The first of the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association of England’s drinking fountains opens London in 1859 to “scenes of public rejoicing.”
Public Water: Individual Health, Urban Health
You could shlepp your metal water bottle all over town. You could buy a three dollar plastic water bottle to throw into a landfill for the next million years. Or: you could count on a network of convenient, eco-friendly drinking fountains.
Water from a drinking fountain is arguably the best possible thing for a human to drink. With zero calories, sugar or chemicals, water is the foundation of life as we know it. Water from drinking fountains is tested to city health standards, which are higher than the standards required for bottled water. Drinking fountains (also known, in regional variations, as water fountains or bubblers) reduce dependence on the environmentally degrading plastic bottles for water and sodas (millions of which are thrown away every year). They save people money, too: according to the Pacific Institute, “total consumer expenditures for bottled water are approximately $100 billion per year.”
The Lithia Fountain in Ashland, Oregon, runs continuously with the mineral-water the town is famous for.
The whimsical hippo head fountain in Sacramento’s Fairytale Town makes drinking water very exciting.
Sources of water are inherently magical. Especially in a city, sealed in concrete, water connects us with nature, engages our senses, and physically connects us with place. Free water sources in public spaces, historically provided by philanthropists or cities themselves, were one of the major progressive steps forward for civilization. These fountains helped in preventing cholera, bringing water closer to the homes of the poor, and reducing reliance on alcohol, which was traditionally much safer to drink than filthy river water. In 1859, the great Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association of England opened London’s first free drinking fountain to “scenes of public rejoicing;” the tasteful granite and marble design was soon providing water to over 7,000 people per day. Other famous drinking fountains, such as Paris’s Wallace Fountains and Portland’s Benson Bubblers, have provided free, clean water to generations of urban dwellers while enhancing the sense of place, public beauty, and individual health.
In the US today, though, the drinking fountain has been having a tough time. Public perception and strong bottled water advertising have lead to a crisis of confidence. Recently built rest stops in Connecticut didn’t include drinking fountains at all. University of Central Florida’s new stadium didn’t contain drinking fountains, and in the first game, vendors ran out of bottled water and seventy-eight people had to be treated by medics or hospitalized for heat-related illness. (The university has since installed fifty fountains.) Bottle fillers are being installed all over San Francisco, but the drinking fountains, which do not require you to already possess a vessel for your water, are being left behind.
The Muir Woods drinking fountains drain into the landscape, saving considerably on connections to the sanitary sewer and irrigating nearby plants.
One of the 67 large models of Paris’s famous Wallace Fountains.
This sleek Toronto fountain minimizes drainage problems and back-ups by letting water slide silkily down to a ground drain.
A wolf fountain in Rome lets users create a drinking arc by stopping up the main spout with a finger.
Raising the profile of the drinking fountain, the most egalitarian of all city infrastructure, is imperative. The design group Pilot Projects in New York is leading the charge with an amazing proposal to install 100 different drinking fountains around the city, designed through a worldwide competition. (They also hosted red-carpet events at drinking fountains in Union Square and Washington Square, complete with a string quartet and a waiter to push the button.) Bringing high quality design to drinking fountains would improve their stature and respect. Aesthetics (beauty, uniqueness, color, maintenance), functionality (temperature, flow, drainage, relationship with context, placement), ergonomic comfort, and inclusiveness (public, ADA-accessible, reachable by kids, dog bowl), qualities that we demand in any public bench or train station, are critical to drinking fountain success.
As a key indicator of the relationship between people and place, good drinking fountains can be a real change agent in our modern world, providing healthy, free, eco-friendly life fluid to everyone. Drink to your health!
Josselyn Ivanov is a landscape and urban designer based out of San Francisco, California. She holds a degree in Architecture from Rice University. She collects images and ideas about water fountains and urban health on her blog, “Drinking Fountains.”