Ecological Restoration Through Waterfire Festival in California

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“Ecological restoration is not only the rehabilitation of the environment, it is a celebration of a new relationship with nature and can be regarded as in some sense a new genre of ritual”. The restoration of the environment thorough embarking on new projects to celebrate the community and the environment in a harmonious way allows growth and sustainability of the community. Such was the idea behind the creation of the now much anticipated festival in California – the Water fire festival. Throughout the history of human kind, public displays of art and expression has been a prominent feature that changed communities and the basis of thought itself. A sculpture that brought thousands of people together and helped raise the community to lead a better and healthier lifestyle.

The waterfire festival was first started by Barnby Evans in 1994 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of First Night providence and has become a public art phenomenon internationally attracting thousands of people annually. First night, initially started by Boston, was an alternative to express art and community in a manner that brought communities during New Years eve and inspired many other local communities to participate in a similar fashion. One of them was the waterfire festival. The word fire is used to describe life, activities, power and so many other things that show vigor and strength. This was exactly what Evans has proved with the WaterFire project in Rhode Island, California.

The waterfire festival uses the display of the three elements of nature – earth, water and fire. The idea of restoring the river and creating an attraction that would promote environmental preservation, as Turner states in his book:

“It seems to me that restoration is part of a new paradigm, a new image of the interconnectedness of the planet suggesting a new kind of meansngful world which we are only beginning to fully understand. But I think there is enough understanding for restorations to try to spread the message to enter the rhetorical arena of cultural change with the powerful medium of ritual. The task, then is the invention of a ritual tradition based on the act of restoration. What will these rituals look like? One intriguing model for ecological restoration ritual is festival”

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The waterfire organization now holds annual festivals that promote various activities ranging from culture, health, education to sciences and art extending for almost three months at a time. Albeit the festival being conducted once a year, planning and preparation takes almost the entire year and involves the community surrounding the Providence riverfront.

Each year, over a thousand people attend the festival and the communities has been seen to flourish around this festival as Evans mentions in his interview, “in the 90s, Wall street mentioned Providence as another smudge on the map… and with very less place of commercial transactions”. Now, the Providence has ample of restaurants and businesses running which has created a vibrant and diverse area of Rhode Island.

The festival employs staff but also works with many volunteers throughout the year and several artists, academics and activists bringing together diverse people and their thoughts and ideas. The restoration of Providence with an ever changing schedule, ideas and events annually keeps the place “fresh” and vibrant attracting dozens of people without making them lose interest because of repetition.

Among many reasons, this festival has also contributed in opening Providence to the public and helping tourism in the city. Since the festival attracts tourists, its helps local businesses to create more sale and in turn, help the economy of the city. Providence community comes together in turning the area into a more open and friendly place for locals and visitors alike while also being able to show their culture and hospitality. Talking about culture, since the event was initiated with the idea of being an alternative to celebrating New Years with art instead of the usual wine and dine, it attracts and promotes expression of art and culture.

“The day lighting and relocating of Providence’s rivers was one of the most significant urban design actions ever undertaken in the city, and the positive consequences for the city’s image were enormous. The new riverfront parkland, at the heart of downtown, provided the city with a visual focal point that it had previously lacked”

For the restoration and upkeep of this environmental sculpture, the community and the government have been involved in several facets of its progress until now. Funding to support the construction of such a sculpture, the up keep of it, and raising the rest of the communities around it are all a continuous community effort.

Although the Water fire festival is easily comparable to many other festivals, it stands out due to its purpose environmental preservation while transforming the community through cultural and social values and the educational purpose of the event itself. Quinn in his research studied the rise of urban arts festivals and how the city authorities disregard the social value while using it as a source of income. 


  • Turner, R. (1992). Restoration as festival. Restoration & Management Notes, 10(2), 177-180.
  • Nettleship, W. (1989). Public Sculpture as a Collaboration with a Community. Leonardo, 22(2), 171-174.
  • McGuinness, D. (2016, December 29). A short history of first night. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from
  • Award-Winning WaterFire in Providence: Schedule & General Info. (n.d.). Retrieved October 5, 2019, from
  • Ryan, B. D. (2006). Incomplete and incremental plan implementation in Downtown Providence, Rhode Island, 1960-2000. Journal of Planning History, 5(1), 35-64.
  • Quinn, B. (2005). Arts festivals and the city. Urban studies, 42(5-6), 927-943. 
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