Planners for Public Pools

On hot days when I was a kid, my mom would occasionally load the car with a bag of towels and sunscreen and take my sisters and me to the pool. We rolled down all four windows to feel the breeze that lasted for the 20 sticky minutes it took to get there. I remember the blue-green water, thick with children’s bodies, shouting and waving and turning flips. While the pool was never particularly clean, I don’t ever remember caring. It was a break from the hot and desperate boredom of summer vacation.1

1947 postcard of midcentury pool aesthetics. Credit: Postcard Roundup

While planners love parks in many forms – from wild conservation areas and landscaped public parks to community gardens, pop-up pocket parks, and park(ing) day – they don’t always think of public pools as parks. But pools function as parks in many ways: they invite physical activity, recreation, communion, and chance interaction with strangers. The unique and intimate public realm of the municipal pool – people take off their clothes when they go to the pool and basically share an oversized bathtub – has a storied history. By revisiting this history, we can see the influence of the public pool on health, environment, and social outcomes that planners care about.

The oldest pool known to man is the 5,000-year-old Great Bath of Mohenjodaro in what is now Pakistan. The pool is so beloved that the its geometric architecture is depicted on Pakistan’s currency. Millennia later, the Romans used public pools for sport and military training. But for most of human history, public pools offered a place for bathing, and this tradition continues in public bathhouses across the world.

Ancient pool, Mohenjodaro in Pakistan. Credit: Saqib Qayyum

In the United States, too, the public pool was a place for getting clean throughout the nineteenth century. As Jeff Wiltse describes in Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, early public pools were segregated by sex and by social class, but not by race or ethnicity. Working class immigrants, African-Americans, and Anglo whites all enjoyed the public pools together during times set aside for women and for men.

10832_8-19-1936_Hamilton Fish Pool with Play Center in background-lg
Hamilton Fish Pool in New York City, 1936. Built by the Works Progress Administration. Source: NYC Department of Parks and Recreation

The early twentieth century saw an explosion in recreational swimming, which inspired creativity in swimming pool design and size. This was also the era of segregation, and as public policy created and enforced black-white segregation in cities, municipal leaders implemented segregation in public pools. As symbols of Jim Crow and broader segregation, pools became a centerpiece of civil rights resistance.

Six young men protest Jim Crow by taking a dip. Credit: Universal Pops Flickr user. This photo is part of an exhibit at the Raleigh City Museum, Raleigh, North Carolina.

As Wiltse writes, public pools were community resources over which claims for racial justice were articulated. In 1962, for instance, four black swimmers and two white swimmers entered Raleigh’s white-only Pullen Park Pool together in protest. The City of Raleigh shuttered the pool in response, although it was later reopened and eventually replaced with the indoor Pullen Aquatic Center. Many cities closed pools rather than integrate them, a practice deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1971 case Palmer v. Thompson because it denied all residents, not just some, access to pools.

Swimming isn’t the only pool activity at Philadelphia’s Pop-Up Pool Project. Credit: Monica Peters, Knight Foundation

Fifty years later, many public pools serve neighborhoods or cities that still have de facto segregation, but as with any community asset, thoughtful outreach and community-building projects can help cross social and racial boundaries. Public pools have enormous social, health-related, and design potential. Planners should take inspiration from projects that have recognized the twenty-first century potential for the public pool as a community asset: In Philadelphia, the pilot Pop-Up Pool Project breathed new life into the concrete surroundings of the public pool by adding “low-cost/high-design” elements like playful furniture. Similarly, in North Minneapolis, swimmers enjoy the first modern pool that is kept clean by an ecological system and filtered by plants instead of chemicals (the pool vacuum also helps). City Lab reports on floating pools, some with swimmers and some still on paper, that rest in natural bodies of water like New York City’s East River. These projects demonstrate the potential for pools to help us move toward many different kinds of social and environmental goals.

What is the name of your favorite pool? Let us know in the Comments.

Featured Image: Pop-Up Pool Project in Philadelphia. Credit: John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

1 While writing this article, I talked to my mom about taking us to the pool. It turns out that she can only ever remember going to the indoor pool with us! The indoor pool had its own allure, with its frigid water and large group showers where adults dared to roam without even a bathing suit on.

About the Author

Amanda Whittemore Martin is an AICP-certified city planner and PhD student at UNC. She has done work in D.C., Nevada, New Orleans, Rhode Island, and across the southeastern states. Her research focuses on strategies that direct public and private investments toward shared prosperity, with a special focus on economic resilience in coastal communities. She holds a BA from Harvard and a master’s degree from MIT, and she loves to go swimming.