Making lemonade from research lemons: three lessons from studying the effect of a misting water feature in a public space

Imagine that you have spent months working out the details of your research design for a summer-long study on a new public space the city is piloting. This space will test three prototype designs, each featuring a misting water feature somewhere in the space. Where’s the lemon, you ask? The misters were supposed to be on full-time, but in reality, when we showed up to run our study, they were only working right about half the time. This convenient little malfunction set us up for a balanced study on the effects of water features – hence the lemonade.

Plenty of lab-based studies have previously looked at large and small water features with varying degrees of audibility. These lab experiments suggest that water features can be used to influence how users evaluate the soundscapes of public spaces, for example improving ratings on pleasantness and tranquility. But it’s less clear how these experiments hold up when water features are evaluated outside of a laboratory setting. Enter our recent study, A tale of three misters, to shed some light on exactly this question.

We found that, on its own, a misting water feature is not a guarantee for an improved soundscape. Two of the designs were rated as less chaotic and less loud when the misters were on, but the third design was the opposite. This probably had a lot to do with the way the misters were integrated in their designs and has some design implications. While the misters for Designs 1 and 2 were conveniently located, the misters for Design 3 were located right in the gravel pathways. This often left a muddy, unusable space. Lesson #1: Like all other aspects of design, the design of the sound experience has to be considered purposefully. Consider the effect the mister will have on the use of the space, given the temperature and time of year. If it clashes, rethink!

The study also provided insight on the way that a water feature might affect soundscape evaluations. Respondents who said they heard water sounds consistently rated them as pleasant. But the mister didn’t displace the sound of traffic – quite the opposite. When respondents mentioned water sounds, they were more likely to mention hearing traffic sounds. Instead, the sound from the misters recalled memories and experiences in the minds of the users of the space. For example, reminding us of the cooling feeling of water on a hot summer day. Those recollections influenced the soundscape evaluations in a positive way. Lesson #2: consider the meanings the sound might evoke.

The truly surprising finding was this: the decreased chaotic and loudness ratings were consistent even when it’s unlikely that questionnaire respondents could hear the misters. Lesson #3: misters don’t need to be audible to affect how the users of a public space evaluate the way it sounds. It’s unclear why this is the case. One possibility is that the mister attracts people to the space, in turn changing our expectations of the space. We look forward to more research in the years to come about what might be going on here. In the meantime, we were happy with this batch of lemonade.