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Fountains and water features have had a prominent and enduring presence in Australian cities yet have received little critical historical attention. This article develops the novel concept of civic water, treating it as a practice that uses the sensory qualities of water to attract viewer-‘readers’ and convey a range of messages. The active ornamentality inherent in moving water lends it a particular power to inscribe meaning in public spaces. In an intertextual way, referring to a longer, evolving tradition of ornamental water, those practising civic water have used it to tell stories about the achievements of an urban society, with infrastructure, civilisation and nature emerging as important themes across time and space. In imposing these stories upon public spaces, civic water reflects the power of individuals and organisations to shape public discourse and behaviour. Like all storytelling, however, civic water is subject to multiple uses and contested interpretations.
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