Thursday, July 17, 2008
Here’s a story that crystallizes the challenges of American urban public land use policy: Seattle is junking its public toilet system. Four years ago, the high-tech-savvy city ballyhooed the introduction of the sleek and expensive potties that gave aural instructions (in a choice of languages) and promised to be self-cleaning. But Seattle has now given up on the project. The reasons: excessive cost (Seattle wouldn’t allow extensive advertising on the toilets), so much garbage and filth dumped around the toilets that the self-cleaning system didn’t work, and extensive use of the facilities for drug use and prostitution.
What’s most depressing is the comparison of the American failure to the success of street toilets in many European cities. (We can add public potties to the list of things, such as dense housing and health care, that Europe can do and we can’t). Why can’t Americans work well with public toilets? Here are some possible ideas: (1) Americans simply do not respect private spaces, obsessed as we are with our private spaces. (2) Our society of rugged (and narcissistic) individualism leads to a scorn of communitarian ideas. (3) Our socially diverse society results in alienation and a disdain for public-minded solutions. (4) Our naïve idealism leads us to over-emphasize technology and de-emphasize the necessity of simple ruggedness for public architecture. (5) Our overly solicitous public ethos (through which anybody could get a $500k mortgage four years ago) does not demand sufficient efficiency of our citizenry (the Seattle toilet doors can stay closed for 15 minutes: Forgive my ignorance, but who needs this long?).
The tawdry toilet tale may not seem, in itself, such a great disaster. But if our cities cannot succeed with such a simple project, how can they succeed with much tougher jobs such as providing affordable housing, overcoming NIMBY, and keeping citizens safe from crime?
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