How Water Features Enrich Cities

Break the monotony of straight lines, smooth surfaces and neutral colors of an urban environment with a simple fountain or a pond, and you’ll see a big change in people’s behaviour. Ignoring other aspects of their environment that stress the importance of order, rules, organization and schedule, people instantly become playful and spontaneous. Water tempts us to stop and look at it, touch it, throw stones in it.. and be a kid for a moment.

Courtyard of Somerset House, London; photo by Marxpix

While we all know that aquatic environments are appealing to us, the study by White et al. (2010) answers the question how appealing they are compared to natural and built non-aquatic environments, and probably more important – how can water in built environments improve urban experience?

There are many reasons why people want to live by the water; Rio de Janeiro; photo by Frank Kehren

But let’s start with why do we like water in our environments. One of the most influential explanations for the appeal of water in comes from evolutionary perspective – early humans attracted to aquatic environments with supplies of fresh water may have been more likely to survive than those attracted to non-aquatic environments (according to White et al., 2010).

Millennium Park, Crown Fountain, Chicago; photo by Vincent Desjardins

This study compared natural and built scenes, as well as aquatic and non-aquatic scenes in terms of preferences (perceived attractiveness and willingness to pay for the view), affective reactions and perceived restorativeness. Plus, it investigated if effects of green space and water depend on the amount of it in a scene (if there is a dose-response relationship).

People enjoying the water room installation by the Festival Hall for the Thames Festival, London; photo by ladycharlie

Replicating earlier work both preferences and affective reactions were more positive for natural than built environments. People were also willing to pay more for a room with a view of more greenery and perceived such views as more restorative.

Jet d’Eau – Geneva, Switzerland; photo by C€_dric

Adding some water to green scenes improved environments even more – it resulted in significantly higher preferences, affect, willingness to pay for the view and perceived restorativeness. However, scenes containing only water were rated less positively than ones with 2/3rds water and 1/3rd green space, on all measures except willingness to pay for the view.  Authors concluded that the optimal environment may be the interface between land and large bodies of water, which may make evolutionary sense.

Water fountain at Riverbank State Park; NYC; photo by NYC.andre

The most interesting finding though is that although built scenes containing some water were rated more positively than those without, the extra benefits of a greater proportion of water were minimal – no differences for preferences, affect and willingness to pay for the view, but people did report built scenes with more water as more restorative than those with less water.  This means the extent of aquatic features in a built environment may be less important than their mere presence. Is it really possible that a fountain in a city can have the impact comparable to that of an ocean?

New fountain outside Sheffield train station, UK; photo by qwertyuiop

Besides, built environments with  aquatic  features were associated with more positive preferences and affect, and  higher willingness to pay for the view and restorativeness than built scenes with green features. This means that water features might be better investment in some terms than green features.

Barcelona Pavillon by Mies van der Rohe; photo by Florian Amoser

And how positive responses were there for built scenes containing water when compared to natural scenes? They were just as positive as those to purely natural green space on three of our four measures (all except restorativeness)! If this should be replicated, it would be very important finding – because while “humanizing” urban environments with the use of green space is amount-dependabe, humanizing using water is not – and you can squeeze a little fountain anywhere.

Toronto – can a fountain beat this view? I don’t think so, but it definitely helps; photo by Wherever I Roam

To me this all sounds as enough to seriously consider putting more water features in the cities. And to make more research on this topic!

White M,Smith A, Humphryes K,Pahl S, Snelling D, Depledge M.(2010) Blue space: The importance of water for preference, affect, and restorativeness ratings of natural and built scenes. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 482-493.

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