The Most Under-Used Tool in Placemaking


From ancient Greece through to the Industrial Revolution, it’s a piece of public infrastructure that symbolises civility, public life and generosity. Inexpensive, uncomplicated, they can accomplish a great deal and need barely any upkeep – but in today’s developments, excuse us, where are they? 

We are, of course, talking about the humble public drinking fountain:

Perhaps they are just seen as a nice-to-have, but not as necessities, yet represent perhaps one of the greatest missed opportunities in placemaking. How so, you ask? 

There are three clear reasons why a water fountain can pack such a powerful punch: 

1. Natural gathering places 

Spend any time observing a drinking fountain, particularly on a hot day, and you’ll see a little urban magic. People, and often quite a few dogs, gathering around them, waiting their turn and every now and then striking up a conversation while they do. 

It’s an ever-rarer moment where people pause, relax, and divert from their screens. Little moments for which we’re all grateful, and a simple step in helping a space feel friendly, communal and alive.  

2. They are public sculpture

In the courtyard of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum stands a polished bronze tetradecagon column. In the daylight, it shimmers. And around it, on a busy, hot day, there’s a gaggle of people. 

It’s not some artefact, a part of the Museum’s collection, but a modest bronze drinking fountain, designed by Michael Anastassiades. Activated by the wave of a hand, a graceful arc of cool drinking water springs from a crevice that slices the fountain in two.  

It was installed in September 2018 for the London Design Festival, the project of the newly-formed London Fountain Co., and a second will appear outside of South Kensington underground station.

More than simply an amenity, it’s a piece of public art, the work of one of the city’s leading designers. And, to a knowing few, it is thus also a destination – something to go and see, to admire. 

A month later, and it was the turn of Selfridges & Co., unveiling a drinking fountain outside its Duke Street entrance by London and Paris based landscape architects Djao-Rakitine. Theirs was carved out of Italian marble, with a tall curving spout, accompanied by an adjacent bench for shoppers to take a little rest. Another piece of amenity-cum-art and another chance for Selfridges to champion good design. 
But examples aren’t just those that have been newly installed. Look to the famous ‘nasoni’ in Rome. First introduced in the city in the early 1870s, and so-called (‘nasone’ means ‘large nose’) for their hallmark elongated spouts, there are now some 2,500-plus of these fountains in the city. 

Costing just three to five euros a day to operate, the ‘nasoni’ are generally free-standing columns found in public squares and along main streets and are now just as symbolic of the city as almost anything else. Show an image of one to any past visitor to Rome, and they’ll immediately place it. 

3. No more plastic bottles 

Drinking fountain aren’t just nice to look at of course, they do also provide people with a generous service: a place to quench their thirst. But it’s also a place that helps us all avoid one of today’s most (rightfully) demonised products: the plastic bottle.

Bottle-less, or as a place to refill, a drinking fountain is a simple and effective way to earn some eco credentials. 

In designing public spaces – whether a grand plaza or simply the space between buildings – we’ve certainly upped our game. We seem to have come around to the idea of providing greenery and shade, of a decent amount of seating (though it’s almost always, inflexibly, screwed into the ground) – but the return of that great, millennia-old tradition of providing drinking water is only just beginning to creep back into the lexicon of “good urban design”. And, in our opinion, it’s long overdue. 

Jenni Carbins