The idea of public space is complex, and the way a community shares space shows up differently in schools, workplaces, and commercial centers. While these facilities host many different activities, they all share a common need for restroom facilities. In this case, the public facility needs to be equipped to host a group of users that closely represents everyone in the surrounding community. For some of those people, public restrooms are a mundane assumption of any public environment. However, our pursuit of more just designs demands that we take a closer look at what it means to provide inclusive restrooms for everyone.
A key opportunity to make public spaces more welcoming for all people is in restroom design. In 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation of public spaces based on race. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act instituted requirements for public facilities for people with disabilities. Now, the 2021 International Building Code allows all-gender, multi-user toilet facilities to satisfy building restroom requirements. Moving toward inclusive restroom designs represents an opportunity to have a real impact for making public spaces more inclusive. On the 2015 US Transgender Survey, 59% of respondents had avoided using a public restroom in the past year due to fear of problems. Moving away from binary, gendered systems toward inclusive designs reduces anxiety and increases comfort for trans and gender non-binary people, parents with children, adults with a caregiver, and anyone who is marginalized by the man/woman dichotomy.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of a binary restroom layout, even if we have not heard it described that way. Binary restroom design assumes that users will always fall into one of two gender categories: man or woman. Picture a typical restroom setup in a shopping mall or an airport with two entry doors: the men’s restroom is indicated by a person wearing pants and the women’s, by a person wearing a dress. Generally, a single plumbing wall separates these two spaces, and they are nearly visually identical (although women’s restrooms usually omit urinals). More recently, code requirements in some areas now also require a binary layout to provide a single-stall, ‘family’ restroom (where the toilet, sink, changing station, and other facilities are all situated in one room) near the binary system, but that varies by project.