Ancient inspiration for a modern day environmental scourge

19 Aug

For the last week, temperatures in Rome have felt like a withering 40 C and above every day (that’s 104 F to my American friends).  In this kind of relentless heat, one has less appreciation for such celebrated fountains such as the Trevi and Four Rivers, and becomes endless grateful for the little, unnamed, under-appreciated fontanellas that dot the city. According to fellow expat-blogger Lazio Explorer, there are over 2,000 of these in Rome alone, and there’s a map to show you where they all are!

Papal water refreshment near the Vatican

Water fountain model Trent with a basic drinking fountain near the Roman Forum

Actually, although some fontanellas are purely utilitarian, many are fantastically unique and creative.  And all flow clear, cool drinking water for refreshment at any time of day.

And people – residents and visitors alike – use them; to refill water bottles, to wash fruit, to splash their faces and to give water to their dogs.  These fountains act as communal water coolers, where children play and adults interact and talk.  I have no idea how old Rome’s fountains are, but the source of their flow is its ancient aqueducts dating back over 2000 years, and many have deep depressions worn into the stone by the water flow over the centuries.

I started taking pictures just to document the wonderful range of drinking fountains in Rome and throughout Italy. But along the way, they made me start thinking about plain, boring drinking water fountains in Toronto and other cities throughout North America.  Not only are they completely uninspiring; from my own personal experience, 80% of the time the fountains in Toronto don’t work.  In fact, here’s an article in the Star validating my experience.

Regal flow near Piazza Barberini

At the same time, we have a massive crisis of water bottle waste on our hands in North America.  According to Mother Nature Network, “bottled water produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year…that plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce. And while the plastic used to bottle beverages is of high quality and in demand by recyclers, over 80 percent of plastic bottles are simply thrown away.” What’s more, the water in these bottles is, more often than not, just tap water.

Compounding the situation, according to Edge Outreach, is that “plastic isn’t biodegradable, it’s photodegradable. That means it’s slooooowly broken apart by photons (from sunlight) into teeny tiny little pieces that can easily absorb toxins and pollute our soil and waterways and even animals when digested. Nasty.”

Roman Fountain near Hadrian's Mausoleum

I’m not suggesting the fact that the scarcity, dysfunction and sheer boring-ness of city drinking water fountains are linked to the appalling dependency on bottled water and the alarming waste it produces.  But here’s my proposal….

What if municipalities around North America commissioned local artists to create functional and beautiful water fountains throughout their cities’ public spaces, indoor and out?

These would provide drinking water for all and add a visual meeting point to our public spaces.  Funds could be diverted from the costs to deal with the waste created by water bottles – or a tax could be placed on the sale of water bottles to fund this.  A friend informed me that in cities like Calgary, new building development is required to include an art installation – what if art installations could be functional and environmentally progressive at the same time?  Americans and Canadians would never face the fear of being caught without a refreshing drink of water, and would be less likely to keep buying new bottles over and over again.  In the meantime, a public relations campaign could coincide with the launch, further raise awareness of the issue while even driving a competition amongst cities to see whose fountains can result in the greatest decrease of bottled water sales?

What would you rather have?


One-forth of Rome's intersection of the Quattro Fontane

Or this + this?

Dried up drinking fountain at Withrow Park...image courtesy of The Star

Water bottle waste...image courtesy of Edge Outreach

Think about it.  Suggest this to your local representative.  Tell a sculptor. Steal this idea and let it flow!

In the meantime, here is a selection of groovy Italian drinking water fountains for your own inspiration!

Rustic and Teutonic in Chienes

Avante Garde in Bressanone (yes, the fountain spouts were labeled for drinking)

Modern and Chic in Verona

Veteran water fountain model Trent demonstrates how to operate and share a tricky 3-pronged flow


2 Responses to “Ancient inspiration for a modern day environmental scourge”

  1. Trent August 19, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

    What a great post – fantastic idea! For an even better idea of how much plastic waste we’re generating, just google the Great Pacific Garbage Patch… pretty shocking. At any rate, clearly this issue requires more research on the streets of Rome… I’ll schedule a follow visit post haste!
    Your pal/fountain model, Trent

    • A Life in Rome... August 19, 2011 at 6:09 pm #

      Your contribution to this idea has already been legendary Trent – but a follow trip IS required! 🙂 PS happy birthday!

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