Bottling out with too much water

Richard Porch makes a compelling case for re-introducing public drinking fountains

These days we don’t have the climate that creates the need for public water fountains. This wasn’t always the case and one used to see them quite often perhaps as recently as 30 or 40 years ago in Wales. I don’t know why they disappeared; Perhaps there were maintenance issues and vandalism. Or perhaps it was the rise of canned drinks.

If you go to Barcelona, Rome or Rhodes you can see public water fountains in abundance still. They dot the urban landscape with their solid presence, although they never look tremendously appetising to use despite being the only free thing to be had in a modern town or city. Of course, the much warmer climes in southern Europe sets up the need, despite the rise of bottled water which you have to fly in from other parts of the world, pay inflated prices, and choke landfill sites with the discarded bottles.

Public water fountains were once an everyday item of street furniture and were usually made of metal or stone. You can still see non-operating remnants in Cardiff and Swansea. The problem with them is that like public telephone boxes they have been rendered obsolete by the rise of a more portable equivalent. In the case of water fountains the rise of bottled water and in the case of public telephones the inexorable rise of the mobile phone.

The case for re-introducing public drinking fountains is compelling. The British alone get through three billion bottles a year with half a billion of those shipped in from overseas contributing to C0² emissions as they do so. Water is damned heavy stuff to transport, as anyone who has carried a couple of litre bottles back from the supermarket will testify. And they can take many decades to bio-degrade completely. In addition fountains are more energy-efficient than bottled water and require 2000-times less energy to produce than the bottled equivalent.

The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was established in 1859 to promote the provision of drinking water for people and animals in the UK,. Indeed London’s first drinking water fountain was laid on at Snowhill in that same year. Until then the provision of drinking water had been by private companies which operated within geographically defined boundaries. This inevitably translated as supply only to those who could pay and even then the water was often contaminated and the quantity supplied insufficient for demand.

In 1847 Liverpool became the first city in Britain to buy out its private water company. Before we get too smug, ancient Rome had 591 public fountains fed from 9 major aqueducts. Perhaps the most famous of Rome’s drinking fountains was designed in the 18th Century by the architect Nicola Salvi (1697 – 1751). The Trevi Fountain was built at the site of a restored Roman aqueduct and provided clean drinking water while simultaneously glorifying the Pope who built it. Could we get latter-day drinking water fountains sponsored by private companies?

This brings us to design. I’ve seen them in stone, metal and mixtures of the two in places such as Bruges, Florence and Lindos and have yet to see one that is totally satisfactory. Perhaps it was always thus. The free-standing metal hydrant type is quite common in places like Rome, Pisa and Barcelona. I saw one particularly unedifying example in Gaudi’s great theme park above Barcelona, Park Guell. It stood in the middle of a pedestrian square and was liberally coated in a green algal slime doubtless promoted by the heat and the water.

I saw another at Sorrento in Italy in a main public thoroughfare which was of stone but which was still bearded in algal growth. Interestingly the taps were both spotless. It is the constant play of water on the stone or metal hydrant that does what nature does naturally in a river…promotes life in microscopic miniature.

Perhaps the most satisfying designs for water fountains were the ones where the water emerged from taps buried in a wall. I saw two examples on the Greek island of Rhodes in the old town. Although one imagines that maintenance would be a problem because splash-back from people using them was generating algal growth against the back of the fountain.

Another issue that arises is whether you have the water continuously being emitted by a small stream (I’ve seen these in Florence and in Rome) or whether the user touches a button to actuate the release of water as one sees in Barcelona. The issue then is the personal hygiene of the last person who touched the button.

In Bruges there are public drinking fountains which are activated by pressing a large cast-iron lever down against the side of the fountain structure which releases a pulse of water from a copper water spout. These examples seemed to be very hygienic – the stream of water is short-lived and any excess falls straight into a grille in the floor. Little splash-back against the fountain back occurs and hence there is little algal growth, although there remains the issue of touching the lever on the side of the fountain.

The drinking fountains in Bruges often attain architectural dimensions and therefore are significant enough to be used as informal mapping devices by pedestrians navigating their way around the city. This is a nice side effect which operates at the level of urban design.

In the parks of my childhood I remember drinking fountains being commonplace. Sugary drinks in lightweight aluminium cans were still a thing of the future. Instead, ‘pop’ was sold in flagons or bottles. These fountains were simple cast-iron affairs, no more than an unfussy column topped with a shiny metal bowl from the centre of which bubbled a steady jet of water an inch or two in height. I can recall one of these in Victoria Park, Cardiff and another more salubrious wall-mounted affair at the junction of Llandaff Road and Romilly Road in Canton. The latter was in still in use into the 1960s and you can still see the fountain back and the ornamental surround to this day, although alas the fountain is long gone.

On Oystermouth Road in Swansea you can see a restored albeit non-working fountain in granite dedicated to Henry Evans Charles that was erected by public subscription in 1907. There is another on the junction of Mumbles Road and Myrtle Terrace called the Princes Fountain. Erected in 1863 to commemorate the marriage of the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (later Edward VII) and Princess Alexandra, it was built at an architectural scale and in a ponderous classical style that enabled it to lay claim to being both a drinking fountain and a public memorial. Sadly this is non-operational too. Of the 5,000 parks in the UK (Swansea alone has 54) only some 3 per cent have a working fountain. This is a shame when you consider that 27 billion litres of bottled water were drunk in the UK alone in 2006.

The demand for drinking water is definitely out there. As if that wasn’t enough, the carbon footprint of some brands of bottled water from remote sources has been calculated as being 600 times greater than tap water. Nevertheless the British bottled water industry is still worth £2 billion per annum.

Why couldn’t these make a comeback in selected urban settings? We have perfectly drinkable public water supplies. In 2008 test results showed that in England and Wales water quality achieved 99.96% compliance with EU drinking water directives. Making good drinking water freely available would help reduce obesity (water is calorie-free) and improve dental heath by offering an alternative to canned sugary drinks. If local authorities started to install public drinking fountains (as they are entitled to do under the Public Health Act of 1925) they could say with the clearest of clear consciences that they were offering a truly green alternative.

Over and above the health and economic imperatives behind offering an alternative to carrying around bottles of water, there are major issues concerning the container the stuff comes in. The plastic bottle is frighteningly oil-intensive in its production for an object which is (most of the time) used once then discarded. In 2008 it took 17 million barrels of oil to make the 29 billion plastic bottles from which Americans drank their water.

When you think of all the climate-changing emissions involved in making the bottles, filling them and then the carbon footprint created in transporting them, it is an insane arrangement. At a global level a quarter of all bottled water cross national boundaries somewhere or other before they reach their consumers.

It is even crazier when you reflect on how the rain that fell in 2012. Yet 25 per cent of British bottled water comes from France. It makes no sense at all. Additionally if we can promote the use of hygienic, re-usable plastic water bottles together with a network of new civic water fountains perhaps the stranglehold of bottled water can be lessened, if not broken.

Let’s go back to the civic water fountain and make water freely available in public places again. We could design them to be very hygienic, attractive to look at and offer citizens a choice between bottled water and perfectly safe, inexpensive tap water. I don’t know who it was that decided if you branded water you could sell it at a premium even if you had to bring it from hundreds of miles away to a place that is currently swimming in the stuff. Never mind that we already have a perfectly safe indigenous water industry.

To drink tap water costs on average one-tenth of a penny per litre: so to drink the recommended two litres a day would cost you less than a quid a year. If you drank the same amount of even an unfashionable brand of supermarket bottled water at (say) 0.45p for two litres it would cost you £164.25p. If you’re a sucker for the pricier brands it costs still more again. Claridges even sell a bottle of New Zealand ‘volcanic water’ at an eye-watering £21 a bottle.

I say bring back the public drinking fountain.

Richard Porch is a commentator on the architecture and design scene in Wales

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