Splish Splash: Water Recycling for Kids

Thanks to a New York City Department of Environmental Protection grant of $500,000 and some ingenuity at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, play fountains at Seward Park, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, ran throughout the drought-stricken summer.

Artie Rollins, deputy chief of technical services for the parks department, devised an ingenious recycling system that collects runoff and rainwater in the park and then cleanses it of bacteria before pumping it back into a fountain for children to play in. Park rangers can also use the water for irrigation and cleaning.

“Rainwater and spray water come down through the park’s storm drains, “and are then pumped through a strainer and into the cleaning plant underneath the comfort station,” Rollins says. “An ionization system kills the bacteria, and sends it through the fountains. Any unused water is automatically recirculated every four hours.”

Though the water is not technically potable, it comes through the system incredibly clean. “I wouldn’t be afraid to drink it,” Rollins says.

It was certainly clean enough for the dozens of children who were splashing around on the sunny September afternoon I visited Seward Park. The fountain has several jets arranged in a circle that shoot out of the ground at different heights. On the drain basin is a map of the neighborhood, so kids can try to find where their home is on the map while they gambol in the spray, or as they walk over it during the winter months when the fountain is not running.

Though the system’s upkeep and maintenance costs might not save the city much money in the short term, there are important long-term benefits. “Using recycled groundwater will reduce the need for digging new wells,” says Amy Freitag, deputy commissioner of capital projects for the parks department. “And this water doesn’t need to go through treatment plants.” It also allows city parks to become greener in an actual, rather than metaphorical, sense, as it increases the water available for irrigation.

“We can start putting in plants that require more water,” Rollins says. “It’s unlimited.” Under the current grant, one playground in each of the city’s five boroughs is slated to receive a gray-water irrigation system: Thorpe Playground in the Bronx; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Brooklyn; Dry Harbor Playground in Forest Park, Queens; and Midland Beach in Staten Island are next.

But now that Seward Park has shown how well the system works, parks department officials hope eventually to install it everywhere they can. It’s an excellent example of how sustainable measures can expand, rather than limit, design options, and how experimentation is as important in sustainable design as it is in other fields.

“If Artie hadn’t been able to test this,” Freitag says, “it may have just stayed on the shelf.”

Categories: Cities