Living Water Garden Design Principles

Living water projects elegantly solve multiple problems using nature as a model. They are unique to their culture and geography, but do share certain characteristics. A living water project:

  • Cleans, protects and restores water. Living water projects demonstrate sustainable ways to clean water ranging from sewage and stormwater treatment, to streamside restoration, to lowering water temperatures, to restoring fish habitats.

  • Blends art and science. Science is the information; art is the way to communicate that information in an accessible and inspiring way. These two inherently creative disciplines are natural allies. By bringing them together, we can derive elegant and potent designs that are grounded in practical application. This multi-functional idea is modeled all around us in nature.

  • Educates about water in a visible and experiential way. By giving citizens a direct experience of how water moves and becomes clean, they can begin to have a deeper relationship with water. Ideally, the design will reveal the nature of water and the relationship of water to life. This nature is reflected in fluid, moving water that is high in oxygen and integrated with plants and aquatic life.

  • Reflects the local culture. In order to transform our water infrastructures so they become sustainable, citizens need to understand how water fits into the culture. Living water projects also demonstrate how water treatment can be fully integrated into neighborhoods and cities. Projects can reference local and natural history in their design and function, utilize native plants and refer to the multiple cultures that settled near the water source. They can address local water issues and speak to a local watershed.

  • Is developed using an inclusive and public process. For long term solutions to our water problems we must utilize all of our vast intelligence. Projects should bring together diverse groups and bridge diverse issues. Ideally, they will support and accelerate the work of government agencies, environmental groups, indigenous people, public artists, scientists, and industry.

Start Your Own Living Water Project

Keepers of the Waters Process
To make sure a living water project has the most affect long term, the process of creating a living water project must be as important as the final project. The process is multidisciplinary, inclusive and based on relationships. Bringing together artists, scientists and other community members to address water quality in this way can initiate changes in attitude almost immediately. When we can blend various disciplines we have more hope and can come up with better and more unique solutions.

The process outlined below is a guide, based on our experience. But you will know best what will work in your community. So feel free to rearrange the order and come up with other steps. And let us know you successes!

Before you start
We strongly encourage individuals interested in starting a project to build a team around them. This team should be multidisciplinary and as diverse as possible. It should include artists, scientists, environmentalists, community representatives, landscape architects and many other people. If the project is initiated by a government agency the team should include artists, scientists and local citizens from the beginning.

It is also important to develop your relationships within the group. That means getting to know each other very well, sitting around and telling your life stories to each other. The better your relationships among each other, the further you can go. Talk honestly about what you want from the project, what you hope to learn or get. Know your strengths and weaknesses so that you can call on each other as needed.

1. Research local water issues
What are the key water issues in the community and which water do we want to treat? Is it stormwater, sewage, combined sewer overflow, semi-arid or arid conditions, groundwater contamination, aquifer depletion, industrial and agricultural pollution? Are there endangered species issues involved? This is the information that needs to be communicated through the design of the living water project. In order to change water quality, citizens have to understand the source of their water, what’s in it and begin to take responsibility for it.

2. Envision the project
Brainstorm about what you really want to see happen in your city. Ask yourself,
a. What is the vision in all its aspects?
b. What is the science that needs to be communicated?
c. What is the water history in your city? This should cover multiple cultures over time.
d. What do people need to know about water in my community in order to change behavior?
e. Do I want to address this in my backyard, my neighborhood, or my city as a whole?
Projects do not have to be big to start a ripple. But always keep in mind that we need to clean up the water and provide people with a direct experience of water. Water quality cannot be compromised.

3. Choose a site
Site criteria are:
A. Accessibility. Making water treatment visible and educational means that people have to be able to easily get to it. Ideally, your project should be placed so that it is integrated into the daily lives of citizens.
B. Proximity to water that needs to be treated. Living water gardens need to actually change water quality, even if it is on a demonstration scale, so there needs a water source nearby to treat.
C. Size. The size may help determine the amount of water that can be treated, but you can also be creative and innovative in your choice of systems.

4. Develop partnerships
As you narrow down your site search, develop the partnerships that will allow you to acquire the site for your project. Your partners can be government agencies, environmental groups, schools, corporations and community associations. These partners can help assure funding for the project as well as contribute important information and ideas. They are also crucial in assisting you to build community support.

5. Feasibility Study
A feasibility study will answer many of the technical questions such as: how large to make the treatment ponds, how much water can be treated, the best ways to move the water, what the contaminants are, and which plants are most appropriate for the contaminants and climate.

6. Organize community support
Organizing community support is an ongoing activity. Without backing and excitement from the community, government agencies are often reluctant to put money and support into innovative ideas like this. Because living water gardens are so multi-functional, citizens can easily grasp their benefits and usually are enthusiastic. Make presentations to civic groups, religious organizations, neighborhood associations, schools, and professional organizations. Also keep your local media informed about your various activities and successes.

7. Create design team
This team should include scientists, landscape architects and artists from the very beginning. It can also involve hydrologists, bioremediation specialists and engineers.

8. Organize a community workshop and design charrette
The event can include hands-on water experiments, drawing, brainstorming, and sharing of scientific, cultural and community issues. Use your imagination to create a fun, positive and open-ended event.