer of 2009 while I installed the below-deck components for the vessel’s two composting toilets. The barge was not yet in the water, perched on steel beams alongside the shipyard’s waterfront construction area, so I thankfully didn’t have to contend with the water’s movement. However, it wasn’t the most ideal of building situations. Getting to the underside of each toilet was an adventure in itself: I had to crawl into the hull through one of the top deck hatches then navigate through the maze of steel frames that formed the structure of the barge. Since there was a temperature difference between the interior of the hull and the warm, humid exterior air, beads of condensation continually formed within the hull. Working inside the cramped and dark compartments, illuminated only by my LED headlamp, I felt like I was spelunking in a futuristic cave.

The Learning Barge

The Learning Barge

As the Project Manager for a sustainable, floating classroom and field station called the Learning Barge, I found myself in some unusual and wholly unimagined situations during the design/build process from 2007 through the vessel’s first operation season in 2010. The Barge was conceived as a demonstration tool for non-profit The Elizabeth River Project, to educate students and adults about their local watershed along the Elizabeth River, one of the most polluted tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. It showcased a wide range of recycled products (reclaimed road signs were used as cladding), sustainable strategies (a rainwater collection feeds a bio-filtration station), and renewable energy systems (wind turbines and photovoltaic panels provide power). Since we wanted to feature a number of green technologies, the integration of composting toilets was essential for the Barge’s “head” (the name for a toilet on a boat, traditionally named since they were located at the head of the vessel so that passing waves could clean the drainage pits). Although composting toilets are becoming more common for personal watercraft, they are rarely used on commercial or industrial vessels.

Marine toilets are inherently different from their land-based counterparts since they do not have the option of being connected to sewer systems. Therefore most marine sanitation systems are adapted versions of chemical toilets that rely on either a bag system or a ‘pump-out’ for the removal of waste. Neither of these systems are ideal: they utilize toxic chemicals and, until the imposed regulations of the Clean Vessel Act of 1992, it wasn’t uncommon for vessel operators to incorrectly dispose of their waste by simply dumping the chemically-treated contents directly into bodies of water. The toilets of the Learning Barge, two 12VDC Envirolet Waterless Remote Systems, consist of three main elements: a toilet, a composting unit, and a ventilation shaft. The small electrical fans within each of the composting units operate 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, allowing heated air to travel through all six sides of the waste, thereby facilitating rapid evaporation and accelerating the compost process. This is unlike many composting systems, that only have one aeration side (the top). During the regular operational season of the Barge (March –November) the toilets require daily attention: the manual aerator within the composting unit (similar to a rake) needs to be pumped and the blackwater tank needs to be monitored.

I installed two waterless, composting toilets

I installed two waterless, composting toilets

With drawings, product documentation, and a detailed operations manual in hand, complete with instructions for what toilet paper to use and procedures for both the start of the season and winterisation, we thought that Coast Guard approval of our composting toilets would be one of the easiest components of the certification process. Yet the uniformed officers were skeptical:

  • How could we ensure that the system would work?
  • What were we going to do with the waste?
  • Would it smell?

The last question was one of the oddest: toilets on ferryboats are rarely pleasant. Over the course of several site visits, we managed to convince the Coast Guard representatives that composting toilets weren’t such a crazy concept for a vessel. We were using a proven supplier, a sturdy unit, and we had outlined every step within the composting process, including specifications for compost disposal in accordance with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (a permit was needed for all compost produced outside of residential settings).  With questions answered, our vessel received certification in September 2009 and later that autumn, the members of the Coast Guard independently toured the vessel and its sustainable systems as part of a training exercise. Today, in the Code of Federal Regulations for vessels, there are a number of composting toilets approved as Marine Sanitation Devices (MSD).

*Please also donate to UCLoo Festival – just £5 or less will help – to make sure the conversation on ecological urban sanitation happens:  http://spacehive.com/ucloofestival2013 But hurry – we must reach our fundraising target by 17th October!

Click here to learn more about the composting toilets used on the Learning Barge:


Click here to explore the current environmental endeavors of the Learning Barge:


You can also learn more about the design/build process of the Learning Barge:


Toilet stories

By ucessjb, on 3 September 2013

Sarah on LooFamilies are libraries of embarrassing stories. In my family embarrassing stories are catalogued by theme, as well as person. Embarrassing stories of my youngest sister usually involve overeating, notably of pickled foods. My theme is toilets, or ‘going to the toilet’. Like the time I heard the call of nature whilst climbing a big hill near a busy road with my siblings. From that height everything looked small, and I figured I was invisible to the drivers so far below. When I returned to the car park my grandmother informed me, and countless others in years to come, that I was not. Or my habit of keeping the door open to our semi-outhouse in the small village where I grew up, so I could keep an eye on the infrequent passers-by, mortifying my mother who was more concerned that the whole community could see me. These stories remind me that toilets and ‘going to the toilet’ are meant to be hidden, a lesson I have been very slow to learn.

There are no doubt very good evolutionary, sanitary, psychological and cultural reasons for hiding our toilets and going to the toilet in private. On the other hand, I like to think that outliers like me, who are slow on the uptake of toilet invisibility, serve some sort of social purpose.

We need to go public about toilets. We can no longer hide from the global sanitation crisis. Roughly two and a half billion people don’t have access to any form of improved sanitation. That means that more than one third of the world’s population don’t even have a pit latrine, never mind a flushing toilet. Water resources around the world are increasingly stressed and conventional sewerage infrastructure is expensive to build, maintain and operate.

The flushing toilet and water based sanitation systems that we take for granted in cities like London are unlikely to be replicated in the rapidly urbanising cities of the global south. There are many advantages to flush toilets and water based sewerage systems, but present and future shortages of money, water and nutrients indicate that their costs increasingly outweigh their benefits. It is time for a new model of sanitation, which is more affordable and sustainable.

There are many people around the world working to develop alternative sanitation technologies and systems, particularly to address the global sanitation crisis. The problem is that, by and large, these toilets remain less desirable than the flushing loo. The new model of sanitation needs to desirable.

And so once again I am making myself visible on the toilet. This time I am working with colleagues at UCL to curate a festival of technology and ideas about sanitation. Hosting a toilet festival in London might seem trite, given the scale of the crisis in the global south, and our contribution to solving those vast problems will be minuscule. But our proposition is that the sanitation crisis is truly global. We should all be horrified by the current global shortfall in access to sanitation, and it is wise to be prepared for resource shortages here. If London was the centre of the nineteenth century water based sanitary revolution, then it should also be part of the twenty-first century ecological sanitation revolution. If ecological sanitation is to be affordable, sustainable and desirable, then perhaps it will one day be the preferred option in London. This what we hope to contribute – to make toilets visible and to start a conversation about how we might make ecological sanitation the globally preferred option, not the only option for people who cannot afford any better.

Please donate to UCLoo Festival – just £5 or less will help – to make sure this conversation happens:  http://spacehive.com/ucloofestival2013 But hurry – we must reach our fundraising target by 17th October!