A Fount of Possibilities

 Florida Aquarium Splash Pad

Florida Aquarium Splash Pad

In the Beginning: Urban Fountains

Society has an interesting history with the concept of public fountains. Depending on current technology and culture, fountains have been designed as drinking water dispensers for urban populations, markers of courtly love locked in cloisters, elaborate Persian floating gardens, and elaborate works of lasting art and architectural prowess.

With the rise of accessible indoor plumbing, the need for potable public fountains diminished. Fountains with less historical importance were destroyed or replaced, while fountains that stood as pieces of art, landmarks, and important symbols of a community’s history remained. Unofficially and un-ideally: fountains also remained as places where children played.

With the summer season and the scorching heat, many socially acceptable options (other than the obvious bodies of water) included sprinkler systems, wading pools, water tables, and the aforementioned public fountains. (And to a horde of overheated children, fountains often were the best place to have a summer splash party in city centers.)  However, in 2010, ABC ran a story asking “Are Public Fountains Too Dirty to Play In?”(x) with the answer being an almost inevitable “yes." Public fountains were not designed to be splashed and played in because of the lack of water treatment and filtration systems. Hence, the rise of the modern splash pad and spray deck.

Enter the Modern Spray Park

The splash pad or spray deck is a zero-depth, water playground designed to be active and interactive. Essentially, it is the modern public fountain designed to be enjoyed by the public with water filtration and treatment standards in place.

Splash parks were not designed to replace swimming pools, which serve both a wider audience, and are necessary for teaching children and adults a life-saving skill. But as more cities adopted spray parks, it became clear that keeping an urban population cool by having a zero depth, water play area designed for interactive play, was hugely popular.

From a practical standpoint, splash parks were and are a perfect solution for young kids who cannot swim, are not big enough to go on waterslides, and who quickly become bored with the limited offering of wading pools. Splash pads also became favored by parents who wanted an afternoon water stop that didn’t require floaties.

We’ve written at length about splash pads on this blog from a practical standpoint, but given the passing of the torch from public fountains to interactive fountains, what we want to address in this post is another perspective: interactive fountains as art.

Spray parks are interactive. You don't just look at them, you play in them. "Unlike traditional urban fountains, spray parks are interactive. You don't just look at them, you play in them. But unlike swimming pools, spray parks lack large expanses of standing water, and fit neatly into urban places. They're a flexible middle ground bridging the gap between public art and public recreation." writes Dan Malouff, the editorial director of Greater Greater Washington. In his work, he writes specifically about the DC. Area, and points out several spray parks and sprinkler plaza that invite both play, and public appreciation.

In many cases, where art and recreation meet, it’s not with great ease. A public park may have a sculpture garden, but children are not invited to play on it. There may be a mural, a plaza or other installation, but while these art pieces exist in public space and for public appreciation, they’re not usually designed to be played with in the same way a carefully engineered playground is.

So, much like public fountains before them, landscape architects and designers have a unique opportunity to blend function with form and create playful spaces that highlight the strengths of an area in terms of artistry, while still giving kids the freedom to play, cool off, explore and experiment with water physics with the help of unique features developed by splash pad manufacturers.

The unique strength of spray grounds, as Malouff points out, is that they can be grounded nearly anywhere. Kids can walk from a spray ground directly to other amenities nearby, like the park playground or the city center.

And spray parks can be designed to fit thematically with any area of the city. Features can be designed to mimic local monuments or plantlife. Water can be directed to create urban waterfalls and playful streams in areas gridlocked by urban development. (Which ties into our post last week about the 10 Minute Walk To a Park campaign.)

Criticisms and Pushback

With the widespread and rapid adoption of splash grounds, it’s unsurprising the feature as a whole has had constructive criticism. There are concerns over water loss in flow-through systems, water sanitation (mostly around the potential to spread bacteria), and the other amenities splash pads replace (municipal pools are vital places for children to learn how to swim.) Because of these conversations, splash pad manufacturers have created and adapted systems to be more efficient and more effective.

From a design perspective not every architect views the sudden and explosive rise in splash pads as an ultimate good. In his article “Splash Pad Urbanism” and 2017’s other notable developments in landscape architecture”  Charles A. Birnbaum President & CEO, The Cultural Landscape Foundation had this to say about the boom:

“[T]he crowd-pleasing splash pads that have seemingly become the must-have, one-size-fits-all park amenity in many cities (a successor, of sorts, to the wooden parcourse exercise stations that were plopped down in hundreds of U.S. parks in the 1970s and 1980s). The increased reliance on them raises the question: are we becoming lazy?—or just willing to accept a little mediocrity in exchange for a planning board’s easy approval (and public buy-in)?”

Here Birnbaum is resisting what he views as the homogeneity of our current splash grounds market. But we’d like to argue that it is the landscape architects’ job to marry architecture with the surrounding landscape. Just as with public fountains, the fountains that stood the test of time and were worth renovating were the fountains that complimented and enhanced their surroundings, especially and often as artwork.

He goes on to say: “Of course, not all splash pads are created equal, and, when intelligently sited and designed, as at Chicago’s Navy Pier by James Corner Field Operations, they can succeed.”

Overcoming Objections

We disagree with the perspective that splash pads lack the capacity to provide a unique design. Spray park manufacturers are continually innovating and delivering new design features each season, especially with individual flair.

With the demand for splash pads rising, there are definitely opportunities to incorporate features that complement and resonate with natural surroundings. Cities can even choose to utilize sites that are important to the community by adding spray fountains and splash features to plazas, around monuments, or as part of a new park design. These options are, however, somewhat limiting as it restricts both where a splash pad can go (which defeats the purpose), and requires a more extensive budget.

We propose a somewhat more universally accessible option to create community-driven spaces with spray parks. An option that complements the existing site, resonates with the community and supports the idea of creating an experience.

Let’s look at public fountains again. Necessity can be combined with artistry to create lasting impact.  A spray deck, by necessity, must have a surface for kids to run, play and splash on. For many communities, this is a canvas that is often left blank. Taken as a whole, one concrete circle, (or kidney bean) looks very similar to another, and here is where we find another opportunity for differentiation for designers.  

Architects can incorporate surfacing into unique spray park designs. With the right design, the splash pad could stand out and become the centerpiece of a park by itself. In fact, we’ve worked with architects who utilized a surface design chosen by members of the community. Surfacing can also mirror local murals, incorporate local animal footprints, and have playful pathways that guide children to each splash feature. A multiple-colored mosaic pattern can mimic the paver stones of the city plaza. Chosen together, splash features and surfacing can create a fully themed and unique spray park.

We love the accessibility and universality of spray parks and how they have solved a long-held problem for urban communities. We love the unique perspective many communities have for incorporating interactive fountains with existing areas and parks. But mostly we believe that artistry and functionality are far from mutually exclusive: in order for something to continue to function as needed, it should have elements that endear it to the people who use it, outside of its basic function.

We believe and know there is an opportunity to grow, develop and create something lasting with each splash park project, and we’re excited to see how the aquatics industry steps up to this challenge.