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Community / Public space

Toilets are popping up on city streets at night

This weekend, a very short, very strange news story was featured on the BBC news website. Here’s most of it:

A man in the Dutch city of Amsterdam has been injured after a pop-up public toilet sunk into the ground emerged unexpectedly.

The man was hit by a moped which was thrown up in the air as the so-called UriLift toilet suddenly rose up.

He is being treated in hospital for minor injuries.

An onlooker tweeted this picture: 

If you’re a seasoned European partygoer, you were probably able to focus on the more important parts of this story (the poor man and his injuries, for example). If, like us, you’re innately suspicious of anything that happens on city streets past 10pm, you probably focused instead on the phrase “pop-up public toilet”, and sat back, baffled.

But we’ve had a dig, and we’ve found out that pop-up toilets are even more dramatic and weird than they sound. And they’re all over the place. 

They really do pop out of the ground.

At around 6 or 7pm, in cities all over the planet, circles of what might at first appear to be pavement begin to rise slowly out of the ground. Once they reach their full height, it’s clear that they are not, in fact, Daleks shedding their concrete disguises in order to take over the world: they’re actually trios of 6-foot tall stainless steel urinals. According to this video, they take about one and a half minutes to fully emerge. That makes it a very boring video, but a nonplussed woman does stop and stare at around 1.05, so worth hanging on for that bit.

They were invented to prevent people urinating in the street (by people, we mean men). 

The toilets, invented and sold by the Dutch company UriLift for around £45,000 a pop, are usually installed in areas full of pubs and bars: places which get lively on the weekend but don’t have a particular need for public toilets the rest of the time. Councils often invest after complaints of late-night public urination in an area: see Guildford, for example, or Westminster, where a local councillor said of the practice: “The pop-up loos are a further step in our campaign to tackle this menace and to provide people with an acceptable alternative”. 

Of course, urinals aren’t much use to female revellers, though apparently a version for both genders is in the design stages (let’s hope this one has doors). 

They are much safer than they seem.

The notion of a giant steel pillar emerging from the ground, however slowly, is a little unsettling. But according to Wim Hermans, a spokesperson for UriLift, the toilets are always raised and lowered manually, by a city worker armed with a remote control. They check the pavement for bikes or people before calling up the toilet; then clear it of any rubbish and lower it back down come morning.

Hermans says the company have had no serious safety complaints in the 13 years since they installed their first pop-up toilet. They’re now operational in countries including Sweden, the UK, Belgium, Holland and Denmark.

Now we’ve cleared up the meaning of “pop-up toilet”, we can return to the Amsterdam incident.  It turns out that the injured man was actually the toilet’s operator, and it’s believed that a gas explosion near or below the toilet might have caused it to shoot up unexpectedly (the toilet is connected to the water supply and soil pipes, but not to gas or electricity). An independent body is currently investigating. 
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