A new vault toilet installed at Black Diamond Mines park. Credit: EBRPD

“Restrooms are critical infrastructure,” says Jim O’Connor, assistant general manager of operations at East Bay Regional Park District.

A hiker, a mom with kids, a mountain biker riding a long distance, or a group of people celebrating a special event might choose a park or open space based on whether or not there is a clean, functional, and open restroom.

In a survey conducted by the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation (OPRF), the barrier most people cited as keeping them from using a park was restroom conditions. Other barriers noted in the 2020 report, “Parks and Equity: The Promise of Oakland’s Parks,” were safety concerns, encampments, litter, and drug paraphernalia. Respondents, especially those with youngsters, commented that locked, dirty, or unsafe restrooms deterred them from bringing their family to some parks. Therefore, a closed or absent restroom can deprive children of the health benefits of getting outdoors.

Neighborhoods most in need of public open space often have parks in poor condition. “The city looks at equity through access,” says OPRF’s board president Mandolin Kadera-Redmond. “If we say that a park’s bathroom is good, it may be because one, it’s open, two, it’s clean, and three, it has all the features, like a toilet seat and paper towels. When those things are met, then we have equitable access. These are key points that we can identify and ask for our city to maintain throughout the whole city, and that way we can reach equity.”

Oakland has a long history of its citizens supporting parks. At the turn of the last century, many individuals donated or sold their land to the city, creating public treasures like Lake Merritt, Knowland Park, and Mosswood Park. Residents have continued to champion parks in recent times by advocating and raising funds for pocket parks in their neighborhoods.

Oakland has 140 parks that provide a variety of activities such as boating, horseback riding, swimming, and tennis. Dimond Park is an example of an activated park (one used frequently by the community) with functional restrooms. It is also one of several green spaces in Oakland that connects to others. You can get off the #57 bus at Fruitvale Avenue, walk a few blocks to Dimond Park, head up Sausal Creek, pass the golf course to explore Joaquin Miller Park, and continue on the trails at EBRPD’s Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park.

EBRPD is a two-county regional park district with 74 parks and 125,000 acres. For several years now, they have been replacing their cramped, boxy chemical toilets with prefabricated vault toilets made by CXT. It’s part of their annual capital budget to replace up to six “chemies” with vault toilets every year.

Credit: EBRPD

“Vault toilets are a much better experience for visitors and save us time and money,” O’Connor says. Like a chemie, vaults aren’t connected to a traditional sewer system; but unlike a chemie, the restroom itself is large and roomy. Vault toilets have concrete containers that hold more sewage, and therefore requires less frequent pumping. With precast concrete walls and a roof, they require less maintenance and last for years.

EBRPD learned what can happen when parks don’t have toilets. Although they kept most of their land and facilities open during the pandemic, they did close some staging areas and restrooms at the beginning due to overcrowding.  Before they could reopen they had some cleanup to do. “Sanitation facilities are important, not just for the visitor experience, but also to protect the environment. People will take care of their business one way or another.”

East Bay parks see local, regional, and international visitors, and visitation has increased over the last 18 months. “More people have discovered parks and the benefits of getting and exercising outdoors. We still have peak use during the summer, but we also have year-round use now, which is what’s unusual,” says O’Connor. The increase in visitation has put pressure on facilities, including restrooms, and EBRPD has added chemies in some locations, such as at Mission Peak, until they can add more restrooms.

Some facilities require more maintenance than others. Drug use, graffiti, vandalism, litter, and discarded personal effects can create problems. At these locations, EBRPD takes measures to  “harden” the restroom, such as installing steel fixtures that will last longer. “It’s a challenge, but it’s just the way it is. It’s part of business,” says O’Connor.

Although there is a sanitation crew to empty the vaults and a septic crew to manage the system, park rangers and staff clean the restrooms in EBRPD’s 74 parks. “They do maintenance, they do resource management, they do visitor contacts,” says O’Connor. “They do it all.”

In Oakland, the upkeep and maintenance of parks and restrooms are improving thanks to the passage of Measure Q, a 2020 initiative that collects a parcel tax to fund park improvements and address homelessness for twenty years.

But a long-term solution for park facility improvements will take more than the Q; it takes consistent annual funding in a city’s budget.  “Having time off and getting outdoors, and having more need to be outdoors, only shows what park stewards and advocates have been saying for a long time: parks are really a necessity,” says Kadera-Redmond. As are clean, functional, and open restrooms.