The Basics

If there is one substance that sets our planet apart in the known universe, it is water.  It is simultaneously ubiquitous, as Anuradha Mathur & Dilip da Cunha say1, and singular in its importance to life on earth.  At its most basic, water is a polar molecule consisting of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms.  Water has several basic characteristics that should inform how we understand its role in design and in the landscapes we design in: 

  1. Water is present in solid, liquid, and gas.  While the work of landscape architects and designers tends to focus on liquid water, solid and gaseous water must also be considered.  Water changes between states as a result of temperature change altering the strength of hydrogen bonding between molecules: water vapour occurs when high heat breaks hydrogen bonds, liquid water occurs when mild temperatures allow to hydrogen bonds to form, break, and reform; and ice occurs when very low temperatures allow hydrogen bonds to remain fixed.  Unlike many substances, when water freezes into ice it becomes crystalline and less dense, which allows ice to float on water’s surface.   
  2. Water is a solvent.  Liquid water has the ability to carry many dissolved substances in it.  This characteristic is one of the primary ways by which life-giving nutrients travel through and between ecosystems.  It is also how harmful contaminants can spread out from a single source.  
  3. Water is a temperature regulator.  This is because water takes significantly more energy to heat up than air.  This is why areas near the ocean or large lakes tend to have milder climates than areas further from water.  This characteristic of water can be used effectively to combat extreme heat events and urban heat island effect, for example. 
  4. Water is cohesive and adhesive. Cohesion allows water molecules to hold on to each other, which results in phenomena such as surface tension and the forming of droplets.  Also involved in the forming of droplets is adhesion, which allows water molecules to hold to other molecules around them2.    

The states and characteristics of water help determine the global water cycle, by which water evaporates, condenses, transports, precipitates, infiltrates, and flows3. The water cycle is an critical part of global weather patterns.

However, the wonder of water goes far beyond its chemical and physical characteristics. It is both a necessity for life and a focal point of thought. Few other elements occupy the intersection of practical needs and cultural imagination so thoroughly. Environmental designers must be deeply considerate of this intersection when designing with water: water-informed designs must respond to the physical characteristics of water and the pragmatic needs of site, occupants, and ecosystems all within the local cultural environment. This blog aims to encourage this holistic, site-informed design by initiating thought and conversation on a series of related topics which are by no means exhaustive. The particularities of watery landscapes are numerous, and ripe for discovery by environmental designers equipped with curiosity and thoughtful questions. 

[1] Mathur and da Cunha, “Wetness Is Everywhere.”

[2] Khan Academy, “Lesson Summary: Water and Life”

[3] Sciencing, “The Role of Water in the Ecosystem”


Khan Academy. “Lesson Summary: Water and Life.”

Khan Academy. “The Water Cycle.”

Mathur, Anuradha, and Dilip da Cunha. “Wetness Is Everywhere.” Journal of Architectural Education 74, no. 1 (January 2, 2020): 139–40.

Sciencing. “Role of Water in the Ecosystem.”

Additional Resources

Sciencing. “Role of Water in the Ecosystem.”

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