Open-minded but not always easy-going, San Francisco is the kind of place where it’s easy to do certain things that may prove to be more formidable — or even impossible — tasks in other major cities. Things like recycling your yoga tank, munching on hyper-local produce at a baseball game, composting the remnants of last night’s dinner party, and, until recently, going on a casual stroll around your neighborhood without pants.

One thing, however, that San Francisco has never quite been able to nail down is an ecologically responsible, aesthetically inoffensive method in which full-bladdered residents and visitors alike can urinate while on-the-go.

Important stuff!

Sure, there are always Starbucks and hotel lobbies and back alleyways if nature calls at a most inopportune moment. And then there's the city’s automated, freestanding public restrooms, which, more or less, are best avoided as they've been “hijacked by junkies and sex workers.” Apparently, San Francisco's fleet of Paris-inspired pay toilets have gotten so bad that the city’s sizable homeless population know better than to risk entering them. As a result of all this en plein air urinating because there's nowhere else to go, pockets of San Francisco have taken on a bit of a distinctive pee stink (which I'm guessing is delightful when combined with the "rotten egg stench" of backed-up sewer pipes caused by a sharp influx of low-flow toilet installations across the city).

To help alleviate this problem while also injecting a bit of greenery into the cityscape, Brent Bucknum of Oakland-based Hyphae Design Laboratory has developed a chemical-free public urinal-garden hybrid dubbed PPlanter:

PPlanter is a rapidly deployable, reconfigurable public urinal and sink that uses modular biofilters to treat urine and wastewater. The network of sensors for automated monitoring and this web site are an integral part for public feedback and participation in the design of future iterations.

After a couple of successful limited test runs of a parking space-sizd prototype unit in the Tenderloin district this past summer, the city has reportedly ordered a permanent PPlanter system consisting of two urinals and a composting toilet.

As you can see, the odor-free PPlanter doesn’t offer much in the way of privacy — how very European, I know — but that’s kind of the point: without any sort of full enclosure, anyone looking to partake in illicit/illegal shenanigans will be discouraged given that everyone can kind of see what you’re doing in there. It’s a pee pit-stop designed for doing your business, marveling at the ingeniousness of the whole thing for a quick moment, and then getting the heck out.

So how does it work, then?

Users urinate directly into a ceramic urinal (disposable funnels are provided for the ladies) before moving on to an integrated, foot pump-operated faucet that draws fresh, clean water from a reservoir for hand-washing. That soapy water, now technically greywater, is used to flush the urinal. And don’t fret, pee-shy readers — your midsection is concealed by a modesty screen the entire time.

From there, things get a bit more complicated:

The greywater, soap and urine (blackwater) from the ADA-compliant urinal are funneled to a sealed storage tank. The combined water is then pumped into an adjacent planter that houses bamboo plants set in a lightweight mixture of soil and recycled styrofoam coated in pectin. The water from the urinal and sink is evapotranspired by the bamboo and released into the air as distilled, purified water. The bamboo harnesses the incredible amount of nitrogen and phosphorus found in the urine and uses it to produce more bamboo. With high traffic urinals additional planters can be added to the system.

"Our goal is to refocus attention to developing ecological sanitation, making it aesthetically pleasing, clean, functional, and cool," Bucknum explains to New Scientist. In addition to rolling out modular PPlanters on the streets of San Francisco, Bucknum hopes to rent the systems to festivals, concerts, and large-scale events as a prettier, less pungent, and planet-friendly alternative to Porta Potties.

Via [New Scientist] via [Gizmag], [San Francisco Chronicle]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

San Francisco experiments with planter-based public pee stations
PPlanter is a smart, ecologically sensitive public urinal concept that discourages bad behavior while conserving water and prettying up things with bamboo.