Two years ago I was recruited by my PhD supervisor to conduct a survey of the drinking water fountains in my home city of Bristol. With my thesis proving a grind, and having spent 18 months with my head in the books, I didn’t need asking twice. As part of the Bristol European Green Capital – an annual European Commission award designed to promote city efforts to improve the environment – the intention was to assess the potential for a new public drinking water initiative, starting with the existing provisions.
With the help of a mobile device application created by WeTap, which geolocates drinking water access in cities worldwide using a public database, twenty-four water fountains were identified around Bristol. I spent two days cycling around the city, diligently taking photographs of each one – from narrow and wide angles – making detailed notes, occasionally stopping for tea and cake, a most enjoyable gig.
Almost all of the fountains were ornamental Victorian installations, from ostentatious gothic edifices in leafy green parks to simple wall-mounted troughs among the roadside fumes. Most, according to their engraved inscriptions, were ‘gifts’ to the people of Bristol from the city’s businessmen, philanthropists and the church.
All but one of them, I discovered, are no longer functioning, and most are in various states of disrepair and/or vandalism: decapitated pipes, floating dog ends, magic marker-tagged stonework. With one exception: the Alderman Proctor’s drinking fountain, erected in 1872, and the grandest in the city. This triangular Gothic hydraulic shrine is built of buff Bath stone, with pointed arches supported by pink granite columns. And when you climb its steps, reach into its vaulted belly, and push down on a sturdy brass tap, water gushes into a weathered, donut-shaped trough beneath.
Predictably, the only surviving working fountain in Bristol is located in the posh part of town – Clifton, on the tourist trail, surrounded by the great mansions once occupied by the city’s slave traders.
Enthused by the sight of AP’s font, as I peddled onward I indulged in fantasies of rejuvenating these great amenities across the city, of families and runners and fellow cyclists enjoying the cool, clear waters. Surely, such a project would be deserving of the European Green Capital: a re-democratisation of water, a public good for all; a counterpunch to greedy bottled water companies and rampant consumerism at the expense of the environment.
By the second day, however, I had begun to feel a creeping despondency, as I realised that most of the fountains are now relics for a reason. With the exception of a few tranquil verdant oases, most are now marooned in a sea of concentrated urbanisation; annexed by roads and railings; shadowed by office blocks and multi-story car parks. Moreover, not only do they no longer intersect with the flows of contemporary Bristol, their function been superseded by the market.
The water conduits, fountains and pumps of Bristol were installed in the latter half of the 19th century to address a growing crisis of public health at a time of poor sanitation and great inequality of access to clean water. The fountains became a focal point of daily life in the industrialising city: used by all from the housewife to the cart-horse (almost all of the Victorian examples also feature animal troughs at their base).
However, as the infrastructure of the post-modern neoliberal city has developed, water has increasingly become a private rather than a common good. Captured in reservoirs, treated, and piped directly into homes and businesses, collecting water has ceased to be a communal activity. Thus the fountains have been cut off, both from the water and the city.
Having become a taken for granted and completely abstract thing, the possibility of water’s non-availability is unfathomable for most. And yet access is increasingly contingent upon ability to pay. Whereas once health and life itself depended upon water, today it has been transformed into a commodity and encapsulated as a consumer product. If you are thirsty, you must pay. If you are tired, try this energy drink – it has Guarana, from the Amazon!
Regardless, when I interviewed a number of key figures and politicians most were sceptical about the potential usefulness of recommissioning Bristol’s water fountains. It was difficult to argue to the contrary. In spite their obvious aesthetic and historical value, modern city life had left them behind. In any case, I was informed, health and safety regulations had rendered public drinking water fountains ‘a can of worms.’
All of which added up to a disappointing conclusion to a short respite from my postgraduate readings. While interesting, the study went nowhere with the Green Capital project, and I went back to the library.
Meanwhile however, another group were working on a drinking water initiative – one perhaps less idealistic and more pragmatic than my own embryonic efforts. It was named Refill Bristol, and is led by community interest company (CIC) City to Sea. Following the end of the Green Capital year, the project has recently re-emerged with support from Bristol Water. It’s a wonderful project!
Rather than objectifying the provision of stand-alone drinking water in public places, City to Sea’s stated mission is to reduce marine plastic pollution in the tidal reaches of the Avon River and the Severn Estuary. The Refill Bristol project is aimed at discouraging the consumption of bottled water (and littering by plastic bottles) by promoting access to drinking water ‘stations’ in existing cafes, bars, restaurants, banks, galleries, museums and other businesses in the city.
Refill Bristol has managed to secure the participation of more than 200 establishments around the centre and outer reaches of the city. Their website has a searchable map, and each Refill station is identifiable by the project’s blue logo. A mobile device application is also under development.
As City to Sea have acknowledged, however, the challenges of changing mindsets around drinking water in the city are not easily overcome. Indeed, the project is placing particular emphasis on people remembering to carry a water bottle around with them – an inconvenient prospect for those used to buying a drink with their sarnies at Pret.
Moreover, I would suggest, consumerism and convenience is so deeply entrenched within western culture, the mere concept of walking into a place of business and asking for something for free is now perceived as outlandish and almost deviant. For many, asking for tap water in a shop may be embarrassing, even a sign of parsimoniousness or poverty. That this tension is not necessarily negated by the displaying of a sign to the contrary is a further example of the power of corporate marketing and capital.
More attention, then, must be paid by the likes of me and my colleagues in academia to perceptions of drinking water beyond the liberal metropolitan elites. For want of a better idiom, we must not preach to the choir. In Bristol, this means beyond Southville, beyond Stokes Croft, beyond the academic and arts communities. Indeed, perhaps a greater understanding is required of those whose daily lives are played out in the neighbourhoods of some of the old Victorian water fountains from my bike ride. Perhaps then a greater consciousness might emerge of our alienation from our most precious ‘resource’, and projects such as Refill Bristol can be even more successful.
Nevertheless, in addition to its environmental benefits, it is obvious that the Refill Bristol initiative represents a positive step towards the re-democratisation of water access. I, for one, will certainly be remembering my bottle.