It is a beautiful spring day in Toronto. You decide to go for a walk in one of the city’s many public parks. You find you need to use the toilet. You approach a washroom building, tug at the big steel door and find it won’t budge. You give it a second look and see it’s locked and bolted. You’re thirsty, too, so you go to have a drink at the water fountain. No water comes out – it’s shut off as well.
Thousands of Torontonians encounter this annoying situation every spring. The city is painfully slow at reopening its washrooms and restarting its water fountains after the annual winter shutdown. Why exactly is a bit of a mystery.
Toronto is a city of three million. Its public service has close to 40,000 employees and a budget of $15-billion a year. Vast public works are under way, from the rerouting of the Don River at its mouth to the rebuilding of the Gardiner Expressway along the waterfront. Yet city hall can’t seem to manage this routine task.
By the end of May, Mayor John Tory reported, only about 60 per cent of the city’s 700 water fountains were open. At the time, Toronto was experiencing a sudden heat wave, so residents took notice. When a cyclist complained of his futile search for a working fountain where he could refill his water bottle, Twitter lit up with similar complaints.
City hall at first defended its performance. Spokesman Brad Ross pointed out quite reasonably that opening washrooms and fountains is not as simple as just turning on the taps. Most aren’t winterized. Every spring workers have to flush the pipes, inspect the fixtures, test the water and so on. They start in mid-April and work through May. A lot depends on the weather. A late cold snap can freeze exposed pipes and cause all sorts of damage. Many washroom buildings are decades old. Some need serious repairs.
To its credit, Toronto has been trying to improve things. It has tripled the number of all-season washrooms. It has put out portable toilets in many parks in the cold weather. And it is working to fix older, more rundown washrooms. Still, staff told city council this week that it usually takes them till the May long weekend to get washrooms up and running and till the end of June to turn on all drinking fountains.
Mr. Tory says the city needs to do better. He brought a motion to city council this week directing city staff to speed up “the activation of water assets” such as drinking fountains and washrooms. While they were at it, he said, they should get cracking earlier on picking up litter.
“This is not a request for another report or to debate this issue endlessly,” a mayoral statement pronounced. He wanted “to make sure city staff take action right now. … We must make a conscious effort to modernize operations and procedures in city parks and start opening parks and turning on services earlier and faster after the winter.” City council duly voted this week to get staff to speed up the process.
The call to action comes a little late – Mr. Tory has been mayor since 2014 – but the urgency is justified. Delays in turning on fountains and washrooms may seem like a little thing in a big city like Toronto, but the little things matter. If a government like Toronto’s can’t get them right, residents lose faith in its basic competence. A water fountain that doesn’t work or a washroom that is padlocked in a heat wave signals dysfunction.
And when you think of it, these aren’t really such little things. Since the start of the pandemic, residents have flocked to parks and other open spaces to escape their isolation and ease their stress. For old people or families with kids – for just about everyone, actually – enjoying these places depends on having access to working facilities. An open washroom in the park and a fountain that produces drinking water doesn’t seem too much to ask from your city.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.