Monday, June 23, 2014

Disappearing Urban Drinking Fountains; The Search For Houston's Best Bathrooms and Drinking Fountains

There are too many parts of my life that are shaped by Seinfeld. Much like George Costanza, I pride myself on being able to "sniff out a deal" or find the best public drinking fountain, toilet or restroom in a given area. I normally avoid trying to pay for bottled water since, like Jim Gaffigan says, I can get it "free from any faucet."

The problem is, there's not as many free faucets anymore where one can re-hydrate. I found this out as I walked through Downtown Houston on my lunch hour, ending up at Discovery Green. It's an especially compounded problem since our building does not have working drinking fountains. (More on that later.) So, I thought to myself, "Where are Houston's, and especially Downtown Houston's, nicest drinking fountains and public toilets?"


In Seinfeld's "The Busboy" episode from season two Jerry quizzes George on the best public toilets in New York City. When given an address, George comes up with what he calls "magnificent facilities". This quest is not lost in urban life today. There are smart phone applications that rate public toilets in cities, such as Sit or Squat, aptly sponsored by Charmin. There's also the Where to Wee app from Cintas. There is no lack of data about our restroom habits; including how often we use our feet to flush a toilet. (Guilty! I'm not touching that handle...)

Hotel Icon, the Hilton, the Westin and the Magnolia Hotel all have excellent facilities. Hotel bathrooms are typically great places of refuge, however, public parks are typically known for a lack of cleanliness, if they have bathrooms at all. Only Houston's Discovery Green has full restroom facilities.

Hopefully Houstonians can help compile a list to find "Houston's Most Magnificent Facilities". I've started to list a few on a Google Map, so feel free to add your suggestions at the bottom of the page. Houston, where are the best drinking fountains and public restrooms?

Drinking Fountains

For as hot and humid as Houston is there seems to be a very small number of public drinking fountains, which is a prevailing trend in most cities. Elizabeth Royte in the New York Times suggested that New York City expend some of its resources on placing public drinking fountains all over the place. It's a more realistic suggestion than Jerry Seinfeld's suggestion of putting those airport moving sidewalks all over New York City. Royte brings to mind our culture of convenience and the cost that comes with it. The processing, packaging and transportation of bottled water uses a good deal of fossil fuels when compared to your standard tap water. Royte says that some cities have been proactive in dissolving contracts with bottled water suppliers, while promoting their own tap supplies. Royte closes with the thought that installing more fountains is "a small price to pay to quench thirst, reduce bottle litter, slash our collective carbon footprint and reaffirm our connection with the city’s most valuable resource: its public water supply."

It's not only in Houston or New York, but New Orleans, and really, in the public realm of cities all over the country. I noticed this on a recent trip to the Crescent City, and came across "Bring Back The Water Fountain" from Nancy Stoner, Acting Assistant Administrator for Water at the US Environmental Protection Agency. You can get a Hurricane or Grenade in New Orleans on almost every corner, but a drinking fountain somewhere on the street? Good luck.

Public drinking fountains are disappearing from collegiate and professional athletic arenas. They're disappearing from rest areas. And may new drinking fountains are being supplied by non-profits, not municipalities. This trend is prevalent in every part of the country, so it should come as no surprise that drinking fountains are either disappearing or not being maintained here in Houston.

Author and Co-founder and President of the Pacific Institute Peter Gleick investigates the trends of bottled water growth and the disappearance of drinking fountains in his book Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water. Bottom line, people love the convenience of bottled water, but they still want drinking fountains.

The issue of public drinking fountains strikes a nerve with me because it's something that impacts me every day. Our our building, the Bob Lanier Public Works Building, does not have any working drinking fountains. That's why I make my daily trip to the Julia Ideson Library to refill. And, by looking at our city's Capital Improvement Plan for the next number of years, it doesn't look like we can expect new fountains or plumbing anytime soon. But, there are drinking fountain upgrades being planned for City Hall and the City Hall Annex in both the 2014-2018 Adopted Capital Improvement Plan, as well as the 2015-2019 Proposed Capital Improvement Plan, in order to bring those fountains into compliance to "meet the State's accessibility requirements." There must not be any requirement in providing drinking water in a public building. For a city that chronicles its history of providing drinking water, its hard to fathom why its own Department of Public Works building has no operational drinking fountains.

Public Health and Drinking Fountains

"Shape Up Houston" is a public health initiative aiming to "increase awareness and encourage action surrounding the unsustainable level of obesity and its impact on the health and well being of our community." An admirable effort without a doubt. Shape Up Houston advocates for a life-long change in lifestyle as opposed to short-term dieting strategies. Again, something that needs to be done. But I would think that the lack of provision of drinking water in our building, and in many other public places, plays a role in obesity and well-being. A lack of water access must drive people to quench their thirst and unnecessarily take in loads of sugar and calories with sugary drinks. These sugary drinks seem to be more easily accessible with a quick walk to Houston's tunnel system as opposed to drinking water, which is only now provided through coffee or water clubs. And, in most urban areas, including Downtown Houston, soda or pop, and even alcohol, is a cheaper alternative to water.

The link between the provision of drinking fountains and obesity is something that is seriously being studied, and has gained the attention of those in the medical community, and the United Nations Human Rights Council sees access to drinking water as a basic human right. In a study in the United Kingdom it was revealed that only 11 percent of public parks had drinking fountains (bubblers!). For a country that once boasted an array of drinking fountains, 11 percent is low. London is pushing for a greater number of drinking fountains, especially in parks and near transit stations. This is a great idea, especially for a hot and humid locale such as Houston. Without drinking fountains, there is no incentive for children or adults to curb their sugary drink intake.

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study examined water consumption among secondary school children in California. The results aren't surprising. California schools must provide free drinking water in food consumption areas, but only about four percent of students drank the provided water. It's unclear from the study if students drank their own bottled water. If there was no water provided, I would guess the numbers would be lower.

My Downtown Walk: Houston's Public Drinking Fountains and Restrooms

Market Square - Downtown's newest park is fit with three drinking fountains, however, two of the three are within the park's dog run area. Best of luck navigating that area. I hope this doesn't indicate that dog usage comes with higher consideration in the design of our parks than humans usage does. Also, how do these fountains drain the water that might not make it into your, and everyone else's, mouth? Restrooms are available, but are intended for Niko Niko's customers only.

Discovery Green - It's Houston's only downtown park with fully accessible restrooms, and surprisingly only two drinking fountains. One is tucked away in the dining area of The Lake House restaurant within the park, and the other is adjacent to the park's playground area. It's great to see the placement of that drinking fountain, but with such a large park in Downtown Houston, additional fountains might serve visitors well. A surprising fact about Discovery Green is that there are an equal number of dog drinking fountains in the dog run area as there are drinking fountains to serve the park's human visitors. If you can't find the drinking fountains you can always visit The Lake House and buy a $1.50 bottle of water.

When dog drinking fountains equal the number of human drinking fountains, we have stopped designing parks for people.

Some Observations from my Downtown Houston Walk

Hermann Square - There aren't any drinking fountains in front of Houston City Hall, but while the fountain in front of City Hall is being upgraded, it would be a perfect opportunity to run another water line to add a drinking fountain. On hot days visitors and downtown workers might love that.

Tranquility Park - There are two drinking fountains in Downtown Houston's Tranquility Park, where you can regularly see homeless folks gather to hydrate or brush their teeth. But, sadly, only one drinking fountain is flowing.

Root Memorial Square Park - This is a gem of a park tucked on the southeast side of Downtown Houston in the shadows of the Toyota Center, with one cold drinking fountain.

Jones Plaza - It was the coldest drinking fountain I found, but it's hidden from sight from the street. It's good to know about on hot days. There are also restrooms, but only open when there are special events at the plaza. (Events rarely happen here though, disappointingly.)

Main Street - Across from Houston's Greenstreet shopping center are the only two drinking fountains I can find that are in the public right of way, and are not in parks. They're cold, and they work.

Heights Boulevard - There are drinking fountains at I-10, 7th Street, 11th Street and 20th Street, much to the appreciation of those running up and down the boulevard.

Hotel Icon, the Hilton Americas, Magnolia Hotel and Westin Houston Downtown have some of the nicest public restrooms downtown, as well as drinking fountains.

For a dark horse in both categories though, I nominate the facilities at the Houston Library's Julia Ideson Building. Yes, I'm sure there are better facilities, especially in places like hotels, and specifically Hotel Icon (my winner in the hotel bathroom category), but for a public facility it's quite magnificent. Houston, let's hear about your "magnificent facilities".