With the psychological benefits associated with water, it is no wonder water features are an integral part of garden design. Since at least the eighteenth century, doctors have prescribed trips to the seaside to improve their patients’ well-being. Britain’s love affair with water stretches all the way to Aquae Sulis, located in what is today Bath; there both Briton and Roman alike would seek relaxation in its natural hot springs.
Access to water is known to both alleviate stress and promote serenity. For example, psychologists from the ‘Blue Gym’ project found that people have preference for images with water than those with none. Interestingly, the same project found that images with both blue and green garnered the most favourable response (an interesting tip for those designing their garden).
So why is this the case? Why do humans love blue and green? It is probable that our love for water is hard-coded in our genes to ensure our survival. It is a hangover from when humans were hunters and gatherers, when the colours of blue and green signalled a resource rich environment that was conducive to your long term survival. To our savannah-dwellings ancestors, habitat selection was of paramount importance, and lush grasslands and clumps of trees provided evidence of abundant wildlife and a good supply of water.
It is not incidental that rivers, lakes and seas are blue, and plant life green. Only a combination of both could ensure survival and a view of both signalled the jackpot. It is from this that humans have developed a sense of pleasure when we witness such a view. While now such a view is not necessary for survival, the genetic heritage remains as evolution takes place over extremely long periods, far beyond the 20,000 odd years humans have been living in permanent settlements.
Humans’ preferences for certain habitats have been confirmed in a number of surveys. In one, people from around the world were all shown standardised photos of five landscapes – deciduous forest, tropical forest, open savannah with trees, coniferous forest, and desert – and no category stood out, except that of the desert, which had a slightly negative response. (It is, unsurprisingly, an environment that is both hostile to human life and resource scarce.) When the experiment was extended to young children, they expressed a marked preference for the savannah (where early human evolution took place) as well as landscapes with water, trees, game animals, and cloud patterns among others, which offer opportunities for both food and water.
In another survey, a professional polling organisation conducted a poll of art preferences in ten countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, and found that blue was the most popular colour, followed by green. And again, there was a marked preference for water, plants, and large animals, both wild and domestic, among others.
Indeed, it is likely that such colours also provide animals a rudimentary pleasure as such environments sustain the majority of life on earth, provided they in fact see in colour. Indeed, animals with comparatively low sentience may find it hard to enjoy anything else.
Now, when do man-made water features pop up in human history? Famously, the Romans built a system of aqueducts to supply the city of Rome with water, which was necessary to feed the expanding metropolis. These aqueducts utilised gravity to transport water from the surrounding hills, which was then stored in large cisterns. From these cisterns, the water would then travel through pipes to public distribution points and individual’s houses where there might be fountains. To power these fountains, the Romans again utilised gravity, as because a foot of height generates 0.43 pounds per square inch of water pressure, even a small cistern could power a fountain. As a sidenote, the Romans were not the first to use gravity to power fountains as even such primitive societies such as the Maya did so.
The power of gravity could be utilised in other ways to power fountains. Jumping forward to the 18th century, King Louis XIV’s fountain complex at Versailles was powered by the river Seine. It utilised an convoluted system of 14 huge water wheels to power pistons for over 200 water pumps. The water was transferred through a system of reservoirs up the hill into an aqueduct, which then distributed the water to the various fountains on the grounds. In the intervening years between the romans and Versailles, fountains would find their greatest popularity in the Islamic world (in the famous paradise gardens), and later renaissance Italy. It was in these two golden ages that saw the emergence of such artists and engineers that could enable their construction. The surviving examples from these periods are still highly popular today.
Other more complicated methods of pumping water emerged in time such as hydraulic rams and steam engines. The former is not too dissimilar to the water wheel in that it requires no power other than the kinetic energy of flowing water. The device, in effect, takes in water at one height, and outputs water at another higher height. It was invented in 1796 by Joseph Michel Montgolfier, who is otherwise famous as one of the inventors of the hot air balloon. The steam pump, and its successor the electric pump, would prove revolutionary and greatly increase the power of fountains, enabling such fountains as the King Fahd’s Fountain that produces the largest water jets on earth, possibly surpassing a 1,000 feet.
Now, returning to the original question, a water feature is likely to signal a plentiful supply of water, and allow one to feel relaxed, and at home. Even better, the sound of running water will allow such relaxation when in earshot. Then, once placed in the greenery of the garden, it provides the perfect environment for a human to relax. Now thanks to advances in technology, you can use solar energy to power your feature, allowing one to both save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Jorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!
His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.
Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.