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Blog art croppedBy Jim McCloskey

Through the past couple years, I’ve followed with great and growing interest a collection of news items about international efforts to bring safe, spacious swimming facilities to urban waterways.

If memory serves, the first stories I noticed were about the Flussbad (“river pool”), a proposal to transform a section of a canal into a public swimming resource for the citizens of Berlin, Germany.  I also recall seeing stories about ambitions to plunk floating pools down in the midst of waterways in New York City, London, Houston and Portland, Ore., to mention a few.

There are three concepts here that fascinate me.  

First, this “movement” seems to be an expression of the very human desire to be out in nature to enjoy the experience of more or less “wild” water.  I once lived in Eugene, Ore., on the Willamette (upriver from Portland by a fair distance) and its beautiful, wilder tributary, the McKenzie.  On warm summer days when I rode my bicycle the 12 miles to work, I frequently paused by the McKenzie to cool off on the way home, mostly dipping my feet but occasionally plunging right in.  It was glorious.

To be sure, Eugene isn’t nearly as urban as the cities mentioned above, and its long stretches of water were really quite pristine.  I certainly took advantage of that fact, and I can understand the impulse to want direct, safe access to swimmable water in other places, too – even if it’s in the treated water of a pool floating on a river that might not itself be safe for human immersion.  Seems like our birthright, doesn’t it?

Second, these stories indicate that efforts to clean up urban waterways through the past several years are having enough of an effect that people are beyond just starting to think about taking a dip, either directly in or surrounded by water from which they likely would have recoiled in the past.  I was never a fan of the Nixon Administration, but the Clean Water Act has produced encouraging results to the point where clean urban waterways are more than a pipe dream.

Again to be sure, the water of London’s Thames, of New York’s Hudson and even of Portland’s Willamette are still questionable for human exposure, but it’s close enough now that the people pursuing these various “river pool” projects are confident that a bit of water treatment by either natural or chemical means will suffice to make the water safely accessible.

Third, it seems to me that we may be headed for a civic pool-building boom of a sort we haven’t seen in a couple generations.  People want to swim, and to do so they need places to take the plunge.  My guess is that those who initiated the various “river pool” projects started thinking along these waterborne lines because they were frustrated by the lack of affordable land-based settings for pools and therefore set their sights on what could easily be described as open space.

Land for big, inground public pool construction is, of course, tough to come by in urban areas, and I’m certain cost is a huge factor driving the pursuit of options in which floating pools are anchored on urban waterfronts.  If I were a venture capitalist with a wad of available cash, I’d be tempted to put a portion of it into developing turnkey systems that can be picked up and used globally:  If the price is right, this could be a huge opportunity for years to come.

It’s just amazing that programs of this sort are now under passionate discussion in so many places around the world.  Here’s hoping that a couple more of these pools are set in place (so far as I know, Copenhagen and Vienna are among the few cities that already have river-based swimming spots in operation) and that the pressure rises sufficiently to make “river pools” common.

I was happy to leave Eugene when I did, but I do miss the McKenzie.  It’s my reasonable hope that “river pool fever” takes hold where I now live in southern California before they finish restoration of the Los Angeles River:  A big swimming pool in its downtown portion would make the new parkland a much more integral part of the city’s social and recreational fabric.

All very cool and hopeful, I think.

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