By Jim McCloskey
As I wrote in a recent blog (“The Way-Back Machine,” September 23), I envy you if you live in a community where your public pools are still being used to teach people of all ages (and especially children) to swim.
It means that kids in your area are able to discover swimming in capable, confidence-building environments – the sort of supportive circumstances that were found just about everywhere when I was a boy. In my childhood pools, we were a cross-section of races, ethnicities and ages from six or so up to 12, and children of all economic and social strata were brought together to learn an extraordinarily valuable life skill.
I ask again: If kids aren’t gaining confidence in and around water at some point in their young lives, will they ever come anywhere close to identifying favorably with pools, spas, ponds, rivers and oceans the way I (and countless other kids I grew up with) always did?
As a member of the watershaping community, I sidle up to answering that question from at least two directions. First, we should all see learn-to-swim programs as the entire watershaping industry’s life blood. While the immediate focus might seem to be the swimming pool sector, comfort around water is important for every watershaping sector. Imagine future generations for which in-pool experiences are less available, less convenient and even impossible to find. Will these non-swimming children, grown up, think first of a pool, fountain or pond when the time comes to shape their personal surroundings?
Second, the pool sector should focus on ways to make its commercial products as affordable, serviceable, durable and omnipresent as they can possibly be. To be sure, this will involve bucking trends that are seeing municipal pools becoming mixed-use entertainment centers rather than single-purpose recreation resources; in my book, however, these are trends that need to be bucked.
At a time when our civic infrastructure is suffering on so many levels, it’s difficult to turn the discussion to swimming pools. If bridges, roads, electrical grids and water systems are all overdue for attention at costs that swing to the billions of dollars, who wants to spend time talking about watershapes that are too often seen as civic luxuries?
At the same time, I frequently see stories about cities and towns that collectively gasp when they learn that replacing the sixty- or seventy-year-old pools that have served for generations but can no longer be effectively maintained will cost millions and millions of dollars at a time when there’s no budget to address that need or any of a hundred other open items on the agenda.
Is there a way to innovate past these roadblocks? If you have any ideas, please share them with me – maybe concepts related to working with (and de-leaking) old plumbing systems or placing pools within pools? These rehabilitated facilities might not have that brand-new look, but if continuing to offer places to swim at reasonable costs is the objective, I see room for compromise.
I know that municipal pools are still being built, of course, but I suspect that this number is far smaller than what is needed to serve our growing general population, and it certainly doesn’t represent a one-for-one replacement of old pools that have fallen into disrepair and disuse.
I was raised in a city that, when I was a kid, had about 60,000 residents and three municipal pools – two associated with public schools, one with a public park. That same town now has at least twice as many residents and zero pools that are open to the public. (The park pool is gone; the school pools are still there and in use but are no longer available for non-school use.)
So I ask: What does all of this say about our cultural standing and the future of swimming and watershaping? Have public swimming pools become too costly for their own good – and for ours as watershaping professionals?
Again, more to come.