As a species, our attraction to water is innately biological, though since water has been commodified, it functions economically and aesthetically. In the United States, 39% of the population lives in counties directly bordering the coastline. In terms of Urban Design, the function of water is more nuanced, yet necessary for understanding how cities have and will develop. Many of the world’s cities are situated on coastlines, which functions for a number of reasons (transportation, manufacturing, accessibility) but for this post, I’m less interested in looking at water for these purposes than I am for deconstructing the inherent properties of water that make it so useful for understanding how cities are designed.
It is interesting to note the use of fountains as landmarks in cities where there is lack of a defining natural water feature. For example, the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas are world-renowned and a major tourist attraction in their own right. In Atlanta, the Olympic Ring Fountain is a major focal point of the city. Central Indianapolis features the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, an impressive structure with a sizable fountain at its base. Placing fountains in accessible public places serves both recreational and aesthetic uses, but what is in the nature of these features that makes them so attractive?
Images from USAToday, crainsnewyork.com, and photomediaservice.com (respectfully)
In the present, water is brought to us rather than vice versa. This is an important distinction, because residents do not need to physically access water to sustain their living. Yet, the presence of water is a significant draw. When highways encircling Manhattan were built, sizable and popular riverside parks were created as a result. Though residents and industries no longer needed direct access to the rivers and bays, they still came. Though a running faucet or shower is doubtful to draw a crowed, a public fountain or waterway certainly does.
Whatever the nature of of water is, what can be established is that it does have an attractive quality that brings people together. The sound of splashing or moving water provides an organic dynamic that is absent dense urban areas. This is contrasted to, for example, an open green space. A water feature serves as a visual focal point, whereas green space is decentralized. This quality creates direction, purpose, and flow that is an integral fabric of the metropolis. While a water feature can never serve as a panacea for an area’s problems, a turn to water could be useful for urban areas in need of rejuvenation so as to serve a restorative function.