Student Research: Drinking Fountains

In her MCP thesis, "Drinking Fountains: The Past and Future of Free Public Water in the United States", Josselyn Ivanov (MCP 2015) analyzed an often-overlooked aspect of our cities, public water fountains:

Drinking fountains have a rich history as pieces of urban infrastructure. Installed in Renaissance Rome as public art glorifying the Pope, in industrial London as a humanitarian source of cholera-free water, and in prohibition-era America to discourage alcohol consumption, drinking fountains have filled many public functions over many centuries. But today’s drinking fountains, when installed at all, are purely utilitarian: undesigned in terms of both form and strategic urban placement. Shoved between bathrooms and trashcans and probably broken, drinking fountains have fallen on hard times in the public realm. Many Americans express skepticism of public water sources, and millions choose expensive and polluting bottled waters instead, reflecting underlying attitudes about distrust of government and public infrastructure.

There are compelling reasons to rethink and redesign our relationship with drinking fountains. Today, the United States confronts a new set of challenges: neglected urban spaces, obesity and lifestyle-related disease, widespread privatization of public goods, rampant socio-economic inequality, and plastic pollution. Drinking fountains may be uniquely suited to help confront these problems by cutting down on bottle waste, providing accessible water for homeless and vulnerable populations, reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, facilitating exercise, and adding interest and beauty to public spaces - but they will only be able to achieve these goals through thoughtful design and good maintenance. In surveys, people were more likely to drinking from outdoor drinking fountains if they believed that they were clean, safe, and beautiful; the importance of appeal in decision-making has been understood by corporations like Coca-Cola and Apple for decades, but has been little-considered in promoting public water.

Drinking fountains, a seemingly insignificant urban element with huge actual potential, are an exemplar of what is possible when societies value public space and the public good. Addressing both the problems in current fountains and in peoples’ perceptions of them could reframe drinking fountains to help address some of today’s most pressing problems.

Professor Anne Whiston Spirn served as Jossie's advisor on this project. To learn more about other DUSP student research, see