The Case for Public Drinking Fountains

"Quick question: where is the closest public drinking fountain to you at this very moment? Yeah, that’s what I thought. It took me awhile to ponder, too. Within walking distance from this office at 19th and Market, the nearest bubbler I’m aware of is right in the middle of Rittenhouse Square — jutting out of the pool in the center of the park — roughly four blocks away. And it doesn’t even work.

Such is the state of public drinking fountains, not just in Philadelphia, but nationwide. Outside of parks and recreational areas like the Schuylkill Banks, fountains are few and far between these days. What were once ubiquitous fixtures of our grandparents’ cityscapes have largely disappeared.

What killed the public water fountain? A confluence of factors: the rise of bottled water, wrongheaded perceptions that big city water is dirty (pristine water-quality reports prove otherwise, not to mention the studies showing bottled is no safer than tap), and the unseemly notion that water fountains are somehow "low class" (recall the symbolic role water fountains played in Jim Crow-era segregation). And then there's the high cost of maintenance. For cities that struggle to keep schools operating, water fountains can seem like expendable pieces of infrastructure.

But are drinking fountains primed for a comeback? Just maybe.

About a year ago, the Philadelphia Water Department began kicking around the idea of bringing back public bubblers.  "We were approached by a company that provides drinking water fountains to cities in the way street furniture contracts work," says Christine Knapp, chief of staff for the Philadelphia Water Department. Basically, the company offered to handle everything — from installation, to maintenance, to — crucially — advertising on the fountain itself. “The city gets a check and gives the permission to place them — that’s it.”

Although the city would have to put out a Request for Proposal before moving forward with any offer (which it has not done), the encounter got PWD to thinking about a bubbler renaissance. But before it could formulate a more efficient, better designed water fountain system, the department wanted to figure out what water fountain infrastructure it had already, and how much it cost to maintain. That proved ... challenging. The department couldn't find any numbers. “We can’t really figure out how much maintenance costs and what it takes to maintain fountains,” says Knapp. “We just don’t have good data on that.”

Presumably, it'll cost a lot. While fountains themselves are relatively cheap — standard models today cost in the neighborhood of $3,000 to $5,500 — connecting the fountains to water lines can cost a lot more."