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OFFBEAT

Why Paris public toilets have become an elusive prize during pandemic

With cafes, bars and museums closed to combat the coronavirus outbreak, Parisians are learning what tourists have long known -- finding a public toilet in the French capital requires some sleuthing and plenty of patience.

Why Paris public toilets have become an elusive prize during pandemic
A public toilet in Paris is cleaned in March 2021. STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP

Long lines outside the few facilities available have become a common sight as spring weather draws more people outdoors, in particular at parks or along the banks of the Seine.

“It’s really complicated, especially for girls, because there’s always a line and there aren’t that many toilets,” said Charlotte Le Merdy, a
publishing assistant, waiting with around a dozen others for a break near Notre-Dame cathedral.

Men are more often tempted to duck behind a tree or find a relatively remote wall, which hasn’t helped the city’s complicated relationship with cleanliness.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo is already facing a torrent of complaints about trash and neglect on social media, where hundreds of unflattering photos have been posted with the hashtag “#saccageParis” (trashing of Paris) in recent weeks.

“I probably shouldn’t say it, but you try to go somewhere secluded, in the bushes maybe,” said Romain Chevreux, an event organiser who was enjoying an afternoon near the Eiffel Tower.

“It’s a little complicated, especially because a lot of toilets are out of order, so you do what you have to,” he said.

Luc, a street cleaner near the Place de la Republique, confirmed that “guys piss everywhere – you see that the streets are dirty, that there’s no hygiene.”

‘So filthy’

The city says there are 435 self-cleaning toilets installed across the capital, which saw their usage drop by 20 percent last year due to Covid-19 lockdowns.

It also counts an additional 50 stand-up urinals and some 300 toilets at parks and gardens, many of which are indexed on the website
toilettespubliques.net.

But many people are convinced that’s still not enough. And often, the toilets that are working aren’t exactly inviting.

“These toilets are so filthy, going inside is like you’re trying to get sick,” said Bamoye, a bike courier who like his colleagues often has no other choice.

Elie Sabaa, a taxi driver, has developed another strategy in the absence of quick breaks at a cafe.

“Ninety percent of the time I have to go back home because it’s the only place that’s clean,” he said. “It wastes a lot of time.”

The situation has made Parisians all the more impatient for cafes and restaurants to reopen — President Emmanuel Macron has announced that outdoor seating will be allowed starting May 19.

“It does pose a problem when you drink too much in the parks, you want to find a toilet and there’s a massive line,” said English teacher Paris Zeikos.

“You need to be cautious to how much water you drink before, how much water you drink afterwards, and you kind of need to be aware of your surroundings at the same time,” he said.

SEE ALSO: Expanded café terraces to return to Paris this summer

Member comments

  1. What’s missing from the article is why so many of the public toilets are closed right now. It feels as if it is more than they are simply out of order, as some seem to be closed because of COVID.

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ENVIRONMENT

Trees to trams: How French cities are adapting to summer heatwaves

The world is heating up, and France is no exception. Here is how the country plans to change the landscape of its cities in order to cope with ever-increasing heatwaves.

Trees to trams: How French cities are adapting to summer heatwaves

While the whole of France is suffering from increasing temperatures, those in cities must prepare to take on an extra dose of heat, due to “heat island effect” which makes urban environments up to 8C hotter than the countryside.

READ MORE: Scientists explain the ‘heat sink’ effect that makes Paris feel like an oven

Météo France reports that the country has suffered at least 43 heat waves have been detected since 1947, but they are becoming more alarming.

“Heat waves are increasing in intensity and frequency because of climate change,” said Robert Vautard, meteorologist and climatologist to Reporterre

They are also becoming more dangerous – Vautard explained that while the earth’s average temperature has increased by 1.5C in the last hundred years, average temperatures during heat waves have spiked even higher, becoming increasingly erratic. 

Coping with warmer temperatures is becoming a necessity, but it is in the big cities where people are sweating the most – Bordeaux, Lyon, Paris, for instance, it can be up to 8C warmer in the city centre than in the suburbs due to the urban “heat sink” effect.

French government spokesperson Olivia Grégoire last week announced that the country has devoted €500 million to encourage urban vegetation projects in order to turn ‘îlots de chaleur‘ (urban heat islands) into ‘îlots de fraicheur‘ (islands of coolness). 

South of France 

In the south of France, cities have always been designed with heat in mind – centuries-old techniques like white-painted buildings, shutters on the windows and narrow, shady streets help residents to stay cool.

Cities like Nice have even employed natural, traditional air conditioning systems – if you walk through the old town, you might notice “openings fitted with iron grills just over the doors” – they allow for fresh, cool air from the street level to come into the inside of the building.

Rural southern French ‘mas’ farmhouses were also built to keep cool, always facing south with very small windows to keep out summer heat.

But on the Côte d’Azur, temperatures are rising faster than the global average. For the rest of the world, warming occurs at 0.2C a decade, but in Côte d’Azur temperatures are increasing around 0.3C every ten years.

During the 2019 heatwave, southern France’s Gallargues-le-Montueux village, located in the Gard département broke heat records when it recorded 45.9C. Warming temperatures will impact the region so much so that it may even warrant a new climate classification in the next 50 years.

All this means that the traditional cooling techniques may not be enough to allow locals to cope with soaring temperatures.

For densely populated Marseille, the city will try to add breathing space between its closely aligned buildings: the objective is that for each urban block, there will be gaps between streets and a changing of the height between these spaces (like hollowing out the base) in order to better allow natural ventilation and airflow.

For wider streets, the city is looking at adding shade coverings over the blocks to keep them cool, and as the city is prone to flooding, grassy areas to plant trees will also be used for water retention, which also has a cooling effect.

In the north

Meanwhile, in northern parts of the country, cities were generally built with the intention to keep heat in, rather than out, meaning that they cope poorly with heatwaves.

Larger windows – a feature that is common in cities like Paris – wide boulevards covered in dark asphalt and roofs made of zinc are all well suited to cooler months, but means cities turn into ovens during a heatwave.

The more green space a city has, the more the temperature falls, so cities like Lille and Paris which are particularly densely populated and lack green space, are engaging in major ‘re-greening’ programmes.

On top of this, all French cities have some challenges in common: monuments historiques, or buildings registered as national heritage sites, where there is a lengthy process to make any changes or alterations that might impact the building or the character of the area.

Then, there is the challenge of the places that people simply do not want to see altered – like the area around the Eiffel Tower, for instance. 

READ MORE: Plan to fell trees near Eiffel Tower causes backlash from residents in French capital

But some cities do have ambitious plans to counter rising temperatures.

Americans might be wondering if this will involve more air conditioning in French buildings – unfortunately, the answer is no: air-con actually makes the heat island effect worse by pumping hot air back out onto the streets (as well as obviously guzzling energy to operate the systems, contributing to the climate change that is at the root of the problem).

Instead, it’s about finding ways to redesign city spaces to mitigate the extreme heat that is here to stay:

Paris plans

Paris’ climate action plan, released in 2018, defines how the densely populated city plans to cope with climate change, particularly its status as a heat island, between 2020 and 2030.

Along with the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, Paris hopes to prepare itself for “long periods of extreme heat,” warning that “the scorching summer of 2003 may well become a “normal” summer in 2050. 

Solar power plants and solar shading – to aid in its carbon neutral goals, the city of Paris hopes to invest in urban solar power plants, and one will be installed in the Bois de Vincennes flower park.

The city wants this ‘solar power plant’ to also incorporate solar shade structures in public places, in order to “combine the benefits of energy production with protection against extreme heat”

Training “energy facilitators” and “eco-managers” – these people would work with stakeholders in individual neighbourhoods to oversee greening projects.

The action plan says they would “keep an eye on vulnerable people during heat waves, facilitate the lending or hiring of property and equipment such as bicycles between residents, manage a mini-urban logistics hub, carry out the pre-collection of certain types of waste or transfer bulky waste items to waste sorting and recovery centres.” 

Cool islands and routes in Paris – The city plans to keep and maintain its interactive map that will show you where to keep and stay cool during periods of extreme heat.

As of 2018, the city had already identified around 700 ‘cool islands,’ like museums, libraries, swimming spots, and green spaces. But, the goal is that by 2030, the City will create or open at least an extra 300.

READ MORE: Climate change: What can we expect future French summers to look like?

Schoolyard oases – Removing asphalt from school yards and increasing green space is also part of the plan.

The city’s plan to build more ‘oases’ will help to create more cool islands. As schoolyards take up over half a million square metres in Paris, this offers a large amount of space that can be radically cooled down. In 2020, the city started with just three schools, and will continue expanding throughout the decade.

New roofs for Paris – Paris’ rooftops are a huge part of the city’s architectural history and identity, but they are also heat conductors. The city of Paris has proposed to that rooftops that are either too steep or facing the wrong direction ought to be  “covered in vegetation or reflective paint” in order to reduce urban heat island effect. 

More trees – Having already added almost 50 hectares of trees during the last climate action plan, Paris has a new goal of increasing its tree canopy by 2 percent – this would mean adding more than 20,000 trees. 

Greening the tramways – Finally, Paris’ tramways will get a facelift by adding grass and getting rid of the heat-soaking concrete beneath the rails

Finally, during heat waves the city will continue using its emergency plan, intended to inform and protect vulnerable people (and the general population) of where and how to stay cool. 

READ MORE: How France plans to ‘heatwave proof’ its cities

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