One principle that I’ve tried to communicate with this blog is that the temptation to begin the revitalization of public spaces and downtowns through major capital expenditures is one that is well avoided. I’ve also tried to stress at the same time that there are no hard and fast rules to successful placemaking; and that flexibility and balance are at the center of creating and maintaining great public places. The interplay of these ideas was brought home to me during a recent ten-day trip to Andalusia, Toledo and Madrid where I experienced a number of public space practices that impressed me with their effectiveness.
The presence of water and fountains in parks and on streets has a delightful positive impact on making places more inviting. People love running water. You can put a water feature in the most barren and under-programmed plaza, and it can make that place draw people – despite all the space’s other limitations. Kids like to play in them. Even adults like to throw off their shoes and socks and put their feet in them. In hot places like southern Spain, fountains provide cool. Fountains have a similar effect to plants – they are a visual and aural cue that a place is under social control. In order for the water feature to work someone must be taking care of it: keeping it clean, keeping the pumps running.
And there, as the Prince of Denmark might have said, is the rub. Fountains are relatively expensive infrastructure. Even the least costly installations are going to run towards six figures. Really fabulous, Las Vegas style extravaganzas, like the great fountain in the plaza at Lincoln Center designed by WET, head towards eight figures. They also require regular maintenance. All fountains need their pumps to be checked out regularly. There are parts that wear out and that need to be replaced. Anything beyond the most elementary fountains need regularly cleaning (at the very least to keep the drain running). In colder climate they need to be turned off and on (and checked out) at the beginning and end of the season. My understanding is that before Bryant Park reopened in 1992, the Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain had not been able to be kept in steady operation since the Lusby Simpson renovation of the park in 1936. The running of that fountain, like the lushness of the lawn, was an immediate symbol that the park was back under social control (there is, by the way, a funky film of the Lowell Fountain from the 50’s by the artist Joseph Cornell on YouTube — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QvLWu8A9wA– in which it is shown working.). I particularly like fountains that allow people to interact with them among jets of water, like at the Brooklyn Museum or the new one at Dilworth Park in Philadelphia.
In Downtown Jamaica there was a simple fountain in front of the newly renovated performing arts center — a City owned former church building that had been adaptively reused into a multi-purpose theater. After six or seven years, I started asking about why it wasn’t working. Apparently, it needed a relatively small repair. After two years of my asking about it, it was finally repaired. But even then, staff members kept turning it off — and I had to ask to have it put back on. Keeping that fountain running took even more persistence than having the sidewalk clock Downtown accurately showing the current time. Why was this so hard? Frankly, I don’t know. I frequently raised the issue of upgrading the fountain to a more sophisticated and eye-catching display — but I got nowhere at all with that. It seemed to me that a dramatic fountain at a key location in the Downtown was a relatively inexpensive way to communicate that the Downtown was more than just attractive and safe — but a great place.
One feature of Pershing Square in Los Angeles that actually seemed to me to add value was the dramatic fountain — which hasn’t operated for years. As currently run, Pershing Square is a hard, mostly shadeless space — and the huge fountain cascade and the large pool sent all the right messages about an otherwise unpopulated space. Most recently, because of drought conditions, the City of LA has apparently ordered all public fountains to be turned off. That strikes me as simply bad policy. First of all, water features generally operate with recirculated water — so they are not wasteful of water resources. There is some argument that turning off public fountains sends a message that the City is doing its part in conserving water. But is there actually any behavioral evidence of that? The better argument is that water features in public spaces remind folks of the importance of water to our lives, and draws people out of there back yards (which require watering) and into public spaces. I might respectfully suggest to the folks at Pershing Square Renew that, at least in the short run, getting that water turned back on is a more cost-effective way of getting that space revitalized then the major capital project they are focused on.
What follows are photos I took of fountains in Cordoba, Seville, Granada, Toledo and Madrid. Fountains are ubiquitous in public spaces in those cities. Part of that is history – urban fountains were for centuries actual working water sources in the Old World (we, here, on the other side of the pond don’t have that history; and as a result urban water features are almost always decorative). Southern Spain has a hot climate, and Moorish architecture, and its successor, the Mudéhar style (a new term to me) broadly incorporated fountains and water features to cool courtyards and gardens.
If you do have some capital dollars to spend on a public space renovation, and the capacity to provide continuing maintenance, there is no better way to allocate those resources then to provide a simple pool and a jet of water. It will, after flowers, trees and movable chairs, most raise the odds of attracting people to your space and encourage them to linger there.
Slideshow of Fountains