The Big Aquatic Picture

By Jim McCloskey

I’ve written a couple of my recent blogs about public pools, access to them, their cost, their status and my growing concern that, for a complex of reasons, swimming skills and our basic societal inclination to be water-involved is slowly moving onto the cultural version of the endangered species list.

It’s in this context that I call your attention to a book by Jeff Wiltse called Contested Waters:  A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2007).  Early in the text, the author, a historian at the University of Montana, neatly summarizes the underpinnings of my own attempts to address this subject:

Municipal swimming pools were extraordinarily popular during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Cities throughout the country built thousands of pools – many of them larger than football fields – and adorned them with sand beaches, concrete decks, and grassy lawns.

Tens of millions of Americans flocked to these public resorts to swim, sunbathe, and socialize. In 1933 an extensive survey of Americans’ leisure-time activities conducted by the National Recreation Association found that as many people swam frequently as went to the movies frequently.  In other words, swimming was as much a part of Americans’ lives as was going to the movies.

Furthermore, Americans attached considerable cultural significance to swimming pools during this period. Pools became emblems of a new, distinctly modern version of the good life that valued leisure, pleasure, and beauty. They were, in short, an integral part of the kind of life Americans wanted to live.  

It’s a scholarly book – it started life as Wiltse’s doctoral dissertation – but it is so much on point with so many of my own concerns and thought processes that I recommend picking up a copy to anyone interested in learning more about the history of public aquatic facilities and, if you’ve followed my train of thought at all, in thinking about the future of watershaping.

As I hope I’ve conveyed in my own writings, this discussion is about much, much more than swimming pools alone:  All of the forms of contained, controlled water being designed and built by watershaping professionals are part of this sweeping cultural picture, mainly because comfort around water drives not only the appeal of swimming pools but also feeds situations in which people are comfortable around ponds, fountains, interactive waterfeatures and all the other aquatic possibilities watershapers pursue in meeting modern tastes and trends.

Back to Wiltse, who writes:  “From the 1920s to the 1950s, municipal pools served as centers of community life and arenas for public discourse.”  He continues,

The proliferation of private swimming pools after the mid-1950s, however, represented a retreat from public life.  Millions of Americans abandoned public pools precisely because they preferred to pursue their recreational activities within smaller and more socially selective communities.  

Instead of swimming, socializing, and fighting with a diverse group of people at municipal pools, private-pool owners fenced themselves into their own backyards.  

This results, he adds, in “atomized recreation” – and, I would add, in a significant reduction in opportunities to learn to swim as older facilities close and are replaced by non-aquatic options (as in the case of one of the two pools I swam in as a child).  What was once a commonly accessible skill, in other words, is becoming increasingly inaccessible and often quite costly.

I’m aware that it may be too early to sound an alarm, because there are still lots of old-school municipal pools in operation and many of them have been or are being updated or replaced.  But I must ask:  If swimming loses its cultural standing, what does this say about the future of watershaping?

More to come.

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