UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Citizenshit : The Right to Flush and the Urban Sanitation Imaginary Morales, Margaret del Carmen; Harris, Leila; Öberg, Gunilla


For many in the global North, urban life means that your shit is not your problem. We foreword that a possible reason for the global sanitation failure in urban areas is a disconnect between sanitation expectations - what we term the urban sanitation imaginary - and the practices required by proposed sanitation solutions. The case study presented here is based on interviews with residents of Villa Lamadrid, a marginalized neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which faces significant public health impacts from an inadequate sewage management system. We solicited feedback regarding specific sanitation technologies frequently prescribed for poor urban communities— among them a urine diversion dry toilet (UDDT) with dehydration vaults. Even as this system is posited as ‘sustainable’ for the context of Villa Lamadrid in terms of ecological and economic factors, conversations with residents revealed why this option might not be sustainable in terms of social expectations. Based on interviews with community members we have defined four aspects of residents’ urban sanitation imaginaries that we consider highly relevant for any consideration of sanitation solutions in this context: 1) an urban citizen does not engage physically or mentally with their shit or its management; 2) an appropriate urban sanitation system requires flushing; 3) systems that require user’s engagement with their shit and its management signify rural, underdeveloped, and backward lifestyles; and 4) urban sanitation is a state responsibility, not a local one. Highlighting the urban sanitation imaginary methodologically and analytically goes beyond a discussion of culturally and contextually appropriate technologies. It examines linkages between user expectations and notions of urban citizenship and modernity. Ultimately it also draws attention to the socio-political dynamics and environmental justice issues embedded in discussions of sanitation and hygiene. While some of our results are specific to the Villa Lamadrid context, our research more generally suggests the need to consider sanitation imaginaries to reframe the discussion on sanitation interventions, particularly in underserved and impoverished urban areas.

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