Building Blocks of the Outdoor Environment Series: Water
Author: Chad Kennedy, Landscape Architect, ASLA
Towering icebergs dusted in blue, sailing the vast oceans, graceful waterfalls delicately framing tropical paradises, gurgling spring water perfecting tranquil meditation gardens, shimmering dew kissed rose petals welcoming the morning sun and delicate morning mists blanketing glassy smooth lakes; In all its various forms, water is indeed one of the most mystifying and captivating elements of the natural world. As such, it is one of the most valuable building blocks of outdoor environments. Society is innately drawn to water as evidenced in ancient depictions of water and children's uninhibited desires to interact with it. In an attempt to harness its influence, water has been used in modern and historic landscapes to prompt specific emotions, thoughts and actions. It is these prompts and perceptions that designers strive to understand and replicate in order to create spaces with meaning and emotional connection. This article will briefly introduce the concept of human perceptions related to water in the landscape followed by a synopsis of its characteristics and general uses in the outdoor environment.
Perceptions of Water -
Research continues to support the theory that society is drawn to water. One study used various materials to replicate the aesthetics of water and showed that individuals were more attracted to reflective water as it creates harmony, adds appeal and increases attention spans.3 In fact documention shows that water is one of the more important elements present in early childhood dreams and that humans generally have "strong positive responses to water in the landscape".2 A study performed in rural Japan concluded that children in particular were strongly attracted to water in the landscape. Interestingly, this study also revealed that children were most interested in simple interactions with water and its quality. Whereas adults tended to be more interested in the dynamics of water features such as flow rates and patterns and less with interactive features.4 Understanding the results of these studies certainly influences how water is used in specialty landscapes that cater to specific demographics.
General Characteristics1 -
"...water by itself has no distinct design properties other than that it is a liquid...Water must depend on its environmental context for its particular qualities."1 The main characteristics of water related to urban landscapes include: motion, sound, reflectivity and its physical stages.
Motion: Water is often used with an absence of motion to promote calm, still and reflection. Dynamic use of water, however, starkly contrasts this as it can be energizing and is particularly effective at stimulating action and highlighting focal points.
Sound: Sounds are generally equated with dynamic movement of water and can be both soothing and motivating. Different sounds will result in different emotional cues. For example a trickle, dribble, bubble or gurgle will result in subtle and thought provoking emotions. A roar, gush or splashing sound masks distractions and promote energy provoking cues.
Reflectivity: Reflective qualities of water create stunning dynamic replications of the adjacent landscape. On wind free days, a glassy water surface can produce nearly indistinguishable replicas of the landscape. With just a slight breeze, this same view may resemble a contemporary art piece and even an abstract version of the landscape. Planning for reflective water requires the study of appropriate sizes, shapes, depths, surface colors, focal points and seasonal influences.1
Physical Stages: Each physical stage of water (solid, liquid and gas) is present in or can be used to design urban landscapes. Well planned landscapes are stunning when ponds ice over and snow softens the curvature of the land. Liquid water is quite versatile and is a great addition to sand and dirt in play environments where it creates entirely new materials for learning and play. Steam or mist can even be an interesting tool to create landmarks and memorable spaces.
General Uses1 -
In general, water can be used to create unique outdoor environments through the control of micro-climates and sound,as well as through capacities for recreation.
Micro-climates: Water is an effective method of moderating temperatures. Whether implemented as large lakes, ponds, smaller water jets or wading pools, the affect of water on the surrounding temperature is the same. In the summer, the effect is a cooling of the area. When breezes or winds are added to the equation, the effects are even more noticeable as is evident in the effectiveness of water based cooling units that cool many homes in arid environments.
Sound: By manipulating the environment within which water resides, a variety of sounds are created which accentuate, hide and mask other noises. Small intimate spaces often benefit from soft, calming white noise created by water features. Soft repetitive sounds, like those of small waves, can have this same effect. Large urban open spaces often benefit from loud rushing water sounds that effectively drown out sirens, honking, yelling and other noises associated with the urban outdoor environment. A variety of rushing sounds can be accomplished through varyied volumes, falling distances and landing surfaces.
Capacity for Recreation: Water is utilized not only for its aesthetic values, but as an actual tangible, interactive element in the landscape. When designed properly, water can appear safe and inviting, leading to meaningful interaction and recreation. Depending on the size of the water feature, recreational opportunities include boating, canoeing, diving, ice skating, fishing, wading, splashing, swimming, playground fun and simple passive interactions.
Water, in all its forms is a versatile tool for creating pleasant experiences in the landscape. Take note as you navigate the world and see if you can recognize how water, in all its forms, impacts your emotions, the way you navigate, and your state of mind. You might be surprised!