Why It Just Makes Sense to Consider Fountains as Community Projects

Published: June 16, 2024

Few community projects are as likely to be uncontroversial as fountains.  On this page both classically influenced fountains, and newer forms such as splash pads and bubblers, are explored.

Fountains in some form are found in almost every culture.  I recommend them as a community improvement project that can fill in an awkward spot, enliven a dull space or pIaza, or detract from a harsh environment of too much concrete, an oversupply of glass buildings, or just a collection of incongruous buildings. 

In a much earlier version of this site, we received some fountain photos from a reader and now have received permission to use them. I’ve been most of these places too.

It seems that the ones that are the most memorable are those that flow from either a skillful sculpture or a highly original idea.  We are beginning to think that the background is more important than the water, which always will be beautiful.

Let’s start with some photos to illustrate this point. First, we see the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome, where the outsized sculpture and the very large pool are much more prominent than the actual falling water. 

famous Trevi Fountain in Rome

Next is a colorful piece in Luzern, Switzerland, where the sculpture is the main event and the water spouting out a few places seems like just a whimsical after thought. 

ornate fountain in Luzern

The third photo is of the Millennium Park Crown Fountain in Chicago, where the video wall of faces definitely makes us remember it, maybe even more than the whimsical effect of water spouting out of the mouth.

fountain with water spewing out of mouth of head

Last I chose a photo of a fountain along a walkway near downtown Indianapolis. It is really pretty, as is the iron railing around it, but neither the water nor the railing is completely memorable. This fountain seems more like a familiar and very pleasant feature of an area where the old church behind the fountain also is a star.

Indianpolis fountain along a walkway

I think the sculptural elements are what really makes a fountain stand out in our minds, unless the quantity of the water is just spectacular. As an example of the latter, I am thinking of the fountains at Bellagio in Las Vegas, which periodically shoot huge quantities of water skyward. But most fountains do not have or need that volume.

I would advise you also to think very carefully about the scale and dimensions of the fountain. For example, does it need to be quite tall, maybe because buildings or trees around it are tall and you want your fountain not to be dwarfed?

Or maybe you really need to fill quite a bit of horizontal space because your plaza or other empty space is quite wide and you want the fountain to be the dominant or only site amenity there.

If you find that the appropriate scale is compromising affordability of the fountain, there are just a few tricks you can use.  If you need more height, perhaps a talented landscape architect can design a fairly tall berm that would be suitable below the base of the fountain. In other words, elevate the entire fountain.

If you need more width, try expanding the fountain area visually by adding some colorful planting beds. If color will distract too much, then the alternative would be a monochromatic gardening bed, or perhaps only an interesting variety of evergreen shrubs or maybe a low shrub with white flowers much of the year.  If there is no budget for maintaining plantings, you might be able to design an interesting rock garden that consists solely of rock and a very few drought-resistant ornamental plants.

Another way to widen out the fountain feature visually is to design a wide pool at the base of the fountain. Take a cue from the Trevi Fountain.

So yes, a strong sculpture is the key to a memorable fountain that provides an identity to your plaza or even your town, as opposed to one that is merely pretty. We love wonderful fountains, which have the additional effect of making it seem cooler on a hot day, but as the Indianapolis example does illustrate nicely, pretty doesn't mean I'll remember it tomorrow.

Also we should mention here that there are some practical issues with fountain size as well. Consider how the fountain will be cleaned, drained, and ultimately re-plumbed before making a final decision about its size.

Splash Fountains Serve a Dual Community Purpose

You might be thinking of a less classical form of fountain, which is gaining some real popularity in our parks. We mean the splash fountain, where essentially the fountain water emerges from a surface flush with its surroundings.  Done well, these really capture the imagination of children, and before long, some adults can be seen running through these barefoot.

While classical fountains may well attract waders and people of all ages who want to play around the edges, the splash fountains have little other purpose.

One issue with splash fountains is that trash finds its way to them very easily, and when that happens, it becomes less attractive for running through or allowing unsupervised children to enjoy them. But when well-maintained, it is hard to beat the excitement generated when people inevitably come out to play.

Since the human activity is more exciting than the actual fountain, you should install these only where there is enough foot traffic to keep that interactive element alive.

Below is an example from St. Louis, where you will notice that the splash is so low as to be almost imperceptible in the photo. That is not so much due to bad photography, as to the intermittent splash being no higher than 6 inches.  But you can see the fun the children are having.

very shallow splash fountain with children

The Bubbler Fountain May Fit Some Smaller Locations

Also on the unconventional side, we offer the “bubblers” that seem to be springing up all over. Unfortunately, we also a good percentage of those I see are not functioning. This points up the valuable lesson that if you want to install one of these, where a smallish fountain just emerges gently from amongst some rocks, you should invest a little more effort than simply going to the nearest big box retail store and asking for a cheap solution.  If you do, you will indeed get a cheap solution not worth the money.

Do some learning about what it takes to maintain these in good working order, and then purchase good quality plumbing to support the fountain. After all, the rock base may be quite inexpensive where you live. Of course if you have in mind expensive landscape boulders, that may be a different economic equation, but most of them I have seen in small parks are built over rocks no more than around 8 inches in diameter at the most.

These have some of the same advantages of other fountains, in that they generate a pleasant running water sound. They also can provide a pleasant accent to an otherwise bare spot. They may elicit some feelings of being at peace or at one with nature. However, they offer little of the cooling effects of the conventional fountain and the splash fountain.

Surely one of these types of fountains would be worth discussing as a community improvement project.

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