Cool Places to Cool Off: Realizing the Potential of Public Pools

Let’s build bigger, better, and finer pools, that’s real democracy. Take away the sham and hypocrisy of clothes, don a swimsuit, and we’re all the same.
 — 
Nathan Kaufman, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, 2007

Everyone jumps in at the Sheltering Arms Pool in New York City. Photo courtesy of NYC Department of Parks & Recreation.

In the early 20th century, swimming was the most popular active recreational activity in America, and public pools were the most popular place to do it. Because everyone wanted to be at the pool, cities went all in, building thousands of public swimming pools to meet the demand. Notably, these were not modest projects, but destinations that featured patios, lawns, sandy beaches, and other amenities to encourage lounging and relaxation. The Astoria Park Pool in Queens, New York, a vast WPA-era pool with views of the East River and Triboro Bridge exemplifies the ambition of swimming facilities built during this period.

But as is so often the case with public space, beneath the beauty and optimism of these pools lay an undercurrent of racism — an unwillingness to share the waters with African-American swimmers — that would lead to their decline and that still rears its ugly head to this day. By the 1950s, racial segregation had become the norm at many public pools across the country, enforced explicitly by ordinance or through intimidation and, at times, violence. When reformers, fighting against this injustice in the courts, succeeded in banning municipalities from segregating pools and other facilities, many residents responded by abandoning these public assets for the exclusivity of private swim clubs and backyard pools. According to Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, when middle and upper class residents abandoned the public pool, many cities pulled back on maintenance and construction, shifting to designs that were small, sterile, and bare, rather than the leisure destinations and great public spaces enjoyed by previous generations.

Boys cool off at the Francisville Playground Pool in Philadelphia. Photo credits: Ben Bryant.

The historical legacy of segregation at public pools does not have to define their future. In many countries, swimming pools continue to serve as community hubs and centers of public life for swimmers of all backgrounds. And if you look beyond the drab facade of your community’s public pool, you will likely find a fun, functional space with dedicated, caring, and creative lifeguards, rec center leaders, and volunteers who strive to make the pool a safe place for the community to enjoy.

A few cities are working to reverse the legacy of disinvestment and reinvigorate their public pools for the 21st century. With innovative programming and some light-touch (and relatively inexpensive) upgrades, their pools are drawing in a new generation of visitors, strengthening existing recreation centers, and providing residents with opportunities to swim, meet neighbors, and build lasting memories.

“Not Francisville. Miamiville.”

Philadelphia has more than 70 outdoor public pools, one for almost every neighborhood and the most per capita of any city in the nation. Yet most of these pools are bland, sterile environments with visible signs of decay. In 2015, urban planner (and co-author) Ben Bryant developed a strategy to show people in his home city of Philadelphia just how amazing our existing public pools can be.

Poolside yoga at Philadelphia’s Francisville Playground Pool. Photo credits: Ben Bryant.

Armed with a grant from the Knight Cities Challenge and taking cues from the tactical urbanism playbook, Ben worked with Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation to launch the “Pop-Up Pool” project at North Philadelphia’s Francisville Pool. Wooden lounge chairs, bright Caribbean colors, and palm trees earned the pool the nickname “Miamiville” among long-time residents, and this public pool quickly became one of the city’s new go-to destinations for long-time residents and newcomers alike. The team added weekly programming, such as Aqua Zumba and pool-side yoga, to provide fun, free, and accessible exercise opportunities that everyone from the community could enjoy. City leadership, some of whom had been professed skeptics of the idea, took notice of the project’s success, and the mayor quickly announced his intention to expand the pilot project to as many of Philadelphia’s 70 public pools as possible.

A small investment makes our public pools into a hub for community gathering and free summer relaxation. I’ve never felt prouder to live in Philadelphia!

-Philadelphia resident, Swim Philly Survey, 2016

New Pools, New Cities

The success of the Pop-Up Pool Project sparked a new movement that has since transformed more than a dozen public pools in three major cities. These pools have gone from drab to vibrant, activated by programming and a range of light-touch interventions such as seating, shade, and good old-fashioned paint at a tiny fraction of the cost of building new facilities. Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation expanded the Swim Philly initiative into five new neighborhoods; in New Jersey, inspired by the Pop-up Pool Project, the City of Camden’s Connect the Lots initiative transformed one of the city’s public pools into a vibrant, colorful urban oasis with weekly Aqua Aerobics classes.

Aqua Aerobics on a sunny day at the Francisville Playground Pool in Philadelphia. Photo credits: Ben Bryant.

And this summer, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation launched their own pilot project, “Cool Pools,” to transform five neighborhood pools through colorful paint, playful designs, furnishings, and small-scale improvements. Cool Pools targeted facilities in high-poverty neighborhoods with dated designs, excess fencing, and lots of street exposure, softening the hard concrete and steel fences with banners, umbrellas, and tropical plants.

New York City’s Sheltering Arms Pool is a popular spot for neighborhood residents. Photo courtesy of NYC Department of Parks & Recreation.

The New York City Parks Department has also added to their existing aquatics and summer meals programs by offering on-deck games and pop-up programming — led by the Urban Park Rangers and partners like the Brooklyn Public Library and The Uni Project — to engage children and families waiting to enter the pool. Cool Pools was designed to be fun and to maximize the potential of city pools — and with a little creativity, the Parks Department was able to make ordinary places extraordinary.

Paint and outdoor furniture at Fisher Pool in East Elmhurst, Queens. Photo courtesy of NYC Department of Parks & Recreation.

Extreme Makeover: Public Pool Edition

Witnessing the transformation of these once bare, austere public pools into colorful, thriving public spaces is having a profound impact on the public’s perception of municipal pools. Where these “extreme makeovers” have occurred, pools are experiencing an increase in attendance and visitor satisfaction. In Philadelphia, the first year of the program saw a visitor increase of 50 percent, 360 participants in new aquatic programming, and 80 percent of visitors said the pop-up made the pool a better community gathering space. Although data collection is still ongoing for New York City’s inaugural Cool Pools season, the success of the initiative has already become clear: across all five pool sites, attendance has increased by more than 17 percent, with attendance at one pool up over 60 percent and more than 90 percent of visitors — one-third of whom are new — giving the Cool Pools high marks on onsite surveys.

Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation has expanded the Swim Philly initiative into five new neighborhoods. Photo credits: Ben Bryant.

In addition to attracting new visitors, Cool Pools and Swim Philly are creating community hubs and building a new constituency for pools — voters willing to support these resources with their tax dollars and by volunteering to get involved with their local pool or recreation center. And at sites located at the seams of socioeconomically segregated communities, pools are attracting a diverse mix of visitors that is more reflective of neighborhood demographics, providing the foundation for socioeconomic mixing to occur.

And perhaps most impactfully, these makeovers are inspiring cities to rethink the role and potential of their public pool systems. When city leaders start to look at public pools not just as places to cool off, but as cool places, nearly anything is possible.

Children play by the pool at Douglass & Degraw Pool in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of NYC Department of Parks & Recreation.

Lessons Learned

So, you have pools in your city that could use some investment, but you don’t know how to run a pilot project? Here’s some advice for maximizing success:

Share Your Story. Sharing the story of the Pop-Up Pool Project was key to broadening its reach to more pools and cities. We took numerous photos documenting the experiences of visitors and collected data to show the pools impact, allowing us to tell a compelling and convincing story of what similar improvements could achieve at other neighborhood pools. In fact, it was sharing the story of Swim Philly at the Reimagining the Civic Commons Network convening in Akron, Ohio that inspired Mitchell J. Silver, NYC Parks Commissioner to initiate a similar program.

Listen, Learn & Refine. Building in methods and opportunities to collect and review data, hear from pool users, and identify what works — and what doesn’t — has been key to the success of these initiatives. Studying what site improvements and programs made the biggest impact, through a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods is enabling us to refine and adapt our program models in cost effective ways. And in seeking to better understand what interventions have had the biggest impact, we are learning that the cost of many effective elements is relatively small, and that the targeted improvements and colorful furniture are just as important as welcoming signage, games, and friendly staff.

The Power of People. Pools are unique among public spaces in that they require multiple staff (managers, lifeguards, filter operators, and more) in order to function. These valuable staff maintain the pool and keep visitors safe, and they are the first faces you see when you enter the pool and the last faces you see when you leave. Throughout the many iterations of these projects, we have seen that great staff members — many of whom are well known to their communities — are as essential to creating a great space as the physical and programmatic improvements. High-quality maintenance, care, and programming relies on talented staff. And in all cases, long-time pool staff and residents have embraced the improvements these projects bring because, in many ways, it represents the city finally catching up to the potential and beauty of these places they’ve loved all along.

Underwater fun at the Francisville Playground Pool in Philadelphia. Photo credits: Ben Bryant.

Realizing Pools’ Potential

At the conclusion of Contested Waters, Wiltse correctly notes that the future of municipal pools in the United States is precarious. The cost of building new public pools is too great for most municipalities in today’s era of shrinking municipal budgets. Mark Oppenheimer concluded in his 2017 opinion piece in the New York Times, “Why Can’t We All Just Go To The Pool?”, a hundred years of racial and economic segregation in public pools across the country has led to the loss of a pool culture that welcomes everyone, no matter class or creed.

Small investments in fun activities at pools can pay big dividends. Photo credits: Ben Bryant.

This has led many people to conclude that vibrant public pools that bring people together are a relic of the past. The Swim Philly and Cool Pools initiatives, however, prove otherwise. These two programs demonstrate that cities can quickly and affordably reimagine their existing public pools as beautiful, lively public spaces that welcome swimmers of all backgrounds. We’ve seen that often it just takes a coat of paint, loving staff, a place to sit and relax, and an aqua Zumba class or two to restore the pool culture we’ve lost, promote socio-economic mixing, and leverage the power of public infrastructure built before most of us were born. It’s time for city leaders and neighborhood advocates to see public pools, not just as places to cool off, but as cool places.

A poolside mural celebrating New York City’s inaugural “Cool Pools” program. Photo courtesy of NYC Department of Parks & Recreation.

Contributors: Allegra Blackburn-Dwyer, Director of Strategic Initiatives for NYC Department of Parks & Recreation; and Ben Bryant, Director of Special Projects for Interface Studio LLC based in Philadelphia, PA.