By the third day of the heat dome, the city is a skillet of scorching pavement. Seeking relief, you follow the shrieks of children echoing across the shimmering sidewalks. As you round the corner, you see it—the rippling surface of a fountain, spouting ribbons of water into the air. Kids of all ages race between the jets, grandparents slowly wading behind them. At the fountain’s edge, a man in a shirt and tie kicks off his shoes and rolls up his khakis to wriggle his toes in. For a moment, living in a 102-degree city feels somewhat bearable.
This scenario is set to become more common in a world where extreme heat is the norm, not the exception. July 2019 was the hottest month in recorded history. By the end of the century, the U.S. cities that currently see only a handful of 100-degree days a year will spend up to a third of the year simmering in that kind of slow boil.
Faced with a future of blistering temperatures, cities are looking for new ways to keep residents cool. Cowering in perpetual A/C is not a sustainable option, yet playing outdoors becomes downright dangerous.
Enter the splash pad—or its cousins, the immersive fountain, water playground, and "wet plaza." These urban oases offer residents a refuge from the summer singe, provide accessible recreational opportunities, and create a heat-friendly public space. The splash pad is the future.
While a popped hydrant or playground sprayer might offer low-impact relief, cities have traditionally bankrolled larger warm-weather investments in the form of pools and public baths. While some parks and rec departments are still funding that type of aquatic recreation—Los Angeles has an ambitious plan to renovate and replace its public pools—it’s a struggle to find resources to build new facilities, including paying hefty maintenance and insurance costs. New York City has not built a brand-new public pool since the 1940s, and its existing pools are becoming unbearably overcrowded.
Plus, public pools aren’t great public spaces. Gated off from the surrounding landscape by impenetrable fences, a pool is something you can only truly enjoy once you’re inside, sometimes after enduring TSA-style security theater. And even then, most pools are only filled for a handful of months. A pool creates a troublesome void on the urban landscape for most of the year. A swimmable fountain not only makes a space more popular the hotter the forecast, it can easily be repurposed for other activities in cooler times—if there are ever cooler times.
City dwellers have informally waded in fountains for centuries (sometimes much to the chagrin of others), but one of the first contemporary, purpose-built immersive fountains was completed in 1986 as part of the aptly named Fountain Place in Dallas.
Jim Garland, formerly of WET Design, now founder of Fluidity, remembers seeing how the choreographed water jets lured people into the space, activating an otherwise barren corporate plaza. "What we saw was so attractive," he says. "It’s hard to imagine parks today that don’t include this."
Immersive fountains have come a long way since dancing fountains, and Garland has collaborated with dozens of landscape architects from Ken Smith to James Corner on innovative wet plazas with custom-designed features like interactive sensors, mist clouds, and colored lights. Fluidity has also been behind the development of processes for treating water and new slip-resistant surfaces that have made splash pads a smart, sustainable investment, says Garland. "We make it safe and healthy and a good place to play."
A splash pad is not only safe, it’s one of the rare recreational opportunities that’s accessible to all ages and abilities. The splash pad in Los Angeles’s Grand Park (also designed by Fluidity) has been described as an "urban beach," and on any given afternoon, it’s swamped with dozens of squealing toddlers.
Although it’s great for rambunctious kids, Grand Park’s director Lucas Rivera says the splash pad’s greatest asset is that anyone can use the space. "Our splash pad is truly an accessible water feature which allows people of all backgrounds to cool down," he says. Since the pad is ADA-accessible, he sees a lot of elderly Angelenos who are able to interact with their families, allowing for true intergenerational play. "You don’t have to get off your wheelchair to enjoy it, or even wear a bathing suit," he says.
The come-as-you-are mentality also makes a splash pad attractive to urban designers. The flexibility of an interactive fountain made it an integral part of SOM and Hargreaves Associates’ plans for Denver’s revitalized Union Station from the beginning. Since opening in 2014, the spot has become a popular destination for the city.
Even when it’s not used for play, the fountain acts as a giant white noise machine and kinetic sculpture for the nearby restaurants. And when it’s turned off, it’s an event space, thanks to jets that are embedded deep in the granite pavement. None of this was an afterthought, says SOM associate director Kristopher Takács. "Part of our design process included test-fitting such functions to prove that the public space could be much more than an interactive fountain alone."
It’s not just parks that are seeing the inherent economic and environmental value of a splash pad. The Phoenix-based residential splash pad company Rain Deck has been very busy over the last few years, with its work featured on Yard Crashers and The Vanilla Ice Project. Due to the high demand, Rain Deck now sells its materials a la carte so homeowners can design and install their own DIY splash pads, which founder Ryan Vaughn argues is simply a better use of yard space than a pool. "It’s more interactive," he says. "This is a decorative fountain you can get into."
Vaughn says the real reason people veer towards a backyard splash pad is due to the low cost of installation—about $10,000 compared to $80,000 for a pool—which illustrates what a financial game-changer this is for cities. But the amount of water used is also much lower as well. A splash pad’s water is stored in a tank underground and is propelled by hyper-efficient jets. In a pool, water just slowly evaporates over time.
The ability to conserve and reuse water might be the biggest benefit of splash pads, especially since they’re likely to be used most in drought-sensitive areas. A well-designed splash pad can either have its water treated and recirculated using a filtration system or diverted for other uses. It can also demonstrate these concepts to its users as part of a larger sustainability agenda.
After the success of the wildly popular Water Lab playground at Brooklyn Bridge Park, designers at Michael Van Valkenburg Associates realized the tremendous opportunity of using water as a teaching tool. The idea of reclaiming water actually drove the design of a second water play area currently planned for Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 2 uplands, says Paul Seck, principal at MVVA. "Recirculation wasn’t an option due to cost and city requirements," he says, so the designers reverse-engineered the landscaping so it could be supported by how much water the fountain will use. "After it runs off, the water will be used for irrigation so it’s not just going down the drain," he says. "We’re targeting an exact amount of water—how much can we use and be responsible for?"
Sculpted from natural stone and adapted for four-season use, this plaza for Brooklyn Bridge Park is almost something else entirely; much less like a fountain and more like an interactive rain garden, allowing the refreshing spray to nurture nearby trees and naturally permeate back into the ground.
Imagine that—a way to temporarily cool down cities while helping to grow permanent shade.