Let’s talk toilets and garbage cans. I know, not the sexiest of topics, but one that I have come to realize is really important to the overall visitor experience. I arrived in the UK two weeks ago with my son, Patch, to visit my wife, Trish. She has been there since October as part of the organizing committee for the Commonwealth Games. We spent the first three days exploring London. Patch and I had taken the red-eye to London’s Gatwick Airport and then the train downtown. After checking our luggage at the hotel, we took the Underground to Euston Station to meet Trish who was coming in from Birmingham.
I grabbed a coffee and Patch grabbed a hot chocolate outside of the station. When we were done, I looked around for a garbage can, but none were in sight. I finally had to tell Patch to stay put while I went back into the station on my quest for a trash can. But there were none to be found. Not at the cafeteria seating, not at the entrance to the tracks, none at the ticket wickets. I had already spent nearly 10 minutes searching for a place to put our two cups and was just about to give up when a custodial staff member walked by pushing a cart that had a garbage bag he was using.
Upon my return outside, I started to notice that there was lots of trash strewn about. And it got worse as we headed back into the heart of London. Nary a can to be found. Even the most environmentally conscious have their limits in terms of how far they are willing to carry their litter. There were cups and bags along the walkways. Some of the iconic red telephone booths were now makeshift litter collectors, piled up to 1/3 full through broken panes of glass. Even at the tourist destinations, like the Tower of London, we found ourselves carrying water bottles and coffee cups for much, much longer than we really wanted to. There were times when our patience for carrying our litter was wearing thin. Dirty streets led to dirtier streets because people gave up carrying their garbage and left it where other garbage had been collecting.
By contrast, we spent last weekend in Alicante, Spain, where there were garbage cans everywhere. And to top it all off, I noticed on my morning walks that there were trucks out everywhere washing down the sidewalks, many of which were full of outdoor dining locations crowded with hundreds of people enjoying tapas and sangria each evening. Everywhere we walked, we could see a garbage can, artfully incorporated into streetlamps, railings, and wayfinding signs. The cleanliness of the town led to increased cleanliness as I watched adults and kids alike drop their ice cream wrappers, cups, plates, and other refuse into the trashcans they passed at regular intervals.
Now, where London failed with garbage bins, they exceeded with public washrooms. The three of us were out all day long, walking all over the place. Between stopping at a pub or two and drinking water to stave off dehydration, there were a few times when nature called urgently. It seemed like wherever we were, I was able to pull up Google Maps and find a public access toilet within a five-minute walk. Having to pay to enter surprised me the first time, but they took debit/credit/tap or cash, and it was the best $0.75 I ever spent. The money must have been used to maintain the washrooms because they were clean and well-stocked. It was a very welcome convenience for visitors and made us feel like the city understood the needs of its guests.
In Alicante, there were plenty of public washrooms along the beach. The problem was that it was off-season there and none of them were open. Sangria was the drink of the weekend, and many bathroom breaks were required each day. So what did we do? Well, we found the closest place to grab a snack and have a drink that also had a bathroom we could use. There were no signs saying, “paying guests only”, but I don’t think we are alone in our thinking that it is only right to buy a little something for the convenience. Heck, when I stop to use the bathroom at the Coffee Time just outside of Peterborough on my way to Bancroft, I don’t walk out without purchasing a coffee or snack.
Recently, Tom, from our team, provided some visitor numbers for the 14 Downtowns of Durham. In 2019, there were collectively almost 6.5M visitors who travelled more than 40km to explore, shop and dine there. And that is in addition to the 43M locals who also spent time in Durham’s Downtowns. Just in people who can’t whip home when nature calls, we are close to an average of 500,000 per town. Doing some quick math, if half of the people who visited one of their towns used a public bathroom, charging $1, just once, there would be $250,000 that could be used as an operating budget to keep it clean and stocked. That’s probably also enough to pay down the capital cost to build it in the first place.
At $1, some of the people may choose to instead head to the local coffee shop or patio restaurant and pay for a $5 drink. I know that seems counter-intuitive, but technically you get to use the bathroom for “free” and still get the value for the money spent on drinks and/or snacks. Either way, with both options available, the town is now more visitor friendly and welcoming.
Keeping the streets clean doesn’t just have to be a municipal or BIA responsibility. Wouldn’t it be great if all the businesses in an area had inviting outdoor receptacles for visitors to throw their waste from neighbourhood shops? You could even vary them outside of each store, switching from garbage to recycling to compost. The vast majority of the population are good people who will do their part to properly dispose of waste rather than litter. Clean streets lead to more pride of place, which in turn will drive more locals and visitors alike into the businesses that make your towns vibrant.
I am looking forward to working with our municipalities, BIAs and stakeholders as they continue to build welcoming destinations for visitors and locals alike. If you would like to start the conversation now, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will set something up.
Have a great day!