A gushing hydrant drenching happy kids is an iconic image of urban summertime. My first 4th of July living in New York was boiling hot and I was thrilled to see the open hydrants in person. It wasn’t until several years later that this article from the Times caused me to rethink the excitement of the open hydrant.
The article provided a shocking statistic: at full power an open hydrant pumps out 1,000 gallons of water a minute. Uncapping, or opening, the local hydrant for relief from the heat had never struck me as anything more than a fun, and totally accepted, urban practice that had been going on for decades.
But that 1,000 gpm figure stuck in my head. And my curiosity eventually led me to develop nyc: uncapped, a study of the common summertime practice, and, in response to those discoveries, an exploration of alternatives.
Quick web-surfing yielded plenty of articles going back for a number of summers, chronicling the water lost from open hydrants all over New York and other cities like Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago. The cumulative effect of so many running hydrants raised concern – especially since New York has had at least seven droughts in recent history.
It is estimated that the average person will consume about 7,000 gallons of water in their lifetime. At 1,000 gallons per minute, an open hydrant will have spent the entire lifetime supply of drinking water for two people in just 15 minutes. The water loss is staggering, particularly when you consider that hydrants typically remain open for much longer.
This tension between the ability of an open hydrant to activate public space and the potentially serious impact it has on ecological health provides the foundation for nyc: uncapped. Exploring the uncapping ritual and its context, this project re-imagines the hydrant as more than a basic tool for firefighting – it can also be a valid opportunity for play and even a catalyst for ecologic improvement.
Unless they are uncapped, or you’re in a car looking for a momentary parking space, hydrants disappear into the white noise of miscellaneous street appurtenances. The first step in my research was to understand how the hydrant worked and fit into the New York City water supply system.
The city’s water originates in upstate watersheds encompassing more than 2,000 square miles of land. 21 reservoirs and lakes collect, hold, and distribute water into a system of aqueducts and tunnels that travel over 125 miles to deliver more than 1.3 billion gallons of water to the city every day (an amount that would fill the Empire State Building to the brim more than four times). After being filtered and treated, the water delivered to our kitchen sinks is identical to the water flowing to a hydrant – it is all potable water.
At least 60 different boards, agencies, and committees across city and state borders form a complex web of organizations that manages the vast operations of the NYC water system. Chief among these is the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is responsible for maintaining the hydrants.
Citizens are allowed to use their local hydrant only if it is equipped with a spray cap, provided and installed by the fire department at no charge. Holes in the cap on the barrel’s side reduce the flow of water from 1,000 to 25 gallons per minute. Opening the hydrant without a spray cap is illegal and citizens can be ticketed or fined for what the city terms ‘hydrant abuse’.
When a hydrant is fully open, water pressure in the surrounding hydrants drops, rendering them ineffective in their primary role as sources of water for firefighting. Water pressure in nearby buildings is also affected, causing problems for hospitals, local businesses, and residents.
On top of public safety issues, the water is not free. We currently pay indirectly for water expended from a hydrant through water rate hikes. If hydrants were metered to charge an on the spot pay-to-play fee, the water would cost $2 per minute plus an additional $4.30 per minute to take the water into the city’s treatment system for cleaning. At $6.30 per minute, three hours romping in the local hydrant would run just over $1,000 – which does not take into account extra costs associated with man-hours required to close, repair, or replace broken hydrants.
While open hydrants can be found across much of the city, Washington Heights, the South Bronx, and South Jamaica neighborhoods experience the most frequent activity, according to the DEP. In preliminary research a single hydrant on 156th Street was notable for having been opened and closed 14 times in a single day, prompting my decision to focus nyc: uncapped on the Washington Heights and Inwood neighborhoods. For ease of information gathering, the study also includes everything north of 155th Street in Manhattan (the geographic boundary for Community District #12). While only 1% of the city’s hydrant inventory is located in this district, 20% of the calls to 311 complaining of an open hydrant come from this area.
Beyond the obvious temperature driver, it became apparent that the physical environment of CD12 contributes to the frequent open hydrants. Looking at a map one would think that this area, the skinniest part of the island, surrounded by the Hudson and East Rivers and large swaths of park, would have plenty of shady opportunities for recreation. However, major highways run through the parks and steep elevation changes (up to 150’) make it a challenge to access much of the parkland and waterfront. Despite the acres of parks, CD12 has one of the lowest percentages of tree canopy cover in the city. The lone municipal pool in the district, which can handle about 2,400 visitors a day, has to serve the district’s 50,000+ kids under the age of 18. People often stand in line for an hour or more waiting to be admitted.
Numerous visits to CD12 confirmed that hydrants were getting a lot of unauthorized use during the summer. I also found plenty of residents hanging out on the sidewalks in front of their homes in cooler months, suggesting that hydrant uncapping is partially fed by a broader socially-active sidewalk life, and is not singularly motivated by physical factors.
Alternatives to uncapping
The open hydrant tradition has to evolve. Given the projected increases in both summertime temperatures and the city’s population, a corollary increase in the number of uncapped hydrants can also be expected. While the creative appropriation of the hydrant and surrounding sidewalk for recreation is the beginning of a good multi-use strategy, my goal was to preserve the positive aspects of uncapping without sacrificing water resources.
Part of the city’s plaNYC initiative is to plant one million trees by 2030. Why not target streets with frequent uncapping activity and limited tree cover, close those streets to traffic for the summer, and transform them into seasonal tree nurseries? In so doing, these temporary parks would provide immediate relief to the residents of CD12 while supporting a city-wide green agenda.
Each summer, growers would deliver a planting season’s lot of new trees to the Uncapped Streets, their leafy cover providing relief from the sun while mitigating the intensity of heat bouncing off paved surfaces. Temporary irrigation nurturing the boxed trees would also provide a cooling spray for locals playing tag among the boxes or pausing for a moment in the shade.
By piggy-backing on an existing program and utilizing basic materials, the Uncapped Street program could be mobilized quickly with minimal investment. Assuming a successful reduction in “hydrant abuse” the temporary nursery/park program could be enjoyed for a number of years, rotating through streets in need. Supporting one of the city’s premiere green initiatives could become a badge of honor for these selected streets. And with a million trees to plant, CD12 would be able to develop a permanent tree canopy by planting their share of the new trees before the Uncapped Streets program is retired.
The future uncapped
While the Uncapped Streets nursery/park program meets immediate needs, I also wanted to investigate longer-term solutions to address the causes of uncapping: heat and park access. One possibility builds upon the simple technology of a tree box filter, envisioned here as a hydrant garden. Extending the entire 30’ of a hydrant’s no-parking zone, a planted section of the sidewalk becomes a bio-retention component of the city’s drainage system. Storm water is slowed and filtered by the plants and their soil before entering the city treatment system.
Framed by a pair of the million new trees, the hydrant is recast as the anchor of a mini-park and micro-climate generator. Reconfigured to use river water instead of potable water, the hydrant with its spray cap continues to provide cooling water, filtered from the river, on demand. The spent water collects in the garden, nourishing the plants as it percolates through the soil. Evaporation of the water and evapotranspiration of the plants “breathing” cools the local air. By making the hydrant the centerpiece of the mini-park, the hydrant becomes more visible as a signifier of the city’s hybrid approach to civil engineering, natural resource management, and recreation. Repeated from block to block, the hydrant garden, a decentralized segment of park, reiterates the presence of a larger ecologic and engineering system at work.
nyc:uncapped was motivated by more than a concern for wasted water. I used this study to demonstrate how a more holistic approach to urban problem solving can allow a single intervention to address several municipal challenges more effectively than looking at each issue as a discrete problem with a singular solution (i.e. Problem: Unlawfully opened hydrants threaten public safety and ecological health; Solution: eliminate all hydrants and have firefighters access water mains through sidewalk vaults). Here, a hydrant garden provides an array of benefits to both city and neighborhood. The bio-retention capabilities of the hydrant garden/mini-park help protect water resources by slowing the storm-water as it enters the city’s treatment system, thus reducing peak flow of storm water and incidences of CSO discharges. The contaminant load entering the system and requiring treatment is also reduced. Yet the engaging ad-hoc event of uncapping can continue without threatening water resources. The mini-park promotes neighborhood gathering and recreation while contributing to a reduction in urban heat island effects across the city.
I would like to gratefully acknowledge the sponsorship of the Architectural League and the financial support of the New York State Council on the Arts in completing this project. nyc:uncapped was funded by an independent project grant through NYSCA’s Architecture, Planning, and Design Program.
Adrienne Cortez is a licensed landscape architect with degrees from the University of Virginia and Trinity University, Texas. Recent work has ranged from an intimate city garden to a large post-industrial site. She recently relocated from Manhattan to Dallas to handle project work in Mexico. She can be reached at cortez (at) nyc-uncapped (dot) com.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.