Why water is a landscape architect's secret weapon

Article By:

Senior Landscape Architect

Describing the physical characteristics of water can become a bit bland: it has no colour, no form, no taste and no smell. However, despite its lacklustre description, we are obsessed with it, and life, as we know it, wouldn’t exist if it disappeared tomorrow. There is so much drama associated with just one substance, yet that simple combination of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom make up two-thirds of the earth's surface and 70 per cent of our bodies. It’s no wonder why we fixate on it. We drink, fish, swim, bath and cook with it—and that’s just scratching the surface. We have an intimate relationship with water because it’s one of the most fundamental chemical compounds in our lives.

At an early age, our teachers taught us the importance of the hydrological cycle and how it sustains life through the continuous movement of water between the earth and the atmosphere. We associate water with life. Since ancient times, people determined where to live, build cities and towns based on their access to clean water. It is a critical driving force in governing the physical characteristics for both the natural and built environments. Moreover, water, beyond fulfilling our basic human needs, provides therapeutic benefits and contributes to our overall psychological health. From the sound, smell, movement and atmosphere, people find that these things improve their mental health. Why do you think the sound of a waterfall is so familiar and calming in a spa? Water creates a sense of place and provides an air of tranquillity. A landscape with a flourishing water system equates to a land rich in nutrients and life.

Our love for water and the sense of contentment we feel when we’re around it often guides how we live and describe experiences. When I look back, many of my fondest memories are grounded in a context that included water. Whether it was jumping through a sprinkler as a child in my neighbour’s yard, backpacking along the southern coast of Thailand, visiting the Trevi Fountain in Rome, or spending lazy summer days at my family's cottage on Lake Winnipeg. Water is the foundation of these experiences, and my memories concerning water are by no means out of the ordinary for people. If you talk to anyone about a trip they went on (or want to go on), a local landscape or plaza they visited, more often than not, water was present and integral to that experience.  

It is this fact that has inspired landscape architects to conceive and design spaces with water in mind. Not to mention the social, cultural, environmental and financial benefits that waterscapes can provide. It’s a destination place, and aesthetically can be manipulated and transformed into a variety of states and forms whether it's a pool, waterfront, fountain, bio-retention pond or a series of vistas to look upon an expanse of a natural waterbody. It's not surprising that people gravitate to these places and celebrate our most important chemical compound.

The use of water in public space has been around since the beginning of time. It is a place where people congregate together and socialize. In contemporary culture, this has expanded and grown beyond what nature naturally offers us, and we have curated it in public urban spaces, fountains or children spray pads. All these spaces, while vastly different in systems, geometries and nature, do bear one thing in common. They bring people together. It's no wonder why a landscape architect's job is to focus on how to move, clean, capitalize on and curate it.

As a landscape architect, I believe designing with water in mind is one of the key ingredients to a conceiving a memorable space and place. The fluidity of water can break down the monotony of solid materials used in urban environments. For instance, the Trevi Fountain, arguably one of the most well-known classic fountains in the world is located in the Quirinale district of Rome. A heavily densified urban area with narrow cobbled streets, stone buildings and little to no vegetation. The fountain’s impressive travertine sculptures stand 26.3 metres high and 49.15 metres wide. If it were not for the use of water, we might perceive these stone sculptures as imposing or not compelling enough for people to linger in the plaza. Yet, the simple gesture of water cascading over the travertine stone into a pool creates a tiny oasis for people to remain in and engage with the space. The sound and movement dramatically altered the urban area, creating a microclimate for people to cool off in the hot Italian sun.

One of the first projects I was assigned to when I came into the profession was a landscape design for a proposed suburb located at the edge of a city. At the time, it was undeveloped former agricultural land. The concept was to include a series of naturalized retention ponds (which people referred to as ‘lakes’) and a plaza that included a fountain. While I felt overjoyed at the opportunity to design a fountain, I also was underwhelmed by its current agricultural context. It seemed odd to construct a fountain before people had even moved into the neighbourhood or even have roads to access the amenity! I passed it off as an ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality, and we proceeded to complete the design and construction of it.

It was a cool, crisp early fall morning when a small audience of 10, which included the contractor, a few people from our office and the client turned the fountain on for the first time. The powerful 52 multicolour water jets shot up into the air, bringing life into the desolate area. We all cheered and then went about our regular business. At the time, I couldn’t help but think that it felt like an alien had just dropped the plaza from the sky into the middle of a farm field. It felt out of context. However, shortly after our modest opening (if you could even call it that), every lot that had even the tiniest view of the water was immediately scooped up at a premium price. The neighbourhood quickly developed around the lakes and fountain.

Over the years, the naturalized lakes have become home to a diverse wildlife community, and the plaza has become an iconic landmark for the neighbourhood.  I’ve seen people get their family, graduation, and wedding photos taken by the fountain. The neighbourhood has planned its annual parties there. The community holds such immense pride and value for the fountain that last year the threat of not turning it on in the spring (due to a bureaucratic squabble) ignited the community to band together and create a hashtag, causing a social media and news frenzy to get the fountain turned on. This project educated me on how impactful it is to design with water in mind, both socially and economically concerning development. Water draws people in, and in this particular development, the fountain and lakes are one the main driving forces for lot sales in the neighbourhood.

There’s no shortage of information and evidence that proves nature is good for our minds, bodies and souls—whether it’s in a forest like setting or an urban environment. What this signifies is that it isn’t the idea of becoming one with nature, but rather how good landscape design can elevate and enhance an experience. Water can be an integral part of that experience, bringing its irreplaceable nourishment for people who engage with the space.

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