Smart Ideas From Other Cities: Paris’ Public Pissoirs

Would a San Francisco with Uritrottoirs smell more sweet?

A rendering of a uritrottoir on a Parisian street shows how they can blend into the infrastructure.

In 2016 a small, outdoor cement urinal installed at the edge of Dolores Park in San Francisco made national headlines. “Open-air urinal in San Francisco park has no designs on privacy,” was the headline on the L.A. Times. Its presence outdoors drew the interest of Time and Fox News, and GQ even managed to track down someone who had used it to write an exposé. Neighbors whose multi-million-dollar homes face the park complained bitterly, and a religious group even filed a lawsuit, arguing it was a “public nuisance.” But in October 2016 a judge tossed it out, and the controversial pissoir remains — the only one, sadly, in all of San Francisco.

The city’s refusal to acknowledge that people need to urinate several times a day and defecate at least once every 24 hours has obvious ramifications, as the city’s more than 8,000 unhoused people — and tens of thousands of others — routinely use sidewalks, parks, and those slightly private spaces between parked cars to relieve themselves. Even housed people who find themselves out on the town can have a tricky time tracking down a toilet without buying something first, creating a “pay-to-pee” economy.

It’s an archaic practice that ignores human biology, and a problem made more aggravating by a number of mind-numbingly simple solutions, not least of which are public pissoirs. London has hundreds that rise up from the sidewalk at nightfall, specifically catering to the crowds of hammered men who traipse drunkenly around the city every time there’s a rugby match. But our personal favorite has to be Paris’ take on the commode: The bright red, eco-friendly Uritrottoirs.

Uritrottoirs — that’s “oo-REE-troo-TWAH” — first hit the streets of the French capital last summer. Placed in corners and against walls, they resemble newspaper boxes, many with scraggly plants emerging from the top. When someone pees into the box, the urine is collected via a mixture of straw, wood shavings, and sawdust, a smell-killing combination that’s subsequently composted. According to city officials, one year of human urine contains enough nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium to fertilize 400 square meters of wheat. Think of it this way: Your pee could help grow the beer you consumed.   

The obvious issue here is that all seven models of Uritrottoirs — in different sizes and shapes, for walls or corners — are made only with men in mind. For these to be truly equitable, they’d have to include a function that allows women to sit and pee. (Or perhaps include disposable pee funnels for those ladies who are interested in peeing standing up.)

But the sentiment that easily accessible, free places to urinate should be a requirement of our public infrastructure is one that San Francisco is long overdue in adopting. And it’s an issue global warming may make more dire. As our world heats up, so too will our usually temperate city. On hot days, the thousands of gallons of stale urine that’s soaked through layers of our permeable sidewalks rise up to our nostrils, creating that tell-tale wince-and-gag reaction from anyone unfortunate enough to walk down Capp or Turk streets on a balmy afternoon.

Read More from SF Weekly’s Smart Ideas Issue:

Smart Ideas From Other Cities: San Diego’s Safe Parking Program
Their system isn’t perfect — but giving vehicularly housed folks a safe space to park is a no-brainer.

Smart Ideas From Other Cities: Car-Free Streets
Can San Francisco emulate European cities that have designated auto-free zones?

Smart Ideas From Other Cities: Utilities Powered by the People
State regulators are weighing a dramatic shake-up of PG&E. Could San Francisco join dozens of other jurisdictions in establishing a public utility?

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