By Alec Smart
Ask the average Sydneysider about the universal Emerald City experience and you will inevitably have to listen to rhapsodies about the beaches and the harbour then several rants about real estate prices, traffic and rude people on the inadequate public transport.
Almost everyone you meet in Sydney can tell you a story about a rat – whether anecdotal, apocryphal, or apocalyptic – recalling wily rodents, often in plague proportions, ransacking garbage, mugging cats and making mischief.
When asked about public toilets, the same Sydneysiders will apprise you of many more unpleasant encounters with pernicious premises which left them and their buttocks cold.
From graffiti-strewn buildings bereft of toilet paper, to cubicles with broken locks, taps which don’t yield water and shattered lavatory seats that even redback spiders are loath to sit on, Sydney folk assert a surplus of privations in their public privies.
We thought our grandparents banished vileness when they improved Sydney’s central slums and destroyed outside water closets used by multiple households emptying bedpans into communal drains.
Yet, incredibly, 21st century sewage management sometimes retreats into Victorian vulgarity.
This past summer I’ve lived nomadically all over Sydney in a camper van, from Cronulla in the South to Blacktown out West and Collaroy in the North, but mostly beside the Eastern Suburbs’ beaches and alongside Cooks River.
Although I’ve been privileged to enjoy cleansing showers at my weekday office, when parked beside a park, beach or river, I’ve had to occasionally respect the call of nature, which exposed me to the aforementioned loathsome loos.
While it is admirable that local authorities are providing pleasant parks with free gas barbecues, sun shades, communal seating, off-leash dog-walking areas and safe children’s play zones, as well as nicely mown grass, cycle tracks, skateboard ramps and meandering footpaths, it is perplexing how public lavatories can be the antithesis of the aforementioned delightful community attractions.
‘Enjoy a barbecue in the great outdoors’, they seem to say, ‘but keep your legs crossed if you need to respond to nature’s call; wait until you get home, because our facilities leave a lot to be desired.’
In 2014, City of Sydney Council’s Public Toilet Strategy set out commitments to upgrade five public toilet facilities and construct nine new ones, and SCC continue to maintain a high standard of care and control of the 54 public toilets they directly supervise out of the 117 in the City’s local government area.
Yet step outside of this zone into surrounding neighbourhoods and the standard of care deteriorates, often drastically.
During my travels I’ve found beach facilities usually well maintained, so too those in other popular tourist destinations, where care and comfort is frequently out-sourced and serviced by professionals.
Sadly, this isn’t always the case with toilet blocks situated at recreation grounds, typically the most disgusting.
The worst, in my personal experience, include three in the Inner West: Wicks Park in Marrickville; Kendrick Park in Tempe; and Camdenville Oval in St Peters, all of which are so awful they make you extremely reluctant to park your bottom on the toilet seat.
The St Peters facility, in vying for my Worst Lavatory in Sydney award, doesn’t have a seat on the men’s toilet – it was wrenched off some time ago – and the cubicle door is so low anyone entering the toilet can see the wretched inhabitant in all his abject misery, undoubtedly hovering, thighs tensed, unable to park his butt on the seat-less receptacle.
An Inner West Council parks and gardens official informed me that Camdenville Oval is scheduled to be landscaped and revamped, with help from adjacent WestConnex construction contractors who are currently busy digging holes and cloaking the neighbourhood in plumes of dust.
While the impending works might excuse the woeful condition of the children’s play area, which will eventually be replaced with fun new equipment, this week the Council is warning park users of an impending herbicide spray to counter bindies in the grass, yet it appears no one in authority has thought to inspect the atrocious toilets for months.
Are they really planning to maintain everything but the toilets?
Could they not at least try to keep them clean?
The lack of attention given to the loos seems to be stunning oversight, considering they’re used daily by the young children in the playground and by the kids playing soccer on the sports field.
My final gripe is about soap, or the lack thereof.
Every public health utterance in existence states washing hands with soap is the most effective way to control spread of disease and infection.
Yet many well-maintained public lavatories across Sydney, such as those in Centennial Park, don’t give us soap.
How difficult would it be to install wall-mounted canisters that dispense liquid soap, which could be refilled by the same attendants who top up the toilet paper?
It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard.
Why do our Councils not want us to have comfortable bums and clean hands?
We need to get to the bottom of this.