Nocturnal urinators don’t just leave the unpleasant stench of pee in our streets. They also damage public infrastructure and leave behind a mess that’s surprisingly costly and labor intensive to clean up. Cities are working hard to find a fix: Amsterdam has retractable toilets that rise from the ground. San Francisco deployed paint that splashes it right back at you. Meanwhile, Paris is looking for its own alternative to scrubbing 1,800 square miles of pavement every day.
The City of Light’s latest innovation is called the Uritrottoir, which translates to «pavement urinal.» Created by the industrial design studio Faltazi, the Uritrottoir is a two-layer box: The top is fitted with a urinal trough, and loaded with flowers growing within rich compost. The compost is started in the bottom box, which has a little portal that leads to straw—straw that you pee on.
«There are several toilet models with different capacities of 80 to 500 pipis,» writes designer Laurent Lebot. That’s right, even the way that Parisians spell «pipi» is classier than how we do it in America.
Lebot was inspired during a visit to CAT—a sustainable architecture school—when the men were invited to urinate on hay because the nitrogen from urine combines with the carbon from straw to create a rich fertilizer, all while mitigating the smell.
Of course, hay can splash back. Hay can splash back like a demon. So from that initial experience, Lebot’s studio developed the urine composter, a purpose-built, four-sided hay barrel urinal, which they sold to festivals, sporting events, and campsites. After that, they began working on the sequel—the flower box now on trial in Paris—which is designed to combat the «foul-smelling urban nuisances associated with nocturnal wild pees in the city centers,» as Lebot puts it. In all, it took the studio two years to develop the solution.
Two of the new boxes have been purchased by Paris-Gare de Lyon, a station from the state-owned railway, at a cost of $9,730 for the pair, according to the New York Times. Inside each box, an internet-connected sensor measures pee levels, and when the box needs its straw swapped out, an attendant is dispatched to pick up the waste and take it to a composting facility outside the city. (In theory, that compost is later used to feed the flowers up top.)
As funny as it all sounds, public urination and defecation is a real problem for cities. Nobody really wants to undergo the indignity of using public space as a restroom, but many simply have no better option. Take N.Y.C.: There are 600 public bathrooms in city parks, but they all close by 8 p.m. It’s a small data point indicative of a much larger problem. The UN counts 2.5 billion people globally who don’t have access to hygienic toilets worldwide, 700 million of whom live in urban areas.
In this sense, Lebot’s city urinal is an intriguing low-tech solution. By his claims, it’s even eco-friendly. The device has one-third of the carbon impact of a regular toilet, but he says its even greater advantage is that it doesn’t require a plumbing hookup to function. «Wild pests occur in areas where it is often impossible to connect to the sanitation network,» says Lebot, no doubt referring to the fact that rats can be attracted to the waste of various animals. «Dry toilets have the advantage of being able to land anywhere, therefore offering a great flexibility of installation.»
While Paris puts the Uritrottoir to the test, Lebot is working on converting his design for women, which by most accounts means he’ll need a full room with a door. «Meanwhile, they can use piss-ups (like P-mate),» Lebot suggests, referring to the funnel women can use to pee standing up. The man has a way with words.