Some of the best water in the world courses underneath New Yorkers’ feet, but as anyone who’s ever trudged the streets under a blazing sun can attest, our public water remains fundamentally out of reach in public space. With fountains few and far between, we cave and buy bottled water, then send mountains of plastic to landfills and into the ocean. Hydrants are ubiquitous, and carry the same water that feeds residential taps, but cannot be fully opened without risking the water pressure of the network, which saves lives during a fire. Inaccessible omnipresence is the problem tackled by the Department of Environmental Protection’s Water on the Go stations, which have recently drawn hydrant water more slowly to mobile troughs and fountainheads in public plazas throughout the city. Inspired by the DEP’s initiative, Tei Carpenter and Christopher Woebken are imagining a whole New Public Hydrant, a series of simple hacks to enable new conversations about public water, and new lives for our most overlooked infrastructure.
New Yorkers love their tap water. On a daily basis, one billion gallons of water are channeled from upstate New York lakes and reservoirs through a 7,000-mile-long network of water mains, tunnels and aqueducts to reach almost eight million New York City residents. The unique geology of the Catskill Mountains is the terroir of what has been called the “champagne” of household taps, and touted as the not-so-secret ingredient in the city’s bagels and pizzas. New York City is one of only five major cities in the country with a surface water quality high enough that the water supply largely does not require filtration. The tap water in New York City is so good, in fact, that companies like Tap’dNY have begun to bottle and sell it, while companies like Reefill are selling subscription services to access the same tap water in smartphone activated bottle filling stations inside of Manhattan establishments.
While new commercial efforts take advantage of the high quality of the city’s water supply, the replacement of tap water by plastic bottled water is a global problem. Americans use 1500 plastic bottles per second, while the number one packaged drink in the United States is bottled water, outpacing both juices and sodas. Even in New York City, Poland Spring bottled water, hailing from Maine source points more than 500 miles away, is reportedly the beverage of choice. The supply of plastic bottled water in the United States consumes between 32 and 54 million barrels of oil annually, the equivalent of powering almost 3 million homes per year. Only twelve percent of plastic bottles in the USA are recycled, while the rest linger in landfills for up to 400 years (the time it takes PET plastics to biodegrade) or leak into waterways and oceans, leaching toxins and impacting existing ecosystems in ways we do not yet fully understand. By 2050 it is estimated that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
In New York City, the problem is not that high quality, unbottled drinking water is not readily available — the problem is accessing it. Pipes deliver drinking water not only into apartments and office buildings, but throughout the city. Water bubbles out of public access points in parks and fountains, where it can be a lifesaver in sweltering summers for homeless people and those who work outdoors, like street vendors and messengers. But public fountain access is currently too limited to offset bottled water consumption. The emergency fire hydrant, however, could be a site for low-impact design interventions to expand public access to our ubiquitous potable water and reduce the use of plastic bottles at a major scale.
In 1808, the first hydrant in New York City was installed at the corner of William and Liberty Street in Lower Manhattan, but what we think of as the typical hydrant, the cast-iron “O’Brien” model, first took the streets in 1902. Today, the network of 118,000 fire hydrants throughout the five boroughs represents an already abundant infrastructure of distribution and the potential for citywide public access to drinking water.
118,000 New York City hydrants are distributed to be accessible within 250 feet of all building entrances per the fire code. Map via NYC Open Data
Yet except at times of emergency, or when summer heat becomes overwhelming, fire hydrants remain in the background. Access to the hydrant is regulated to assure it is functional in the case of emergency and to avoid water waste and safety problems. A hydrant can release 1000 gallons per minute when fully opened, so recreational use may cause the network to lose pressure, potentially reducing the system’s capacity to quench fires. This enormous release of water also poses a risk for flooding that can impact pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars. The law requires that citizens request to have a hydrant locked, unlocked, relocated, or fitted with a spray cap to turn it into a sprinkler in the summertime. But even when hydrants are properly opened, they are mostly perceived as a cooling water feature. Most people would rarely think of drinking the water that comes directly from a hydrant.
Our New Public Hydrant project began with a set of questions: Could fire hydrants serve as a user-centric vehicle to provide public access to the city’s drinking water supply? How might publics reimagine these small-scale urban elements to serve in day-to-day situations, rather than solely in the case of emergency? Could the fire hydrant do double duty, oscillating between everyday and emergency use?
Throughout the world, people have officially and unofficially intervened with hydrants to expand public water access. We’ve collected a few favorites:
In Williamsburg, four shower-heads connected to a hydrant, rigged up by a local resident several years ago.
In Saint Louis, a DIY bubbler fountain hydrant attachment installed at Art Hill in Forest Park.
In Budapest, a group of designers and cooperative partners worked with the Municipality of Budapest to install elegant tap attachments to fire hydrants, allowing for water fountain flow with a simple pressing of the tap bottom, in the Rehydrant Project.
In Switzerland, Dimitri Nassisi’s Drinking Hydrant prototype proposed a new dual-use hydrant design featuring a fountain and fire hose attachment.
Finally, in Canada, the Fire Hydrant Water Fountain Project, designed by Sans façon and developed through the Watershed+ program by The City of Calgary’s Utilities and Environmental Protection Department, provides drinking water for festivals and temporary events in Calgary.
But New Public Hydrant was particularly inspired by the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Water on the Go program. At approximately 25 mobile stations, a fire hydrant is hooked up to a shallow, drainable trough connected to six faucets for drinking directly or filling bottles. The result is a collection of portable drinking fountains, which pop up at well-trafficked public plazas, green markets, or parade routes within the five boroughs. The program is still modest in scale, but one of its key aims is to reduce New Yorkers’ use of plastic water bottles, part of a larger effort by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC Plan to send zero waste to landfills by 2030. Additionally, the city plans to expand its currently sparse network of public drinking water infrastructure to include 500 public water fountains and bottle refill stations by 2025. In this effort, it joins a number of other global municipal campaigns to reduce the use of plastic bottles with expanded public water infrastructure. While changes in individual consumption patterns are critical, in order for larger behavioral shifts to occur it will be necessary for the city to make simple but significant changes to the infrastructural landscape of water access.
New Public Hydrant emerged out of a discussion with the DEP about redesigning Water on the Go fountains to make them more welcoming to the public, easier to understand, and simpler to use. Some users have seen the current design’s trough as an invitation to wash pets, vegetables, or body parts in the fountains rather than drinking from them, causing the drain to clog and making the station less sanitary. In another misunderstanding, many people believe that hydrant water comes from a different source than tap water and is less clean (indeed, stagnant water must be properly flushed from a hydrant before it can be tapped for drinking). New Public Hydrant uses design to overcome public misperceptions of the city’s hydrant water. The design prototypes bring attention to possibilities for improvement of overlooked, local water infrastructures on the one hand, while simultaneously engaging what it means to drink locally, especially from fire hydrants, with the aim of shifting perceptions around water access and drinking local tap water, on the other.
Three design probes, or hydrant “hacks,” propose a gateway to reimagine everyday use and experience with water infrastructure. Each design probe uses the language of existing water infrastructure systems — pipes and valves — and transforms these materials through color and scale to highlight them at the pedestrian and streetscape level.
The first prototype, Hydration Space, is an immersive microclimate and sprinkler in which visitors can relax and refresh underneath an adjustable water canopy. The design rotates a sprinkler from a horizontal orientation to a tall vertical one to accommodate multiple users. One iteration of this design integrates seating elements with existing bollards and adds a micro-hydro power generator to harness the energy of the flowing water to charge phones.
Hydrant on Tap is a bottle fill station that uses a gooseneck head and long lever for pedestrian-accessible, individual bottle refills. Alongside the bottle fill, the design also monitors refilling by printing out a “footprint” receipt, educating users about the connections between drinking local and the global consequences of plastic water bottles.
Hydrants for All is a water fountain designed to provide access to drinking water for humans and pets, as well as insects and birds simultaneously. Using a continuous vertical pipe and four shut-off valves so that the water remains separate, various users can access water at three levels: a water bowl for thirsty dogs, cats, and other pets at the ground level; a set of facing water fountains with draining bowls for humans at mid-level; and a birdbath with perch for small neighborhood birds on top.
Rather than a finished product, these are just three of many possible prototypes that can imagine different functions for local water infrastructure, and renew awareness about the city’s water quality and water access. Future iterations could include a micro-hydropower station recharging phones and other portable devices daily or during times of emergency, or a water collector for bees to support local pollinator life. We see the prototypes as a first step towards a rollout of a potential city-wide initiative, one that would have to address additional challenges. Use of the temporary prototypes was supervised, but permanent installation as Water on the Go fountains will require more durable, self-draining structures that facilitate use and maximize safety. Furthermore, installations in public spaces would have to account for safety in a variety of unintended uses, like children or inebriated adults climbing onto, tripping on, or hanging off parts of the installation. In particular, since the project relies on merging potable water access at street level with emergency infrastructure, maintaining the fire hydrant’s original function is a top priority: The designs would need to allow for easy installation and removal of the devices, and unencumbered access by the Fire Department. And as with most public drinking fountains, an intimately shared infrastructure, the design of the hydrant hacks must also ensure reliable drainage and incorporate hygienic elements such as spout hoods.
In imagining the New Public Hydrants project, we were inspired by the service-oriented artwork of Mierle Laderman Ukeles and her civic maintenance projects with the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY), where she has been artist in residence for over four decades.
Ukeles challenged the public perception of sanitation labor, honoring the role of sanitation workers in maintaining the city. In projects like Touch Sanitation Performance (1979-80), wherein she shook the hands of all 8,500 DSNY employees to thank them for their service, Ukeles made the undervalued work of maintenance visible. In the same manner as maintenance work, emergency infrastructure exists in the background of the city and is its life support. Encouraged by Ukeles’s work, New Public Hydrant attempts to bring attention to overlooked infrastructural elements in the city, like fire hydrants, which the city and its citizens rely on during moments of crisis, to see and appreciate them anew.
New Public Hydrant was commissioned by Jane Withers for the A/D/O Water Futures Research Program, 2018. The project team included Tei Carpenter, Chris Woebken, Arianna Deane, Ashely Kuo, and Zeynep Ugur. Columbia University GSAPP’s Waste Initiative and A Good Plumber, Inc. provided support.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.