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Can the Drinking Fountain Make a Comeback?

How new innovations could resuscitate the crumbling infrastructure.

Lance/flickr

Tucked atop a hill in Sunset Park, one of the highest points in Brooklyn, is a wading pool with spray showers. Kids in sandals and street clothes shriek as they dash through the jets, getting soaked by the stream of droplets. What they don’t offer, necessarily, is drinking water.

Clean public drinking water is a relatively modern luxury. Thirsty hordes lined up to start swigging from fountains in London in the 1850s. They scooped up water in communal tin cups until “Ban the Cup” campaigns—informed by the emerging field of germ theory—led to a move away from sharing sippers. In June 1859, a dispatch from The New York Times eyed a newly unveiled fountain with a mix of suspicion and awe, describing the “peculiarity” of the dispense mechanism. The piece concluded (subscription only):

It is to be hoped that public drinking fountains in this City will soon be so numerous that they will cease to be the subject of remark.

There aren’t a lot of fountains around New York, when you consider slaking the thirst of more than 8 million residents. The chart below, prepared based on data compiled by the New York City Parks Department, shows how few and far between the fountains are. And this year’s potentially record-shattering temperatures are leaving locals parched.

New York City Economic Development Corporation

The problem with drinking fountains

Potable water is at a premium in New York, but public drinking fountains are often outdated and overburdened. They require a lot of maintenance to repair acute and long-term damage. Three summers ago, the New York Times chronicled the efforts of one of the plumbers tasked with keeping the city’s thousands of fountains in working order. The Times reported:

He … deals with thieves who, under cover of darkness, pry off bronze bowls and brass valves to sell for scrap. He contends with children who, in the light of day, pour sand down drains, shove twigs in spouts and leave water balloon shrapnel behind. He chafes at ball players who wash their cleats in fountains. (“Ball field clay is the worst,” he said.) And, always, there are trees, whose pollen does more than agitate allergies; it is also a notorious clogger of traps, the J-shaped pipes that carry water away.

The fountains are still struggling. The advocacy organization New Yorkers for Parks issues a report card assessing conditions in 43 large parks across the boroughs. The most recent report, from 2013, assigned the drinking fountain infrastructure a C-, up from a D in the previous evaluation. Drinking fountains were the lowest-scoring features, compared with others such as bathrooms, ball courts, and athletic fields. According to the report:

Many fountains suffered from structural damage, insufficient pressure, or unsanitary conditions. Eleven percent of fountains could not be turned off or were continually leaking water from the body of the fountain.

New fountains are expensive to install—and when they require new or updated irrigation systems, the price tag can really add up. In July, CBS2 reported that two new fountains in Ishram Park, in Inwood, cost a total of $750,000.

The infrastructure problems are exacerbated in the summer months, says Tupper Thomas, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. During the summer, plumbers are called on to be everywhere at once: They have to unclog drains at beach showers, repair pools, and relieve overused toilets. Plus, says Thomas, the hot months are the ones in which water fountains in the public parks are used most often.

“People use the fountains to wash off at the beach, and they get clogged with sand,” adds Lucy Robson, research analyst at New Yorkers for Parks. Or, plumbers head to a park to fulfill a work order on an out-of-use fountain and discover that “some kid tried to build a sandcastle in it with sand from the playground,” says Thomas.

The solution is two-fold: better design and more plumbers

Vandalism used to be a common problem, designer Emmanuel Thingue recently told Medium. During his tenure as a landscape architect with the Department of Parks and Recreation in the 1990s, Thingue was tasked with reimagining the design with the aim of making it more difficult to disable. He explained:

During our design research, we found that most city park drinking fountains were vandalized in one specific way — by knocking out the bubbler. That was the single, chronic, most destructive form of vandalism because once the bubbler is gone the entire piece of furniture housing the waterworks is completely useless.

That’s why many contemporary designs feature streams that arc up towards the opened mouth without any guidance from a metal contraption.

A family drinks from a fountain in Central Park in 1942. (Marjory Collins/Library of Congress)

More recently, nature vandalized this recreational infrastructure, destroying water fountains close to beaches devastated by Hurricane Sandy. That destruction actually created the possibility for rethinking fountain design. In a new report chronicling the state of the City’s beaches, New Yorkers for Parks notes improved water fountain infrastructure built during the reconstruction of battered areas, such as Rockaway Beach in Queens. The new versions, below, feature a basin-less trough that never allows the water a place to pool.

New Yorkers for Parks

“But no matter what you do for design, you still need plumbers,” says Thomas. That’s why she advocated, in a recent report, for the City contracting out to bring more hands on deck during the busy summer months.

But are we using drinking fountains less often than we used to? And if so, why?

Decreased use of municipal water?

Each day, more than 1 billion gallons of water are pumped into the city from 19 upstate reservoirs and three lakes—some more than 125 miles from Manhattan—for public consumption. (Much of this supply is housed in the wooden water towers that have become iconic elements of the New York City skyline.)

But many residents continue to opt for bottled water—which, as CityLab’s Laura Bliss has described, is environmentally perilous and ethically murky. (The Washington Post reported that U.S. consumption of bottled water quadrupled between 1993 and 2012, totaling 9.67 billion gallons annually.) Meanwhile, lobbyists from the International Bottled Water Association are campaigning to stall a proposal for a ban on disposable plastic water bottles in national parks, citing the risk of visitor dehydration and health concerns associated with visitors reaching for a sugary drink in the absence of alternatives. However, some parks that have already enacted bans—such as Zion National Park in Utah—have seen positive results, eliminating an estimated 5,000 tons of plastic from the waste stream.

(REUTERS/Steve Dipaola)

​Even the fountains that are in working order aren’t necessarily being used. The Washington Post recently outlined some of the reasons that Americans are turning away from tap water, including a history of fear-mongering campaigns launched by bottled water companies. (One ad boldly declared, “Tap water is poison.”)

Of course, a fear of communicable disease being transmitted through water isn’t entirely baseless. In The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson analyzes a single water pump, on Broad Street in London’s Golden Square neighborhood, as the vector of a cholera epidemic that ravaged the city in 1854. (Residents, he writes, went out of their way to access the cool water pumped from 25 feet below the surface, with “a pleasant hint of carbonation.”) And recently, researchers at Michigan State University mapped fecal bacteria in the global water supply, concluding that trace particles appear everywhere from Nigeria to New Jersey.

Overall, though, contemporary water fountains don’t seem to be unsafe. Back in 2010, the Toronto Star partnered with Ryerson University to swab drinking fountains all over the Canadian city. They detected thousands of micro-organisms: One swab revealed that the fountain spout contained at least 10 times more bacterial growth than a dog bowl. But whether those bacteria are actually pathogens is another issue. The researchers concluded that, if you do stick your mouth directly on the spout, you could come into contact with pathogens such as e. coli and legionella, which can cause gastrointestinal distress but are rarely fatal. (Symptoms are exacerbated in children, pregnant women, and the elderly.)

Bottled water isn’t significantly safer. In fact, up to 25 percent of bottled water is just packaged tap water, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. But many Americans continue to believe the trumped-up hype: In a recent Gallup poll, 60 percent of respondents admitted to fears of drinking contaminated water. “I always let the water run a little first,” one friend told me. “It makes me feel like I got rid of all the germs.” Another friend always opts for the taller fountain he can find, equating it with fewer germs because he assumes “kids can’t reach it.”

How to get people guzzling

In New York City, an app helps residents and visitors locate the free water source closest to them. As part of the Department of Environmental Protection’s “NYC Water on the Go” program, H2O is doled out from portable fountains in bright blue tents from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in various locations across the boroughs. But on a given Saturday, there may only be five fill-up points.

The initiative tries to sell thirsty residents on municipal water by playing up its nutritional elements (“NYC water contains zero calories, zero sugar, and zero fat”), cost effectiveness, and contributions to lessening the environmental burden created by bottling water. Plastic water bottles produced for American consumption siphon 1.5 million barrels of oil per year, and each one-liter bottle guzzles three liters of water during production.

The key, says Thomas of New Yorkers for Parks, is to continue to promote municipal water as safe and desirable. “Under the Bloomberg administration, people would hook up to a fire hydrant and give away free water,” she says. She adds that runners and other athletes who frequent the parks do seem to rely on the water fountains. It’s important to reach another demographic: picnickers and loungers who may be willing to forgo the bottled water in favor of the cool streams gurgling out of the fountains. “Our water is the best water,” she says.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.