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Public Toilets in Brussels' Public Spaces: Necessity or Nuisance?

Les toilettes publiques dans les espaces publics bruxellois : nécessité ou nuisance ?
Openbare toiletten in de Brusselse openbare ruimten: noodzaak of overlast?
Lien Maes et Lucas Melgaço
Traduction(s) :
Les toilettes publiques dans les espaces publics bruxellois : nécessité ou nuisance ? [fr]
Openbare toiletten in de Brusselse openbare ruimten: noodzaak of overlast? [nl]


Pour que les espaces publics soient à la fois accessibles et accueillants, il est essentiel d’y mettre à disposition des toilettes publiques de qualité. Cette nécessité concerne tout particulièrement les femmes ainsi que des groupes plus spécifiques, notamment les personnes âgées, les personnes souffrant d’un problème de santé ou handicapées, et les personnes sans domicile fixe. Malgré leur importance, les toilettes publiques sont souvent synonymes de saleté et de désagréments, et évoquent des espaces utilisés à des fins pour lesquelles ils n’ont pas été conçus : consommation de drogues, rencontres sexuelles ou abris de fortune, par exemple. Ainsi, les toilettes publiques témoignent de la complexité des espaces publics partagés. À Bruxelles en particulier, des entretiens ont été menés auprès des autorités et des organisations concernées, et des observations ont été effectuées sur le terrain afin d’étudier l’importance que revêtent les toilettes publiques pour les espaces publics. Dans cet article, il est question des nuisances liées aux toilettes publiques et des difficultés rencontrées pour remédier de manière efficace aux usages détournés qui en sont faits.

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1Public toilets are crucial infrastructures to ensure public spaces are meaningfully public. If public spaces are designed for people to stay in and enjoy – rather than passageways to somewhere else – they should offer options for people to relieve their basic physiological needs. For such sanitary structures to be universal, they must be provided for free, otherwise, their accessibility to people experiencing poverty or homelessness will be compromised. For those living or staying on the streets for long periods, the option to use toilets that are not private or require a fee, are a necessity. In many cases, these toilets are also an access to water or a place of privacy. These public facilities are also crucial to older adults and people with health conditions or impairments. Public toilets are of great importance for women too, for reasons discussed later in this article. Despite this, the number of urinals in many cities around the world, including our case study Brussels, is far higher than the number of gender-inclusive toilets.

2Although public toilets are fundamental pieces of public infrastructure, they can become a source of problems and nuisance, to the extent that residents and shop owners commonly campaign against having them close to their homes and businesses. Among these nuisances are dirt (both inside and outside the toilets), drug use, and vandalism. The following considers the academic engagement with public toilets, their importance in Brussels as well as some of the nuisances associated with them. Thereafter we discuss the potential responses to these and suggest that some can compromise the very publicness of public spaces.

1. Public toilets in the scholarly literature

3According to Anthony and Dufresne (2007: 290), public toilets are mostly “the butt of jokes, but rarely the topic for serious discussion and political action”. It was not until the 1960s that publications on toilets started appearing in the scientific literature (see [Kira, 1974(1966); Wright, 1967]). One of the reasons public toilets are such a taboo is related to the imagery of dirt and uncleanness they evoke [Hanson et al., 2007], with urine and faeces commonly associated with filth. Kira [1974: 93] suggests these negative attitudes towards our body waste is related to the desire to be completely distanced from the “act of producing them”. Douglas [2002] describes dirt as “disorder” and “matter out of place”, noting that whilst different cultures manage dirt differently, they always try to conceal or eliminate it. To Barcan [2010], the lack of cleanliness and the bad smell are the main reasons people are unwilling to use public toilets. Anecdotally, Henshaw’s [2013] study of smell preferences showed that the smell of public toilets is one of the most disliked odours within the urban smell environment.

4Given the essential role they play in the comfortable enjoyment of public space, it is surprising that the subject of toilets is not more present in academic and policy discussions. As Canham [2014: 4] puts it, “To find oneself in a situation where you are unable to relieve yourself without breaking the social conventions that surround the act itself is a denial of the right to participate in social life with dignity.” In this sense, a greater supply of public toilets could reduce this participatory deficit, and facilitate the mobility of people in cities and, consequently, their involvement in public life.

5These facilities also contribute to healthier communities. When there is a reduction in free public toilets, the result is decreased hand hygiene and increased street urination, potentially leading to an increase in the spread of infections [Greed, 2006]. On the other hand, Greed also notes that the same public toilets may help spread disease, especially when not well maintained.

6Public toilets are also a gender matter. Greed [1996], in her research on Britain, found that the number of toilets for men and women was disproportionately distributed. Women have more need for toilet visits than men, and their visits take longer [Barcan, 2010]. One of the reasons for this, according to Barcan, is of a social order: women are often responsible for caring for babies, children or older adults. Pregnancy and menstruation, for example, are additional biological reasons why a woman will need to use public toilets more than a man [Greed, 2010]. Feminist researchers, such as Edwards and Mckie [1996], have also pointed out that, since women are more dependent on public toilets than men, an equal number of toilets for men and women is not an adequate ratio. Anthony and Dufresne [2007] noticed that men usually have a urinal at their disposal free of charge, while closed cubicles, which represent the toilet options for women, most often require payment. Authors such as Browne [2004], Gershenson and Penner [2009], and Blumenthal [2014] have also discussed how the gendered aspect of these spaces, combined with their scarcity, particularly affects trans populations. Another study by Valentine [2016] in the U.K. revealed that toilet visits can be very uncomfortable for non-binary people, causing feelings of discomfort and anxiety.

7Toilets are not only visited by people who need to relieve themselves or want to change a baby’s diaper. Barcan [2010: 26] explains that public toilet facilities accommodate different needs and practices, from washing and changing clothes, to applying make-up, providing shelter, and even masturbating. In this respect, public toilets should therefore be understood as “multiple spaces”. This expedites an added complexity in the sense that they offer a small realm of privacy within public spaces, and consequently facilitate more deviant practices such as drug use or even minor crimes. Anthony and Dufresne [2007: 277] pointed out that “public restrooms provide convenient hiding spots for criminals”. They may also be used for sexual encounters [Kingston and Thomas, 2014], which is the reason why Bell and Binnie [2004: 1812] labelled public toilets as “public sex sites” for homosexual activity.

8Finally, public toilets are contested spaces. This is clear in the use of toilets as places for graffiti. Tagging inside toilets often expresses hate against queer people [Slater and Jones, 2018; Anthony and Dufresne, 2007]. However, these spaces may also be an outlet for dissident discourses where graffiti is used to question decency, heteronormativity and homophobia [Córdova Quero and Waters, 2006].

9This brief overview of the literature shows the complexity of public toilets: while they are necessary for public life, they are also facilitators of nuisances that can compromise public life. The following section considers this reflection in the context of a case study of public toilets in Brussels.

2. Methodology

10This research focused on the provision of public toilets in Brussels and on the nuisances that their presence may create. Our primary method consisted of interviews with relevant authorities and organisations in the City of Brussels. The conversations focused on three main questions: Why are public toilets important? What are the problems related to them? What solutions would they, as practitioners, consider in tackling these problems? Among the public services interviewed were the Cleaning Service and the Prevention Service of the City of Brussels, the Office of the Aldermen of Green Spaces, Public Cleaning and Animal Welfare, and the local police. Thus, both agents in the field and their managers were addressed. Shopkeepers located in the immediate vicinity of the toilets were also included. Toilet users were not included in our list of stakeholders as our interest was limited to the solutions that policymakers suggested for the problems they identified.

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11Only the publicly owned “on-street” toilets managed by the City of Brussels were included in this research. Publicly accessible toilets in semi-public spaces, such as train and metro stations, and urinals were not included. The toilets studied were selected from a map1 made by the non-profit organisation Street Nurses which is available on the website of the City of Brussels. From the ten public toilets managed by the City of Brussels (postal code 1000) in the Brussels-Capital Region, we selected six for this research (Quai à la Houille 6, Place Anneessens 5, Boulevard Adolphe Max 57, Place du Nouveau Marché aux Grains 4, Place de la Bourse and Rue Willem De Mol 2). They can be seen in the map below (Figure 1). The map also presents other public toilets and urinals outside the limits of the City of Brussels to make clear the considerable difference in offer of these two types of facilities.

Figure 1. Map of public toilets included in the research

Figure 1. Map of public toilets included in the research

Cartography by L. Melgaço.

12The research included on-site observations (around ten hours) and photographic documentation of the different facilities. In total, sixteen interviews were conducted, thirteen face-to-face and three by telephone (a constraint imposed by the Covid-19 sanitary measures). The interviews used predominantly open-ended questions and were conducted in French and Dutch. They were recorded, transcribed, translated into English, and coded manually. The collection of empirical data took place from December 2019 to March 2020 and was undertaken by the first author of this article.

3. Public toilets in Brussels: can’t live without them, can’t live with them!

13The importance of a good public toilet provision was highlighted by several of the respondents.

“For those who also work outside like the people from ‘Bruxelles Propreté’, the street sweepers, or those who move from left to right. And it’s true that when you must go to the toilet, and you’re on the street, well, it’s really a big problem. You might think, go to a cafe or something. Well, ultimately, you have first to order something to drink. And at 6 AM, there’s not that much open. Yes, it’s indeed complicated for people who are outside all the time.” (Town guard 3)

14In addition to public servants, women, older adults, children, people with medical problems, and tourists were also identified during the interviews as groups most needing access to public toilets:

“We can also add the fragile people: the elderly, the people with health issues, such as incontinence or whatever. And when they need it [a toilet], they can’t find one. And especially when these toilets are out of order. Then, these people, when they must do it, they will do it against a wall or whatever. They just can’t hold it in.” (Town guard 2)

15One anecdote that emerged from the interviews is that Brussels no longer provides a free toilet on the Place de la Bourse. The public toilet available since 2008 was removed in 2019 because of the nuisances it created. When the fieldwork was conducted, only urinals could now be found in that area. Women are consequently dependent on fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s or Exki, or the less-than-ideal toilets below ground at the entrance to the Bourse subway station. It is noteworthy that these three options incur a fee. One of the respondents reinforced the idea of toilets as taboo, by adding that having to ask others for their use toilet can cause a certain discomfort:

“Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing to go to a restaurant and ask for it [to go to the toilet] or to have to pay 50 cents every time you want to pee. So, uh (…) If it’s free, it’s good for us [women] too.” (Advisor on Public Cleanliness)

16One of the interviewed town guards confirmed that the current supply of toilet facilities within his area of work proves problematic for women:

“There are a lot of women who ask us why there is no toilet for them. It’s true that, for a woman’s life, there’s not much, eh? When you look at it [the offer] for men... (…) We only have one [latrine] in our entire site. Here, when a woman must go to the toilet... What does she do? It’s poorly done. There’s a lot of homeless women too, so, uh, it’s a big concern.” (Town guard 4)

17In addition to this, several respondents highlighted the importance of public toilets for people experiencing homelessness:

“These are the only locations on the public road where they have access to running water and sanitary facilities” (Cleaning Service Manager).

“They are used as shelter from the rain. Then they just stay in it. You could fill buses with all the homeless people who live inside them. Toilets aren’t places to make your home, are they? Sometimes I find mattresses, bed slats” (Cleaner).

“On the Place Anneessens, at night some people go inside when it’s cold. They enter and they sleep inside. They squat even the toilets then. And then, when those who need that toilet come to use it, they bump into these people and get scared” (Town guard manager).

18A toothbrush left in a washbasin of one toilet we visited may indicate how these toilets serve as a place for those experiencing homelessness to maintain their personal hygiene (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Toothbrush found in the washbasin of the toilet at Nouveau Marché aux Grains

Figure 2. Toothbrush found in the washbasin of the toilet at Nouveau Marché aux Grains

Photograph taken on 17 February 2020 by L. Maes.

19Most respondents emphasised the significance of public toilets in public spaces and their particular necessity for certain groups. However, they also referred to nuisances linked to the use and misuse of these facilities. This included the presence of dirt, which may be visually or olfactorily unpleasant and even pose health risks to users and cleaning and public order staff, both inside and outside the facilities.

20Dirt, particularly on the inside of toilet buildings, was cited as a nuisance by all respondents. A market vendor at Place Anneessens mentioned that: “If there is a negative point to be made, it is that they are often dirty” (Shopkeeper 2). The smell of urine coming from the toilets was mentioned by another interviewee: “If you pass by there in the afternoon [at the urinals] before the workers have come to clean... Yeah, that reeks. So, it brings an unsafe feeling” (Local police first chief inspector).

21On several visits, it was easy to see where the pungent smell came from. The toilet floors were often covered with waste, including faeces, toilet paper, empty plastic bottles and aluminium foil. The cleaning staff member confirmed that the toilets located in the Pentagon area of Brussels were regularly found in a soiled state. Figure 3, taken during one of our observations, illustrates this.

Figure 3. The toilet bowl is clogged. There are plastic bottles, toilet paper, cigarette butts, aluminium foil, and a sanitary pad on the toilet floor

Figure 3. The toilet bowl is clogged. There are plastic bottles, toilet paper, cigarette butts, aluminium foil, and a sanitary pad on the toilet floor

Photograph taken at Quai à la Houille on 2 February 2020 by L. Maes.

22Besides the dirt from general trash, faeces and urine in the inside of the toilets, many respondents referred to detritus linked to drug consumption, such as aluminium foil, burnt spoons and syringes:

“The toilet at Place Anneessens is much more used for drug consumption. We find syringes there. It is mostly the drug addicts that go in and hold the door shut. There are also problems with drug trafficking.” (Town guard manager)

23Another respondent also referred to the problem of drug use in two other public toilets at Quai à la Houille and Nouveau Marché aux Grains:

“L. Maes: Are there any specific problems?
Local police chief inspector: Yes, people who inject drugs use them. Both in the public toilet here on the Nouveau Marché aux Grains and there, on the Quai à la Houille. They force the toilet, lock themselves in, and inject their dose there. And then it can take a while before they come out.”

24One of the respondents explained that public toilets are attractive places for drug use precisely by the fact that they are private bubbles in the middle of public spaces:

“The problem is that, for the others [the people who use drugs], they have a cosy, closed, lighted, heated place with water at their disposal where they can do what they want for as long as they want, with as many people as they want. So that’s it. It’s raining, the weather is bad... we’ll settle down. We’ll consume without worry.” (Town guard 3)

25Our observations confirm these testimonials. The floor and the litter bins regularly contained materials used for the preparation or consumption of drugs (figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4. Several burnt aluminium foils are found on the toilet floor, pointing to drug consumption (of crack, meth or heroin)

Figure 4. Several burnt aluminium foils are found on the toilet floor, pointing to drug consumption (of crack, meth or heroin)

Photo taken at Nouveau Marché aux Grains on 28 January 2020 by L. Maes.

Figure 5. Discarded needles found in the trash bin in the public toilet on Place Anneessens

Figure 5. Discarded needles found in the trash bin in the public toilet on Place Anneessens

Photo taken on 17 February 2020 by L. Maes

26Using hard drugs in a public toilet, however, is not without danger. A dead person was once found in the public toilet on Place Anneessens:

“Yes. I remember, it was due to an overdose. (...) Alcohol and narcotics, hard drugs then. He was overdosed, huh. That’s not an uncommon case here in the neighbourhood. We see that a lot. Or this is related to retaliation, to drug deals.” (Town guard manager)

27The seclusion public toilets provide, has also been used for petty crime. Many respondents reported acts of vandalism such as tagging inside the toilets, the use of pebbles to overflow the toilet bowl, defacement of the interior walls, and damage to the light fixtures, the mirror or the washbasin. References were also made to the use of the toilets for shoplifting and pickpocketing:

“I regularly find security tags of clothes, empty backpacks, empty purses, and wallets. Of course, always without cash. The culprits empty them and leave the items behind.” (Cleaner).

“They throw away the bags they snatched from passers-by. They throw them inside. Because they would go inside and rifle through them.” (Town guard 2, about the toilet at Chaussée d’Anvers).

28Toilets can also be places for more serious crime. Bruciteam stewards reported the discovery of weapons that had been hidden in the toilet on the Place de la Bourse:

“There was someone hiding weapons on the roof of that toilet. There was a small ledge. Actually, the side walls of these toilets went up a little bit on top, and so the roof allowed to hide things on top of that. We couldn’t see them. And so, we found weapons that allowed the persons who hid them, I suppose, to defend themselves or to threaten someone.” (Prevention service manager)

29The spectacular cases of hidden weapons, and of a dead body being found, should be interpreted with a degree of caution. Such events easily contribute to the stigmatisation of public toilets as dangerous sites, and yet it is important to note that these occurrences are rare, and do not represent the everyday nuisances found in public toilets that we have already highlighted.

30Nuisances are not exclusive to the inside of the toilets. In the two observation moments of the toilet at Boulevard Adolphe Max, a toilet that has been out of order for a while. A strong smell of urine could be detected, even from a distance. On closer investigation, the smell came from the outer side of the toilet building because people had been urinating on the walls.

31The same problem was encountered at the public toilet on the Chaussée d’Anvers (next to the Parc Maximilien, an area which during our fieldwork was known for the high presence of transmigrants. This was noted by a town guard working in the area:

“We made several interventions because the smell was so strong. It was horrible. Well, and as the toilet was closed, they were urinating all around it.” (Town guard 3)

32The cleaning crew member also witnessed this behaviour on several occasions:

“They can see from the sign above that the installation is a toilet. So, they just do their thing against the outer wall. Even when I’m there working.” (Cleaner)

33Even faeces was present around the public toilets. This was the case with the toilet on the Nouveau Marché aux Grains along Dansaert street. During the two observations, this toilet was found in a dirty state inside and outside the building (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Photograph of faeces lying next to the toilet at Nouveau Marché aux Grains

Figure 6. Photograph of faeces lying next to the toilet at Nouveau Marché aux Grains

Taken on 28 January 2020 by L. Maes.

34Tagging is also a recurrent practice on the outside façade of public toilets (figure 7). These examples show how the nuisance extends from the interior of the toilets to the area surrounding them.

Figure 7. One of the many examples of tagged public toilets in Brussels

Figure 7. One of the many examples of tagged public toilets in Brussels

Photograph taken on 28 January 2020 at Parc de la Porte de Hal by L. Maes

35The above examples of nuisance were often mentioned in the context of discussing the presence of certain “undesirable” groups:

“And there [at Rue Marché aux Grains], the toilets are often squatted by, uh, junkies, the homeless, all sorts of people. And that’s the problem. Often the toilets are really... There’s dirt there, inside.” (Town guard 1)

“And inside it’s so dirty that no one dares to go in. Unless they’re homeless people, people taking drugs or drug dealers.” (Town guard manager, about the toilet on Place Anneessens)

“We’ve seen it before in conditions... We find it [faeces] on the floor, on the walls. We find condoms there. There’s prostitution going on in there.” (Town guard 2, about the toilet on Chaussée d’Anvers)

“If it were brightened up, I think the wrong people would stay away. You see that also when a street hasn’t been maintained; then it attracts even more dirt.” (Shopkeeper 1, about the toilet on Dansaert Street)

4. Finding solutions to the nuisance problem (while creating new problems)

36Our findings are consistent with the extant literature in showing that public toilets are key infrastructural elements in the promotion of welcoming, accessible and healthy public spaces. At the same time, their existence in public spaces does not come without problems and challenges. We asked our interviewees how they would tackle these nuisance issues, and among several ideas, four main solutions emerged from their responses: elimination, access control, automation and surveillance.

4.1. Elimination

37One of the simplest reactions to public toilet related nuisances was to close them. Such suggestions can be seen both in the literature [Greed, 2009] and in our findings from Brussels. In the latter case, mentions of toilets being closed as a response to nuisances were recurrent:

“L. Maes: One of my questions was whether the mayor is aware of the incivilities in the toilets.
Prevention service manager: (about the toilet at the Place de la Bourse): Well, yes, of course. He is well aware. And that’s why he’s chosen to remove it.”

38The closure of public toilets is quick and inexpensive. However, this response only serves to worsen the quality of public spaces for the most disadvantaged groups. There are also areas in Brussels where the current supply is clearly insufficient. This is the case in Parc Maximilien Park, which has long been a gathering point for newly arrived migrants, and where there is only one free public toilet which is used several times a day by a large group of people:

“The migrants here, on the other hand, are looking for a place to wash themselves. (...). And since you offer a toilet for, let’s say, four or five hundred people... Cleanliness, uh... How can you provide it?.” (Town guard 2)

39Another respondent also indicated that this single toilet was insufficient for the needs of hundreds of people. As a result, this toilet is regularly out-of-order:

“These public restrooms are not supposed to accommodate that many people. So that’s what also makes their condition truly lamentable.” (Town guard 3)

40Closure would clearly intensify these issues. Additionally, as both Stanwell-Smith [2020] and Greed [2009] highlight, a cutback on public toilets may lead to other issues, such as increased street urination. Finally, shutting down toilets may also be an inadequate response to nuisance linked to drug use as it may merely displace the problem:

“I think if we remove them [the toilets] ... you’re gonna move a problem up here to somewhere else. We’re just gonna push them [people who inject drugs] away, and they’re gonna find a new place.” (Cleaner)

4.2. Access control

41In the past, Brussels operated fee paying public toilets which required a 20 cent coin to access them. As one interviewee told us, “Initially, ten years ago, the intention was to install pay toilets to prevent vandalism” (Cleaning service manager). However, it soon became clear that this was insufficient to tackle nuisances it was designed to solve and even created new ones. The interviewee continued:

“In some places, we saw that people found a solution by placing a stone between the door and the profile. That way, they were somehow freely accessible … [also] a gang of thieves had found nothing better to do than to force the doors of these coin-operated toilets every week to gain access to the coin acceptor.” (Cleaning service manager)

42After abolishing the coin mechanism in 2016, the cleaning frequency was increased to two times a day. According to the same interviewee, their frequency of use doubled, which reinforces our claim for the necessity of offering these facilities for free.

43Approaching the management of public toilets through commercial logic is an inadequate response. Charging fees may be only the first step to the complete privatisation of these facilities. Greed [2003a: 104] adds that “public toilets are a soft target for cutbacks and privatisation because their provision is not mandatory, and they are often seen as a drain on resources rather than an economic asset”. As a result, Greed asserts, the number of toilets may decrease and be centralised in areas that can guarantee an economic return and not in areas of social need. Despite the privatisation of toilets being described in the literature, in Brussels the contrary appears to be the case, whereby previously paid for public toilets have been made available free of charge. Currently, it is not clear if these instances are particular responses to localised issues, or part of a more generalised strategy for all public toilets to be made free at the point of use.

4.3. Automation

44Automation arose several times. For example, for dealing with the constant dirt found in the toilets, many respondents highlighted the idea of automated toilets where the floor is systematically cleaned after each visit:

“After every use of that public toilet, a brush and a spray come out of the technical room and basically clean the entire surface and take all the rubbish that is lying on the ground with it. In fact, it gets drained away. That’s a solution, the technology that is used to clean the specific problem of papers or dirt lying on the ground” (Cleaning service manager).

45One of the drawbacks of this response, however, is the cost:

“But then again, I also know that such a model is twice as expensive as any other type of public toilet. [laughs] So that’s always weighing up what’s most interesting, isn’t it?” (Cleaning service manager)

“It’s very expensive in terms of water [consumption], yes.” (Advisor on Public Cleanliness)

46Automation is also present in the automatic unlocking of the door after a specific time, something that already takes place in Brussels. However, respondents found this to be a limited solution against nuisances: “But they wedge the door with a piece of wood or whatever. They wedge the door and stay as long as they want” (Town guard 1).

4.4. Surveillance

47For many respondents, users would be potentially deterred from misusing public toilets if they were more watched. This deterrence could be achieved by installing cameras, improving lighting, placing toilet attendants, or changing the toilet design. On the installation of cameras, an interviewed police officer said:

“When we observe someone, we know if that person is using drugs and what kind of drugs. That is when we can see, ‘Well, that person happens to be there regularly’ or ‘these people happen to be there quite often’. Then we could do surveillance with an outside camera and then perform an intervention when we think: ‘Now it’s enough. We’ve got to get him because, uh, he’s definitely on drugs’. But other than that… Inside there’s not much of a possibility [of installing a camera], is there?” (Local police first chief inspector)

48As the respondent himself recognises, this is a limited solution. For obvious reasons, the cameras would not be recording the inside of toilets where most nuisances occur.

49According to several respondents, increasing lighting in the vicinity of the toilet could enhance visibility. An illuminated toilet building would make it less attractive for specific undesirable behaviours, such as drug consumption. As one respondent put it: Lucas Melgaço2023-10-18T16:36:00LM“I think we definitely need better lighting in the toilets. I know the lighting can help a little on the outside and probably also on the inside” (Advisor on Public Cleanliness). Similar drawbacks apply to this solution, namely the economic and environmental costs.

50Respondents also highlighted the benefits of allocating permanent toilet attendants, often referred to as a “Madame Pipi” in Brussels:

“I think that a well-managed public toilet with someone who will take care of the entrances, exits, and cleaning after each passage, is a good idea. That there is systematically a social control linked to the cleanliness of the place, but not only that in the end. It prevents everyone from using it for their personal needs. (...). I think there could be absolutely no nuisance or no disadvantages or at least no alternative uses.” (Prevention service manager)

51Besides the high cost of having an attendant for every single public toilet, there is also the question of whether toilets would remain open at night:

“But of course, that all comes with a cost if you want to put someone there. And you can hardly guarantee that the toilet will be open 24 hours a day, can you?” (Cleaning service manager)

52A respondent who worked in the vicinity of the Brussels North train station did not see toilet attendants as a manageable solution, given the high number of users. He also questioned the safety of the attendants, who according to him, are often older woman: He asked, “But will that help, seeing the number of people there? Will she, even psychologically or mentally, be able to cope with this number, this flow of people?” (Town guard 2)

53Some respondents pointed to “anti-crime” public toilets with open gratings. This design provides just enough privacy for users inside, whilst increasing visibility from the outside. This could deter gatherings in the toilets for undesirable behaviour, such as drug trafficking and consumption. According to a respondent:

“Lucas Melgaço2023-10-18T16:39:00LMWell, in the toilets, four or five people sometimes go in there. Whereas when there’s something like this, you can see how many people are inside. I mean, we can see their shoes and know if it’s one person there. And that’s a deterrent.” (Town guard 1)

54Another respondent argued that this sort of toilets would not solve the problem of drug abuse:

“Gosh, I don’t know if that will scare off a junkie who really needs his dose. Because yes, sometimes they creep in with more than one, but they also sneak in on their own. So... Difficult, huh?” (Local police chief inspector)

55Another respondent suggested more hostile designs to tackle drug use:

“In fact, it is disturbing anything that is related to drug use. We need to find a way to make them [people who consume drugs] uncomfortable, so they don’t stay long inside” (Town guard 1)

56Installing blue, fluorescent lights in the toilet cubicles [Greed, 2009] might be the response this interviewee is suggesting. Whilst this light makes it difficult for users to locate their veins, it can also be experienced as very inconvenient by some groups (e.g., people who are blind or have low vision, or those on the autistic spectrum). Moreover, persons who inject drugs may deal with this creatively, for example, by aligning their veins with fluoridating markers [Greed, 2003b].

57Instead of hostile designs, respondents also considered design factors that accept substance abuse is largely inevitable in public toilets, as it is in any public space. To address the problem of discarded needles lying around, for example, one of the respondents suggested that bins for the safe disposal of used syringes could offer a solution. They commented that “I think in the future they’ll do that. They’ve already started putting cigarette bins” (Town guard 1). Disposing of needles in appropriate containers would reduce the risk of contact with a used needle, acting as a benefit to public health as well as creating a safer working environment for toilet cleaners and other municipal workers.


58Consistent with much of the extant literature, our research has shown that many different groups benefit from the provision of accessible and free public toilets. We have highlighted women, older adults, people with health issues, those experiencing homelessness, transmigrants as clear examples. In addition, we have noted how homeless people often use toilets for other purposes than just alleviating their physiological needs: e.g., as shelter from bad weather, as a place to consume drugs, or even to sleep.

59The current provision of public toilets in the central area of Brussels are limited and not always accessible. This is often due to the different forms of nuisance they attract. On the one hand, they are in a perpetually dirty state, and on the other, the presence of particular groups may also cause nuisance, or at least are perceived to be a nuisance by many. Moreover, these nuisances are not exclusive to the inside of the cubicles, rather they extend to the surrounding areas. Thus, the equation that policymakers are challenged to resolve demands the provision of more toilets, without eliciting the inevitable nuisances that they bring.

60Our respondents suggested several ready-made solutions to deal with different nuisances. Most of these solutions are related to either the elimination, access control, automation, and surveillance. These measures, however, may have a small impact as the problems these interventions intend to solve are linked to structural issues such as homelessness and drug use in public spaces. Therefore, although timely, these solutions ought to be treated with a degree of scepticism: many may produce more problems than they purport to solve.

61Two takeaway thoughts are clear from our reflection. First, the provision and maintenance of public toilets are a complex matter that reflect the complexity of public spaces. That is to say, nuisance and public toilets are an almost unavoidable combination, and this cannot be solved merely with quick fix interventions. Secondly, if we want public spaces in Brussels to be welcoming, accessible and diverse, further attention should be paid to a more extensive and well-maintained supply of free public toilets.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Map of public toilets included in the research
Crédits Cartography by L. Melgaço.
Fichier image/jpeg, 429k
Titre Figure 2. Toothbrush found in the washbasin of the toilet at Nouveau Marché aux Grains
Crédits Photograph taken on 17 February 2020 by L. Maes.
Fichier image/jpeg, 61k
Titre Figure 3. The toilet bowl is clogged. There are plastic bottles, toilet paper, cigarette butts, aluminium foil, and a sanitary pad on the toilet floor
Crédits Photograph taken at Quai à la Houille on 2 February 2020 by L. Maes.
Fichier image/jpeg, 193k
Titre Figure 4. Several burnt aluminium foils are found on the toilet floor, pointing to drug consumption (of crack, meth or heroin)
Crédits Photo taken at Nouveau Marché aux Grains on 28 January 2020 by L. Maes.
Fichier image/jpeg, 186k
Titre Figure 5. Discarded needles found in the trash bin in the public toilet on Place Anneessens
Crédits Photo taken on 17 February 2020 by L. Maes
Fichier image/jpeg, 339k
Titre Figure 6. Photograph of faeces lying next to the toilet at Nouveau Marché aux Grains
Crédits Taken on 28 January 2020 by L. Maes.
Fichier image/jpeg, 115k
Titre Figure 7. One of the many examples of tagged public toilets in Brussels
Crédits Photograph taken on 28 January 2020 at Parc de la Porte de Hal by L. Maes
Fichier image/jpeg, 180k
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Lien Maes et Lucas Melgaço, « Public Toilets in Brussels' Public Spaces: Necessity or Nuisance? »Brussels Studies [En ligne], Collection générale, n° 186, mis en ligne le 26 novembre 2023, consulté le 28 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Lien Maes

Lien Maes studied to be a socio-cultural worker and criminologist. With her thesis Necessities, incivilities and remedies in public spaces: A study of public toilet facilities in Brussels, she won the N-Brussel Thesis Award in 2021. She is currently working as a societal referent in the Prevention and Social Cohesion department at STIB-MIVB.

Lucas Melgaço

Lucas Melgaço is Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). He is the coordinator of the Horizon Europe project Gatherings: Common Standards for Security, Privacy and Cost of the Surveillance of Public Gatherings. His main scientific interests are in the domains of urban criminology, surveillance studies, policing and technology, public spaces and public order. He is the author of Melgaço, L., 2020. ‘Porn’ graffiti in public space: Between moralization and agonism. In: Tijdschrift over Cultuur & Criminaliteit, 10(1), 71-83.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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