A new spray park in Utah, complete with stream and waterfalls. Image by the City of Orem.

Spray parks—those plazas with jets of shooting water—are increasingly being built as the central feature in many of our best new public spaces. As they take on that role, urban designers are getting creative with what kind of urban space a spray park can be.

Unlike traditional urban fountains, spray parks are interactive. You don't just look at them, you play in them. But unlike swimming pools, spray parks lack large expanses of standing water, and fit neatly into urban places. They're a flexible middle ground bridging the gap between public art and public recreation.

In its most basic form, a spray park is just a bunch of water jets in an open area. That can be fun on its own, but as the idea has become more popular, designers are putting spray parks in more diverse places, and coming up with more sophisticated designs.

A basic spray park in Canal Park, DC. Image by the author.

Take a look at the newest spray park in Orem, Utah (pictured above). It incorporates waterfalls and a meandering stream. You can't swim laps, but there's plenty of waterfront to dip your toes in, and plenty of space to run around or picnic. It's a drive-to suburban park, but it looks like a wonderful place to hang out.

Who would have thought to build a public space like that 40 years ago?

In DC there are 24 public spray park playgrounds, which are increasingly popular among familes with children as a more convenient neighborhood alternative to big swimming pools.

But it's in our city plazas that spray parks have really changed urban design. They're the focal point of plazas in Yards Park, Canal Park, CityCenter, Columbia Heights Plaza, the Brookland Arts Walk, Rockville Town Square, Downtown Silver Spring… Seemingly every new development or major new plaza in the Washington area includes a plaza with a spray park.

Many are relatively simple. Others, like at Yards Park, are part of vast and complex water-oriented park areas.

Yards Park, with its spray park and shallow pool.  Image by the author.

A similar effect is brewing in cities all over the country. Spray parks now dominate prominent 21st Century plazas the way statues of guys on horses dominated city squares a century ago.

And as more and more spray parks go into more and more plazas, designers are getting creative with what they look like.

Grand Park in Los Angeles. Image by Omar Bárcena licensed under Creative Commons.

And why not? Spray parks are relatively easy to build, provide a fantastic place to sit or play, instantly add vitality to any plaza, and come in endlessly diverse shapes and sizes.

Where have you seen particularly interesting spray parks incorporated into plazas? Tell us in the comments.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado and lives in Trinidad, DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post. Dan blogs to express personal views, and does not take part in GGWash's political endorsement decisions.