Excerpted from The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, by William H. Whyte

Water is another fine element, and designers are doing creative things with it. New plazas and parks provide water in all sorts of forms: waterfalls, waterwalls, rapids, sluiceways, tranquil pools, water tunnels, meandering brooks, and fountains of all kinds. In only one major respect is something lacking: access.

REACH OUT AND TOUCH

One of the best things about water is the feel of it. People love to touch it: They stick their hands in it, stick in their toes and feet, and sometimes even splash about in it. However, in many places, water is only to be looked at. Let a foot touch it and a guard will be there in an instant. Not allowed. Chemicals in the water. Danger of contamination.

It’s not right to put water before people and then keep them away from it. But this is what has been happening across the country. Pools and fountains are installed, then immediately posted with signs admonishing people not to touch. Equally egregious is the zeal with which many pools are continually emptied, refilled, vacuumed, and cleaned, as though the primary function of them was their maintenance.

Safety is the usual reason given for keeping people away. But there are better ways than electrocution to handle this problem. At the Auditorium Forecourt Fountain in Portland, Oregon, people have been climbing up and down a complex of sluiceways and falls for some six years. It looks dangerous – designer Lawrence Halprin designed it to look dangerous – and, since the day it opened, there have been no serious mishaps. This splendid fountain is an affirmation of trust in people, and it says much about the good city of Portland.

THE SOUND OF WATER

Another great thing about water is the sound of it. When people explain why they find New York’s Paley Park so quiet and restful, one thing they always mention is the waterwall. In fact, the waterwall is quite loud: the noise level is about 75 decibels close by, measurably higher than the level out on the street. Furthermore,the sound – taken by itself – is not especially pleasant. I have played tapes to people and asked them what they thought it was. Usually they grimace and say a subway train, trucks on a freeway, or something just as bad. In the park, however, the sound is perceived as quite pleasant. It is white sound and masks the intermittent honks and bangs that are the most annoying aspects of street noise. It also masks conversations. Even though there are many others nearby, you can talk quite loudly to a companion – sometimes you almost have to – and enjoy a feeling of privacy. On the occasions when the waterwall is turned off, a spell is broken, and the place seems nowhere as congenial. Or, as quiet.

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