Healthy Spaces: Exploring the Place of the Toilet and Design for Well-being

On Wednesday 17th May, Lisa Procter presented her work on children and young people’s experiences of toilet spaces as part of the ‘Healthy Spaces’ conference organised by the BSA Yorkshire Medical Society.

Procter’s paper, How can a Queer/Crip New Materialism Energise Thinking about Spaces, Places and Design for Wellbeing?, acted as a provocation, asking what imaginings of ‘healthy spaces’ are possible when queer/crip studies and new materialism converge. The new materialisms offer new ways of reconceptualising the relationship between places, people and objects. Recently there have been calls to connect intersectional approaches with an analyses of socio-material processes (Kraftl 2015). We suggest that queer/crip perspectives offer a way into starting to think about what these connections may offer. Such perspectives encourage an analyses of ‘intra action’ (Barad 2007) between place, people and objects that examines the political positioning of the material in relation to people, communities and built environments. We draw on an AHRC Connected Communities collaborative research project (Around the Toilet) between academic researchers and queer, trans and disabled people’s organisations, which asked what it means to have access to a safe and comfortable toilet space, to explore these questions. Using the public toilet as case study, we ask in this session:

  • how do multiple materialities, spatialities and sociabilities come together in public toilets?
  • what do these configurations reveal about the political dimensions of emplaced/embodied experiences of spaces and places?
  • how can these socio-material habits be disrupted through the design of spaces and places to support wellbeing?

The slides from the talk can be accessed here.

The text below captures some of the ideas presented on the day…

This presentation is based on the AHRC funded project Around the Toilet, which worked with disabled, queer and trans people to ask what it means to have access to a safe and comfortable toilet space. The project started 3 years ago, and we have used a range of arts-based storytelling methodologies with different people, you will engage with some of our data in this presentation. Participants recorded how everyday journeys are often planned around the un/availability of a suitable toilet. They spoke of not leaving the house, not drinking and losing jobs due to a lack of toilet access for a number of distinct reasons. There is, in its most literal sense, ‘no place’ for them to go (and hence, sometimes, they go ‘nowhere’). For many, ‘a good place’ to use the toilet does not yet exist, or at least not in sufficient numbers.

This presentation acts as a provocation, exploring how new materialist perspectives can inform the ways in which we think about toilets and wellbeing. Our aim is to open up debate about the value of new materialism, and particularly ways of rethinking representation – how representation happens beyond the realms of language, for understanding how difference is marked through the co-constitutive assemblages between place, people, objects and things…

When people name the world does the world speak back…?

This question troubles the conflation of language and representation. If we argue that, yes, the world does speak back to people, then perhaps we can also consider whether the world names people. This in turn disrupts ideas about what it is to name, where naming is a practice seemingly assigned to humans within the limits of words and language. If to name is to represent, and representation can be conceived as, in Eduardo Kohn’s (2013) terms, ‘something both more general and more widely distributed than human language’ and indeed humans themselves, then what is representation…

People name the world…

We name spaces… such as ‘The Gents and The Ladies’

But spaces also name us…

The ways in which we are named by place stays with us, living in our bodies. Toilets are particularly significant as they are spaces that are texture our everyday lives.

So what should change what… should people name differently or should the world name differently?

The toilet project does an interesting thing, in that it blurs the boundaries between people and world, the discursive and the material. As Rebecca Coleman states: ‘bodies and images are entangled together as material assemblages’

Eduardo Kohn also shows us that representation is not always language like…

And that sometimes what is not represented is as significant as that which is…

Instead, he argues that representation happens between people and the world, that representation is relation

People have an iconic, indexical and symbolic relationship to signs as they present themselves in the material world…

Kohn identifies three kinds of signs: the icon, index, and symbolic. An icon represents the thing itself, for example the “words” ‘piss’ or ‘shit’ represent the act of going to the loo. Indices are produced through special relations between icons and point to something not immediately present, for example the figures of ladies and gents that we are familiar with seeing on toilet doors indicate that certain toilet facilities are beyond the door, but they are not representative of those facilities (they are not an image of the facilities themselves, i.e. a urinal or a toilet). Finally, the symbolic is the only sign situated squarely within the human domain. Symbols involve convention, and only become meaningful in relation to an ‘established system of relationships … with other words’ (pg. 32) – ladies and gents as a way of categorising toilet spaces only makes sense given the constructions of gender that lie behind them. Kohn argues that qualitative researchers have learnt to focus their attention on the realm of the symbolic – which is predominantly positioned as ‘language-like’. What happens when we connect the symbolic with the realms of the iconic and indexical, does this helps us notice the ways in which the material and discursive are entangled?

The toilet project also demands the politicisation of these blurrings…

Doreen Massey speaks to the politics of space, ‘where space is envisioned as always-already territorialised’ (as in the case of toilets as spaces characterised as for ‘men’ or for ‘women’). Massey argues that space is forever incomplete and in production… for her these ‘flows [of space] and territories are conditions of each other’.

So how can flows and territories be disrupted…

Spatial locations work to stand certain people apart from others – we see this in school toilets where disabled toilets can be located beyond other toilets, despite toilets serving as a social space, particularly for girls – disabled girls therefore cannot access such informal social spaces

The making of toilet spaces (I use the term making purposefully, to unsettle the idea of space as completed at the end of the construction process) has an affective, embodied significance – If disabled facilities are often locked, hidden, used for storage, they signify that disabled people sit outside of societal concerns… Toilet spaces also show that the material is political, and entangled with social practice and embodied identity.

Our data reveals breaks in what for some can be taken for granted…

It reveals the ways in which the gender, sexuality and dis/ability are complexity situated in what is, for many, seemingly part of the mundanity of everyday life – going to the loo.


Barad, K., 2007. Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning, Duke University Press

Kraftl, P. and Horton, J., 2015. Rats, assorted shit and ‘racist groundwater’: towards extra-sectional understandings of childhoods and social-material processes. Paper presentation at the 6th Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth International Conference, Sheffield

Kohn, E. 2013. How Forests Think: Towards and Anthropology Beyond the Human. UCPress

Massey, D. 2005. For Space. Sage


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