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Case Study: Cambridge


Theme – Design Against Crime


The 'armadilloo', Midsummer Common. (Bichard 2003) VivaCity 2020Since the late 1990s, Crime and Disorder Partnerships have been set up throughout England. This initiative aims to bring together local people, the police, local authorities and other public agencies to reduce crime and address its causes. Cambridge Community Safety Partnership formed in 1998 and produced its second three-year strategy in 2002, with a central priority of tackling Anti-social Behaviour. Council surveys in 2000 revealed that public toilets were considered the service with the highest level of public dissatisfaction. In addition, a survey undertaken by the British Toilet Association in 2002 revealed that 75% of the current council-maintained toilet stock was in need of improvement. Additional public surveys and agency-wide consultation revealed that one of the key areas identified for Anti-social Behaviour was the city’s public toilet facilities. The most common cause for concern was substance misuse and its associated litter, predominately discarded hypodermic needles. In addition, criminal damage, including graffiti and ‘rough sleeping’ particularly in the accessible toilets, was identified as an issue that needed to be tackled.


Through consultation, the issue of the toilet buildings was discussed. Some of the [then] current toilet stock was considered to be badly placed, hidden or secluded. Council documents record that ‘there is little doubt a significant impact on discouraging anti-social behaviour in public toilets can be achieved through design’ (Cambridge Anti-social Behaviour Task Group, 2002).


A number of recommendations were made as a result of consultations including; assessment of the need for specific facilities, assessment of the most appropriate location for facilities, consideration of new vandal-proof facilities in suitable locations, a review of opening times, the value of attendants as a deterrent and lastly, the abuse of the RADAR key system and accessible toilets by illegal substance users and ‘rough sleepers’. In conjunction with these consultations, Cambridge City Council initiated a four-year capital building programme to improve or replace major public convenience blocks. Improvements or replacements were set to achieve safe, clean facilities, by reducing anti-social behaviour through good design.


Sites were identified for refurbishment and reconstruction. However, at some sites it was decided to replace the existing toilet blocks with new facilities, and invitations were sent to local architectural practices to take part in a competition to design new toilet facilities at Gonville Place. The design brief specifically aimed to ‘design against crime’ and called for the use of materials and finishes that would minimise vandalism and graffiti, stainless steel sanitary fittings and individual door access that is visible to the public. Design features such a flat roofs or recesses and planting were to be avoided.


Whilst the council set no cost limit on the design, the brief intimated that the total cost should not exceed £200,000. Two sites were identified for the replacement of existing toilet blocks. These were Gonville Place and Midsummer Common/Victoria Avenue. Architects Freeland Rees Roberts won the design competition for Gonville Place and were subsequently commissioned to design facilities for the Midsummer Common/Victoria Avenue site. The facilities at Gonville Place were completed in March 2003, whilst those on Midsummer Common were completed during the following year.


The public conveniences at Midsummer Common/Victoria Avenue were highly commended in the John Smith Award for craftsmanship, and in 2006 they won the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) East Client Award. The notable feature of the award-winning toilets was their elongated, domed copper roof, considered a reflection of the surrounding canopy of the chestnut trees. The nearby river also influenced the building’s design.


In addition to a ‘design out crime’ priority, which resulted in a building constructed from easy-to-clean materials, with no hidden corners and benefiting from the strategic use of lighting, the Midsummer Common facilities also include environmentally friendly and sustainable design features such as rainwater harvesting for use in the toilet flush system. The distinctive copper roof has led to the facilities being fondly renamed the ‘armadil-loo’ by the local population.


Residents whose houses face the toilet facilities were not keen on overlooking the doors of the WC cubicles. Consequently, these were designed to face away from the open space of the common and surrounding residences, and to face towards the nearby well-used road. This orientation was also considered preferable in respect of the issue of security, as the busy road could provide ‘natural observation’. The side of the facilities that faces onto the common includes a ‘pindar’s room’. This room stores hay for animals grazing on the common, which Cambridge City Council is obliged to provide by ancient statutes.


The facilities contain five unisex cubicles including a combined accessible / baby changing facility. In late 2003, close to completion of the Midsummer Common/Victoria Avenue public conveniences, the research team visited the facilities to assess if the high priority given to the ‘design out crime’ brief compromised or improved access considerations for people with disabilities.


Signage comprised a mixture of upper and lower case text.  However signage informing users of the cost of using the toilet and indicating if the toilet was vacant or in use was quite small and all in upper case text. The accessible cubicle included a baby change table that was not in itself accessible to parents who use wheelchairs. Fixtures for hand washing involved automated ‘stages’ that may be considered confusing for people with cognitive impairments. People with visual impairments may find the operating illustrations difficult to read, due to the high glare of the stainless steel surface. The alarm system comprised a button located on the wall beside the toilet pan at approximately 500mm above floor level. This may be difficult to reach if someone falls to the floor and cannot raise their arm.

 'sharps' bin. (Bichard 2003) VivaCity 2020

One of the most controversial aspects of Cambridge’s refurbishment and rebuilding of toilets was the inclusion of ‘sharps bins’ within the facilities. A long-standing campaign by the British Toilet Association has pressed for sharps provision to be excluded from toilet fixtures and fittings, to discourage substance injection within toilets. For Cambridge City Council, the issue of substance misuse within its public toilets was one of the central aspects of its refurbishment and rebuilding programme. By including sharps bins, the council has reduced the risk of stick injuries to its employees and to members of the public from discarded hypodermics. A sharps bin has been included within the accessible toilet, but it could be considered out of reach for someone who uses a wheelchair and who may have to inject themselves for medical purposes.

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