A photograph of a public toilet in Tōkyō, taken at night. The toilet building is made of coloured glass in shades of blue and orange, so is transparent, and is glowing slightly in the streetlamps.

Public Toilets and Public Luxury


In Britain, toilets have always been a flashpoint for debates about who ‘belongs’ in public space. The Tōkyō Toilet Project shows us how toilets can instead transform and expand public space.

Lenin once declared: ‘When we are victorious on a world scale, I think we shall use gold for the purpose of building public lavatories in the streets of some of the largest cities of the world.’1 If this remark showed his disdain for gold, it inadvertently described the importance of public toilets to any socialist project.

Public toilets in Britain have been decimated by over ten years of austerity. Councils don’t have a legal responsibility to provide public toilets, so they’ve been an easy target for officials looking to make savings after being handed large budget cuts. Hundreds have closed in the last decade. You can see their traces in the streets of any British city; ghostly signs for ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gents’ above a descending staircase, leading to a pile of leaves and boarded-up door, or, worse, an overpriced wine bar.

Media coverage of toilets has lately been dominated by the culture war over the right of trans people to access the appropriate facilities for their gender. The Westminster government has fuelled this panic by mooting changes to building regulations that would mean all new “non-domestic private and public buildings” in England, as well as “places undertaking major refurbishment”, must have separate single-sex facilities.

It is axiomatic that any socialist feminist should defend trans people’s right to use whatever toilet they want. Yet those of us concerned with toilet access face another, seemingly more urgent problem: whether there will soon be any toilets left at all. The fight for trans toilet access isn’t a distraction from this austerity-induced diminishment of our public sphere. It gets to the heart of the issue, reminding us that toilets have always been a flashpoint for debates about who belongs in public space. “The toilet teaches us who is welcome and who is expected”, write sociologists Jen Slater and Charlotte Jones.2 Public toilets tell us who the city is for.

Many of us felt the loss of public toilets when they were closed during the COVID-19 lockdowns, along with the department stores and cafes whose toilets serve as de facto public infrastructure, at least for those of us able to enter without suspicion. The closure of public toilets hit socially marginalised groups especially hard – pregnant people, disabled people with bowel or bladder issues, homeless people, and workers in the expanding gig economy all struggled.

These groups already suffer from inadequate provision. Many older or disabled people restrict the distance they travel from home, or their water intake, to make sure they don’t need to go. Feminist campaigners call this the ‘urinary leash’. Disabled people who need a Changing Places toilet, which has facilities including a hoist and adult-sized changing bench, are even more restricted in what they can do; as of 2022, there are only 1,300 such toilets in England.

Homeless people are in a cruel double-bind: use a closed or nonexistent public toilet, or risk being harassed by the police as a ‘public nuisance’ for urinating or defecating in the street. Both homeless people and gig workers are often barred from using café toilets. In 2021, the think tank Autonomy proposed rest centres for the growing numbers of workers in the night-time economy, such as delivery drivers, sex workers and cleaners. These centres would provide shelter, canteens, and English lessons—and that most essential of amenities, toilets.3

Toilets are an intersectional issue: disabled people are more likely to be poor or out-of-work; menstruation is more difficult to manage while homeless; and BAME people are overrepresented in the night-time economy.4 At the same time, I’ve spent enough anxious minutes with my dad, who has a bowel disorder, to know that the need for a toilet – and the potential humiliation of not finding one – affects even people who might seem to have won the privilege lottery.

The fight for trans toilet access isn’t a distraction from the austerity-induced diminishment of our public sphere. It gets to the heart of the issue. Public toilets tell us who the city is for.

It hasn’t always been this way. Public toilets came to Britain as part of the nineteenth-century sanitary revolution, which saw cities across Europe take on grand programmes to overhaul their urban water infrastructure. European cities were notoriously smelly, due to sewerage systems that mainly consisted of dumping waste into rivers – the same rivers from which cities drew their water. Frequent cholera epidemics were the result, but it was London’s Great Stink of 1858 that disrupted Parliament and led to the commissioning of Joseph Bazalgette to build his great sewer system, which we still use today (it’s currently being supplemented with the Tideway Tunnel).

New water infrastructure was a key part of the project of modernity, which would bring social and economic progress through the continued conquest of nature. If that last idea makes us feel uneasy, other ideas of sanitary reformers give more cause for alarm. Reformers like Edwin Chadwick thought that better sanitation would also improve working-class morality, tidying up the urban chaos that gave rise to social disorder by regulating working-class behaviour.5 Chadwick played a key role in the 1848 Public Health Act, which first called for public toilets to be provided and paid for by local authorities.6 The achievements of British public health reformers, combined with their dubious views, tell us about the ambivalent politics of hygiene and sanitation projects.

In nineteenth-century Britain, public toilets were seen as helping to improve civility, reshaping citizens’ character through changing bodily codes. From the advent of the first men’s public toilets in the 1850s, urinating became no longer something for men to do in the street, but a private activity. Women’s toilets came later, in smaller numbers, after the efforts of campaigners like the Ladies’ Sanitary Association. Wealthier women could use department stores, but working-class women faced more difficulties. In 1900, St Pancras Vestrywoman Miall Smith called for public toilets to serve the “thousands of women and girls on their way to and from the factories of the district.”7

Public toilets weren’t just the utilitarian boxes we see today, hiding in the corners of parks. As Barbara Penner writes, they were “frequently designed to be handsome public landmarks, equipped with ornamental wrought-iron railings and expensive marble and teak fittings.”8 Toilets were part of the broader infrastructure of modernity – water towers, dams, pumping stations – which was highly visible in cityscapes and elaborately decorated. Haussmann’s redesigned Parisian sewers even became a fashionable tourist destination.9 These were symbols of progress, praised by enlightened urbanites.

If public toilets were a source of national pride, they also caused anxiety. Jules Gleeson writes that “urinals were at once solution and problem: installed to defend ‘public decency’, and then immediately hotbeds for homosexual cruising.” The General Orders of the Metropolitan Police first included guidance on what to do with such offenders in 1872, suggesting that public toilets quickly became sites for public sex.10

The arrival of public toilets for women also raised fears about women’s sexuality. The first permanent public toilet for women in London was built on the Strand, near the Royal Courts of Justice, in 1893. Toilets made it easier for women – particularly working-class women – to travel in the city. But mobile women were an object of suspicion. The 1864 Contagious Diseases Act allowed the police to stop any woman suspected of being a sex worker and detain her for invasive medical examination. Toilets helped women to participate in public life, the sphere of men, but meant that they risked being seen as ‘public’ women, or sex workers, with all the brutal treatment that entailed.

Public toilets are an important part of improving lives and health, and of securing the right to the city for everyone. Toilets don’t need to be hidden away, but can be prominent and beautiful features of the streetscape.

Toilets blurred boundaries in other ways. They broke the border between the domestic and urban spheres, enabling women to attend to private bodily functions in public spaces. They enabled the mixing of classes, with ladies threatened with corruption by watercress girls and factory workers. Homeowners protested the installation of women’s toilets, fearing they would lower property prices (the same complaint was also applied to men’s toilets).11 George Bernard Shaw even reported that drivers in Camden Town would deliberately crash into a women’s public toilet as a ‘joke’, showing men’s hostility to the infrastructure that allowed women to exist in public.12 If some toilets at this time were elaborate, women’s toilets were often made less visible and their entrances disguised, to hide the shame of using them.13

These anxieties anticipated the ambivalent meanings of public toilets today, and the justifications often used for closing them, or not building more. In January 2022, Hackney’s planning committee rejected a plan from developers for a new public toilet in Dalston’s Gillett Square, saying that it would “likely be used for illicit activities such as drug misuse, prostitution, a place to stash weapons and criminal damage.” Toilets have been both an emblem of civilisation and a liminal space, associated with risk, sex and transgression, and serving one of our most primordial functions. It’s not for nothing that Slavoj Žižek says, “As soon as you flush the toilet, you’re in the middle of ideology.”

The political legacy of the nineteenth-century sanitary revolution is mixed, bound up with ideas of propriety, shame and stigma. Still, there are things that socialists might take from it today. This period tells us that public toilets, along with other water infrastructure, are an important part of improving lives and health, and of securing the right to the city for everyone. It reminds us that toilets don’t need to be hidden away, but can be prominent and beautiful features of the streetscape.

Beautiful and abundant public toilets should be part of creating a world of public luxury. In recent years this term has become part of leftist vocabulary, inspired by a 2017 George Monbiot article and taken up by thinkers like Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek.14 Monbiot argues that private luxury for some – cars, swimming pools, gardens – is a poor use of space and resources, and that a better, and more equal, society should aim for public luxury and private sufficiency. In short: we can all have more if we share, and we might even take ourselves off the fast-track to ecological destruction.

I’m not proposing we get rid of private domestic toilets (though I wouldn’t be averse to communising them, as Owen Hatherley suggests). Still, public toilets, and lots of them, are important to any project of public luxury. If we’re going to make use of all of the new public space proposed by Monbiot – new parks, swimming pools, and allotments – we’re going to need the toilets that allow us to leave our homes for any duration of time. And why can’t those toilets also be beautiful?

Making a communal society that’s less oriented around the private home means reducing our dependence on the private bathroom. Equally, reducing our dependence on the private car, and moving to active transport like cycling, walking and wheeling, means we need more toilets between our homes and destinations.

Curiously, toilets aren’t mentioned in Dolores Hayden’s famous 1980 essay on the Non-Sexist City.15 But toilets are crucial to any feminist project of reorganising private and public space, helping pregnant and post-partum people, people with small children, or the women who are (still) most likely to be out and about doing errands, as well as sex workers and homeless women.

Making a communal society that’s less oriented around the private home means reducing our dependence on the private bathroom... public toilets, and lots of them, are important to any project of public luxury.

A country we might look to for inspiration is one that often comes up in conversations about toilets: Japan. Known as a toilet superpower, in recent decades Japan has used its reputation for high-tech toilets as a form of soft power and a curiosity to draw in tourists.16 Japan is famously home of the TOTO Washlet, an automated toilet-bidet hybrid with an array of different functions that was first created in 1980 and by 2015 could be found in 77.5% of Japanese homes.17

The Washlet has often formed the basis of prurient media coverage about Japan’s ‘toilet obsession’ that reproduces racist ideas about Japanese difference and says more about Western anxieties than it does Japan (Žižek comes to mind again). The Western media’s efforts to make Japan the butt of the joke – to use an unfortunate phrase – for its dedication to the Washlet misses the device’s technological innovation; it was one of the first widely available smart devices for the home. It’s also really good. World Cup fans in Qatar recently discovered the benefits of the “toilet bum shower”, in one influencer’s words, when encountering similar devices popular in the Arab world.

It’s not the Washlet that concerns us here, but the Tōkyō Toilet Project. Launched in 2020, as part of the beautification plans before Tōkyō was due to host the Olympic Games, this project employed designers and architects to reimagine 17 public toilets at different locations in the central district of Shibuya. It was funded by the not-for-profit Nippon Foundation and Shibuya City government.

The project is described as showcasing Japanese hospitality (omotenashi). Presumably this was with an eye to the many tourists expected to visit the city for the Olympics, who ultimately never arrived, owing to Japan’s strict border policies during the pandemic. Locally, they’re aimed at countering common beliefs in Japan that public toilets are unpleasant and dangerous, and are promoted as “accessible for everyone regardless of gender, age, or disability, to demonstrate the possibilities of an inclusive society.”

Like most corporate social justice writing, the promotional material doesn’t mention class. Still, when visiting the Harajuku toilet in summer 2022, I noticed it being used by a female taxi driver, and saw a couple of homeless people with discreet camps near other project toilets.18 These benefits aren’t something that a Japanese tourist board wants to advertise, but the toilets did seem to be serving a broader population.

When toilets are architectural highlights, it’s worth celebrating.

The Tōkyō Toilet Project has been the subject of much international media attention. Partly this is because of the novelty of investing a great deal of time and work in building a toilet, typically seen by architects as low-status. It’s also because of the popularity of stories of ‘wacky’ Japan and its toilets. Toilets are a punchline. Still, when toilets are architectural highlights, it’s worth celebrating.

Kazoo Sato's Hi Toilet, Hatagaya. Image © the author.

The white, hemispheric toilet in Nanago Dori Park, designed by Creative Director Kazoo Sato for the unassuming neighbourhood of Hatagaya, looks like something out of a ’60s sci-fi movie, challenging the dominant assumption in toilet design that right-angles mean hygiene. It has voice-operated controls that allow you to ask the toilet to flush, or play music.

A list of commands for activating the contactless Hi Toilet. Though they were translated into English, the toilet itself seemed only to understand Japanese. Image © the author.

Architect Shigeru Ban’s two toilets, in small parks near the main Yoyogi Park, have transparent walls in coloured ‘smart glass’ that become opaque when the door is locked, intended to help users see whether the toilet is clean, or if anyone is hiding inside.

Shigeru Ban's glass toilet in Yoyogi Fukamachi Mini Park, Tomigaya. Image © the author.

Other toilets are shaped like illuminated mushrooms, a playful maze of vertical concrete walls, or a gleaming cube of white metal slats that seems to float. All have the famous Washlet, a standard disabled toilet, and baby changing. Many have a second sink equipped with a shower, for emptying and cleaning ostomy bags (which I’d never seen before); some have boards to stand on while changing your clothes, and others have small children’s toilets, or seats to put toddlers in while their carer uses the toilet.

Toyo Ito's mushroom toilets in Yoyogi-Hachiman. Image © the author.

Experimentation also leads to things that don’t quite work. The commands for the voice-operated toilet were translated into English, but it didn’t seem to respond to any language other than Japanese, which meant I was left out of the fun. Men using the transparent toilet regularly forgot to lock the door, leaving their toilet activities exposed to everyone in the park. Perhaps they wanted to be seen – but park users were bemused. More disappointing was the fact that only one toilet, outside Ebisu station, has the adult changing bench that’s part of the Changing Places design. This is symptomatic of some of the many ways Tōkyō’s isn’t an especially accessible city.

A notice in one of the transparent toilets reads: Attention: when using the toilet, always lock the door. Men using this toilet frequently forgot to lock the door, which meant that the smart glass was not activated and remained transparent --- to the bemusement of other park users. Image © the author; translation by josie sparrow.

The Tōkyō Toilet Project might be something of a gimmick, designed to generate excitement in advance of the 2020 Olympics. Similarly, we might hesitate to look to Japan for feminist inspiration, given its position as the worst of the G7 nations for gender equality. Yet even these caveats don’t take the shine off an impressive project that reworks public space in unexpected ways and reminds us that the public toilet can be ornamented and celebrated, rather than hidden away.

In Ebisu Park, Masamichi Katayama's 'Modern Kawaya' invites users to "interact with the facility as if they are playing with a curious piece of playground equipment." Image © the author.

What’s more, the project isn’t as exceptional as it seems: Japan has an extremely good system of ordinary public toilets. These can be found in even the smallest train stations – unlike London, where you’re more likely to be directed by station attendants to a Tesco across the road, or, if you’re lucky, to pay 20p to use a cramped cubicle with blue lights and no soap.

Many of Japan’s toilet innovations came from looking outward before the 1964 Tōkyō Summer Olympics. City planners worried about how foreign visitors would respond to the city’s pit toilets and night soil collections, and incorporated indoor plumbing and an overhauled sewage system into a pre-Olympics makeover. If these earlier Olympic transformations were motivated in part by a form of cultural cringe, Tōkyō’s latest Olympic toilet experiments were part of ongoing efforts, as Marta E. Szczygiel writes, “to demonstrate that it surpasses the rest of the world in terms of its toilets.”19 Even if few foreigners have experienced these so far, we might look to the Tōkyō Toilet Project for inspiration about how to transform our own public spaces in the service of public luxury.

  1. V. I. Lenin. [1921]1965. ‘The Importance Of Gold Now And After The Complete Victory Of Socialism’. In Lenin’s Collected Works, vol. 33, 2nd English edn, trans. by David Skvirsky and George Hanna. Moscow: Progress Publishers, pp. 109-116. 

  2. Charlotte Jones, Jen Slater, Sam Cleasby, Gill Kemp, Eleanor Lisney and Sarah Rennie. 2019. ‘PISSED OFF! Disability activists fighting for toilet access in the UK’. In M Bergs, T Chataika and Y El-Lahib (eds.). The Routledge handbook of disability activism. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 219-231. Open Access version

  3. Alessio Kolioulis, Julian Siravo, Paul Apostolidis Camille Kummer-Buléon, Louis Matheou, Cosimo Campani. 2021. ‘Working Nights: municipal strategies for nocturnal workers’. London: Autonomy. 

  4. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. 2022. ‘UK Poverty Statistics’; Shailini Vora. 2020. ‘The Realities of Period Poverty: How Homelessness Shapes Women’s Lived Experiences of Menstruation’. In Chris Bobel, Inga T. Winkler, Breanne Fahs, Katie Ann Hasson, Elizabeth Arveda Kissling, Tomi-Ann Roberts (eds.). The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.31-47 

  5. Chadwick’s famous contribution was his 1842 ‘Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain’, available here. On Chadwick and public health, see Christopher Hamlin. 1998. Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick: Britain, 1800-1854. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. See also Martin V Melosi. 2000. The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 

  6. Barbara Penner. 2013. ‘The First Public Toilet?: Rose Street, Soho’. Victorian Review 39(1): 26-30, p.26. 

  7. Barbara Penner. 2001. ‘A World of Unmentionable Suffering: Women’s Public Conveniences in Victorian London’. Journal of Design History 14(1): 35-51, p.41. 

  8. Penner (2001), p.37. 

  9. Matthew Gandy. 1999. ‘The Paris sewers and the rationalization of
    urban space’
    . Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24(1): 23-44, p.26 

  10. Matt Houlbrook. 2000. ‘The Private World of Public Urinals: London 1918–57’. The London Journal 25(1): 52-70, p.56. 

  11. Penner (2001), p.41; Penner. 2013. Bathroom. London: Reaktion, p.69. 

  12. Maureen Flanagan. 2014. ‘Private needs, public space: public toilets provision in the Anglo-Atlantic patriarchal city: London, Dublin, Toronto and Chicago’. Urban History 41(2): 265-290, p.273. 

  13. Penner (2001), pp.45-6. 

  14. Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek. 2023. After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time. London: Verso. 

  15. Dolores Hayden. 1980. ‘What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work. Signs 5:3: 170-187. Available here 

  16. Marta E. Szczygiel. 2016. ‘From Night Soil to Washlet: The Material Culture of Japanese Toilets’. ejcjs 16(3). Available here 

  17. Cabinet Office of the Government of Japan, cited in Szczygiel (2016). 

  18. On homelessness in Japan, see Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles (Tilted Axis, 2020). 

  19. Szczygiel (2016). 


Hannah Boast (@hannahkateboast)

Hannah is a researcher in the Environmental Humanities, writing primarily about water in modern and contemporary world literature. She is interested in literary representations of water crisis, water infrastructure and technology, water and the state, water justice, and alternative hydro-social futures. She also has interests in animal studies and food studies.