Public Space has a Drinking Problem

As drinking fountains fade from view, a call to make them iconic again.

By Timothy A. Schuler 

There are no reliable statistics on the number of drinking fountains in the United States, but according to the Washington Post, over the years a number of researchers have been documenting their disappearance. This year, the International Plumbing Code reduced its per-building fountain requirement by half.

Studies show that in the absence of drinking fountains, Americans often turn to bottled water, the negative environmental effects of which have been well documented. But equally worrisome is the impact a lack of drinking fountains could have on public health. In an oft-cited 2007 example, a stadium at the University of Central Florida was constructed without water fountains. When, during a particularly hot game, vendors ran out of bottled water, 18 people were sent to the hospital for heat exhaustion and 60 others were treated on site.

The decline of the drinking fountain has been caused by a complex set of factors, some more insidious than others. Beginning in the 1990s, companies that sold bottled water began marketing their product as cleaner and safer than tap water, running attack ads that claimed, in one instance, that “tap water is poison,” says Peter Gleick, the author of Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water. Such over-the-top marketing helped to erode the public’s trust in tap water and, by extension, in drinking fountains.

Ironically, our success in treating drinking water also hurt public perception. Municipalities are required by the Safe Drinking Water Act to immediately inform the public if there is a problem with the water supply, says Gleick, who is also the president and cofounder of the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank. “There is no similar demand that bottled water companies reveal when there’s a water quality problem at the bottling plant,” he says.

Many cities have let fountains fall into disrepair, adding to the public’s distrust. In 2011, the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks gave the city’s drinking fountains a D grade, the lowest grade of any park feature. “In many cases, the fountains are unusable because of insufficient pressure, missing parts, or structural damage,” the report stated.

Scott Francisco, the founder of a social-benefit design consultancy called Pilot Projects Design Collective, has been thinking about drinking fountains for at least a decade. In 2011, he proposed 100 Fountains, a design competition that would include a citywide exhibition of 100 “innovative and fully functional fountains” throughout New York City. It reached the mayor’s office, but was spurned, he says, by the Department of Parks and Recreation, which is responsible for maintaining the city’s drinking fountains.

“They told us with a straight face that they have one plumber to maintain all the drinking fountains in New York City,” Francisco says. “It was almost like they didn’t want more fountains. Our whole point is that we need to get more fountains in the city—a hundred is not even going to do it; a hundred is our way of [inviting] all of New York City into a conversation about drinking water and public space.”

Maintenance is a legitimate issue, but mostly because fountains are more complex than they need to be, Francisco says. Most have drains, for instance, but drains are expensive, difficult to clean, and completely superfluous. Water from a fountain should drain into the soil, where it can help recharge the groundwater.

Francisco is not alone in thinking the drinking fountain is due for a redesign. New iterations have emerged in the past few years. The fountains installed along the new boardwalk at Rockaway Beach in New York City were designed by WXY Architecture + Urban Design and eliminate both basin and drain, allowing excess water to run into swales. A similar style of fountain can be found along the High Line.

Gleick sees promise in this new generation of water fountains, including water-bottle-filling stations like those made by Globaltap. Francisco, however, is underwhelmed by such utilitarian designs. “Some of these bottle-filler fountains that are becoming more common in indoor corporate space, they’re fine,” he says. “But they just feel dead, and dumb. They’re not sexy. They’re not speaking to me in a cultural way.” He says we need “poetic, compelling, practical solutions that become part of who we are.”

Portland, Oregon, for instance, has the Benson Bubbler, a four-basined bronze fountain designed in 1912. It’s not a perfect fountain, Francisco says, but it’s become part of the culture. “We need to create icons. [The drinking fountain] needs to be a symbol of what we value, what we believe in, and how cool we are. That’s what people care about.”

Timothy A. Schuler, the editor of NOW, is at and on Twitter, @Timothy_Schuler.

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