Time For A Dip

Teams In Major Cities Look To Turn Polluted Rivers Into Prime Locations For Swimming


Rendering of the +Pool in New York, New York, USA

The tides may be turning when it comes to big city rivers. Waterways running through major urban centers have long held reputations for pollution—not exactly places to take a refreshing dip. But public and private organizations are working to change that by launching projects that turn urban rivers into recreational assets.


“Our intention is to change the way New Yorkers think about their river.”

—Archie Lee Coates IV, Friends of +Pool, New York, New York, USA

In July, the government of Paris, France opened three floating pools covering more than 17,000 square feet (1,579 square meters) in an artificial lake connected to the Seine River. The decades-long effort to clean Paris’ central waterway has proved popular: The pools were still maxing out their daily capacity of 1,000 swimmers one month after opening.

Similar projects have been proposed around the globe, including in Boston, Massachusetts, USA and London, England. But not all is going, well, swimmingly. These projects face many challenges, especially with regard to their wide variety of stakeholders, including designers, regulators, scientists, funders—and, most importantly, the public.

“The way we treated this from the beginning is that this project is for everyone so that everyone becomes an advocate for it,” says Archie Lee Coates IV, executive director, Friends of +Pool. The nonprofit organization has proposed a public floating pool in the shape of a plus symbol that filters river water from the East River in New York, New York, USA. Since first pursuing the project in 2010, +Pool's team has communicated its benefits to community groups, municipality councils, the mayor's office, environmental organizations and property developers. But these recreational facility projects must jump over hurdles on both the technical and regulatory fronts.


Seine River pool in Paris, France


Upstream Battles

Figuring out how to clean the East River's notoriously filthy water for use in the pool was the first big challenge the +Pool team faced. In the end, the team's engineers and architects developed a geo-textile filtration system and successfully tested it in two pilot projects in 2011 and 2013. If the pool is built, the system would clean more than 600,000 gallons (2.3 million liters) of water each day.

Bureaucratic hurdles are now the big remaining challenge. The city's existing regulations allow for just two types of swimming areas: chemically disinfected pools and bathing beaches. Neither category fits +Pool. “That's scary to regulators in the city because they've never seen this before,” Mr. Coates says. So his team decided to apply for the creation of a new regulatory category.

Despite having raised millions of dollars to fund the project, +Pool's opening date is still years away. The organization is hoping to secure a location on the river in early 2018, but even then, permitting might take anywhere from six to 24 months—and construction would take nine months. The goal is to open the pool in the next three to five years, Mr. Coates says. It would accommodate up to 2,800 people daily and mark the first time New Yorkers are allowed to swim in the river since World War II.

For Mr. Coates, the project's benefits go beyond recreation. It serves to educate the public about the importance of having clean river water—and keeping it that way, he says. “Our intention is to change the way New Yorkers think about their river.” —Novid Parsi



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