Public unisex toilets are on the increase in Shanghai. In Changfeng Park in Putuo district four public toilets now feature, as well as traditional female and male toilets, spacious, individual facilities for either sex.
At first sight they seem to present little difference from "accessible toilets" designed to accommodate people with physical disabilities. But usually in Shanghai accessible toilets are found within women's or men's restrooms.
The new toilets feature facilities for children, new mothers, and the elderly. Toilets and urinals for children, diaper-changing boards, and handrails are included. Each unisex toilet costs between 20,000 yuan ($3,294) and 30,000 yuan.
More toilets like those in Changfeng Park will be introduced next year, according to the Shanghai Municipal Afforestation and City Appearance and Environmental Sanitation Administration. Chen Yijun, the deputy director with the administration's city appearance and environment monitoring center, told the Oriental Morning Post that unisex toilets would make up 25 to 30 percent of the public toilets in downtown Shanghai.
And eventually they might become something other than unisex toilets. "They are referred to by a range of names, for example 'family toilets,' 'neutral-gender toilets' and 'general toilets' in foreign countries, and one of these names might be adopted here," Chen noted.
A unisex toilet in Changfeng Park Photo: Cai Xianmin/GT
One major advantage of unisex toilets is that they provide assistance for those who need help in using a toilet. It is not unusual that frail elderly people or young children are looked after by relatives of the opposite sex. This has provoked embarrassment when a woman has had to take her father to a public men's toilet or when a father had to take a daughter to a male toilet.
Unisex bathrooms solve these problems. Mrs Liang, an 84-year-old woman living in the vicinity of Changfeng Park takes daily strolls in the park with her 86-year-old husband. She told the Global Times that because her husband had to use a bladder catheter, going to the toilet could be complicated. Her husband had suffered a stroke which had impaired his memory so had to be accompanied whenever he wanted to use a toilet.
"Going to public toilets was always a problem because I had to go with him every time into men's toilets when there was no male relative with us. Though I'm not embarrassed when there are other people around, my husband is an old-school thinker and very self-conscious. He could be very stubborn and refuse to come out with me which is not good. But with unisex bathrooms he is quite comfortable and relaxed," Liang explained.
Liang said that she looked forward to seeing more unisex toilets in the city.
"There are a couple more parks nearby that I'd like to visit and I hope they will follow in the footsteps of Changfeng. It would be nice if more public toilets, like those in gas stations or on street corners, had unisex sections too," she said.
Women especially tend to find the unisex toilets good news. It is a common sight in Shanghai (and other parts of the country) that women have to stand in long queues to use toilets while men don't face this problem. Usually this is because there are not enough women's toilets allowed for even though officially the regulations say that buildings must have more toilets for women than for men.
According to Chen of the Shanghai Municipal Afforestation and City Appearance and Environmental Sanitation Administration, before the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai the ratio of male to female restrooms in the city's public toilets was 1:1.2, which was later increased to between 1:1.5 and 1:2.5.
He said that new or refurbished toilets in the city were now required to meet the 1:2.5 ratio. However, in practice this might not be the case. Zhao Wenjia worked in an architects' company after finishing her PhD degree at the Architecture Department of Tongji University and she told the Global Times that in recent projects designed by the company the restroom ratio remained at 1:1.5.
The addition of a single unisex toilet, though hardly making a difference to the overall ratio, is nevertheless welcome. "This is of course much better than none. Just one more facility can make things considerably easier," said Ann Oberhauser, a German photographer living in Shanghai.
One city man, Liu Jie, thinks the unisex toilets are a good idea but he won't be using them - he understands that this issue is more important for women than men. "There is nothing wrong if you use a unisex toilet just because it is the closest available but I think even when I find one vacant I'll just leave it for the use of women and other people who might be in greater need," Liu said.