The Case for Public Drinking Fountains

Nobody should have to pay $2 for a drink of water.



Quick question: where is the closest public drinking fountain to you at this very moment? Yeah, that’s what I thought. It took me awhile to ponder, too. Within walking distance from this office at 19th and Market, the nearest bubbler I’m aware of is right in the middle of Rittenhouse Square — jutting out of the pool in the center of the park — roughly four blocks away. And it doesn’t even work.

Such is the state of public drinking fountains, not just in Philadelphia, but nationwide. Outside of parks and recreational areas like the Schuylkill Banks, fountains are few and far between these days. What were once ubiquitous fixtures of our grandparents’ cityscapes have largely disappeared.

What killed the public water fountain? A confluence of factors: the rise of bottled water, wrongheaded perceptions that big city water is dirty (pristine water-quality reports prove otherwise, not to mention the studies showing bottled is no safer than tap), and the unseemly notion that water fountains are somehow “low class” (recall the symbolic role water fountains played in Jim Crow-era segregation). And then there’s the high cost of maintenance. For cities that struggle to keep schools operating, water fountains can seem like expendable pieces of infrastructure.

But are drinking fountains primed for a comeback? Just maybe.

About a year ago, the Philadelphia Water Department began kicking around the idea of bringing back public bubblers.  “We were approached by a company that provides drinking water fountains to cities in the way street furniture contracts work,” says Christine Knapp, chief of staff for the Philadelphia Water Department. Basically, the company offered to handle everything — from installation, to maintenance, to — crucially — advertising on the fountain itself. “The city gets a check and gives the permission to place them — that’s it.”

Although the city would have to put out a Request for Proposal before moving forward with any offer (which it has not done), the encounter got PWD to thinking about a bubbler renaissance. But before it could formulate a more efficient, better designed water fountain system, the department wanted to figure out what water fountain infrastructure it had already, and how much it cost to maintain. That proved … challenging. The department couldn’t find any numbers. “We can’t really figure out how much maintenance costs and what it takes to maintain fountains,” says Knapp. “We just don’t have good data on that.”

Presumably, it’ll cost a lot. While fountains themselves are relatively cheap — standard models today cost in the neighborhood of $3,000 to $5,500 — connecting the fountains to water lines can cost a lot more.

In late-19th century Philadelphia, the first public drinking fountains were made possible by private money, not tax dollars. “Historically, when drinking fountains were very fashionable, they were primarily provided by wealthy philanthropists who typically had some sort of agenda,” says Josselyn Ivanov, an urban planner who wrote a Master’s thesis at MIT on the history and future of drinking fountains. “The most interesting being the temperance agenda.”

A cohort of wealthy, civic-minded Philadelphians stepped in, including Dr. Wilson Cary Swann, who founded the Philadelphia Fountain Society for the express purpose of quenching thirst with water, instead of whiskey. In 1870, Swann gave a speech, in which he said: “Let these fountains be erected at convenient distances along our streets, and the temptation to resort to drinking saloons will soon be abated and, in time, abolished.” The fountains stuck for a while; Prohibition, not so much.

Today, though, if philanthropists are investing in water access issues at all, it’s more likely to be third-world rainwater harvesting systems, not bubblers. Which is a shame, really, writes Ivanov, because there are public-health issues at stake with drinking fountains that cities fail to notice:

If a city’s goals really do include reducing pollution, caring for homeless populations, improving public health, and promoting excellent urban design, drinking fountains should be treated as essential. Roadway repair, for example, is regarded as a public service that city bureaucrats could not eliminate or refuse to undertake. The provision of free public water should be regarded in the same way.

For one, there are 3,000-plus homeless Philadelphians who often lack basic access to sanitized water. Fountains are probably the simplest, best way to provide it.

On the other hand, these fixtures are hardly beacons of public hygiene. Often times, fountains are located outdoors in clusters of trash cans and bathrooms. “That lends itself to people using it as a garbage can or using it as a toilet,” says Knapp. Googling “water fountains + bacteria colonies + science” won’t ease those suspicions. In 2005, a team of microbiologists from the National Sanitation set out to find the “germiest” places in a Michigan elementary school. The water fountain spigot had 1,000 times more bacteria than the toilet seat.

In defense of fountains, Ivanov notes that bacteria is not inherently bad for humans (we have 10 times more bacteria cells than human cells inside of us, after all), and more importantly, the presence of germs on the metal spigot doesn’t automatically correlate with filthy water. High-functioning, well-maintained fountains will neutralize the concerns. “In other words, when water has low pressure and flow, it was more likely to actually contain high bacterial counts,” writes Ivanov.

You might also be relieved to know that the newfangled fountains PWD is looking into have a bottle-filling station, which would circumvent the threat of a murky bacterial cesspool for Nalgene toters. The models are likely to have three levels of hydration: a classic bubbler, a dispenser for bottles and a doggie bowl at the bottom. They’ll be ADA-friendly, too, and look something like this or this:



Still, the question of costs persists. That’s why PWD is discussing the possibility of rolling out new drinking fountains in a limited, pilot program, says Knapp. The idea would be to install six to 10 new fountains, then measure things like man-hours of repair, total usage, location efficiency. One potential downside of committing to an agreement with a for-profit vendor (the profit comes from the advertising on the fountain, not charging for the water) is the probability that fewer fountains would end up in needier neighborhoods.

Advertising-funded civic infrastructure (like many bikeshare systems) has had a tendency to be concentrated in well-to-do neighborhoods, Knapp points out, because marketers generally prefer well-to-do markets. But Philly’s new Indego system bucked that trend (over a third of the Indego stations are in low-income neighborhoods). If anything, the need for readily-accessible public water is more acute in low-income neighborhoods, so here’s hoping PWD does at least as well as Indego has, if it partners with a for-profit fountain provider.

Says Ivanov: “I think that in the case of Philadelphia, it has a real strong history of civic action, and I think that Philadelphia re-embracing this idea of public water, accessible water for health benefits and environmental benefits is really promising and aligns well with the city’s historic ethic.”