The troubled state of outdoor pools

Post by Mike Klassen in


burnaby park pool
Robert Burnaby Park Pool. A hidden gem but how long will it last?

Weekends are often the time we here at like to wax about urban affairs, and the subject of outdoor pools wells up from fond memories of my youth. Outdoor pools in Metro Vancouver seem like an anachronism today, a product of a different time when cities would lavish certain neighbourhoods with special amenities like public outdoor pools.

One of my cinephile favourites is a dark and complex 1968 movie titled The Swimmer featuring a strapping Burt Lancaster. In the movie Ned Merrill (Lancaster) shows up on the pool deck of a tony New England home, wearing his swim suit, on the far side of the county where he lives. In these opening scenes there is an awkward exchange between Merrill and the homeowner, an old acquaintance.

Merrill comes up with a strange scheme to "swim" across the county back to his home through the pools that dot the backyards of friends and connections. At one time I thought of trying a similar Odyssey, finding a path of outdoor pools across the city back home to Vancouver, and writing about the experience. That will have to wait for another day, but I better not wait too long as I don't think we'll have many public outdoor pools left in years to come.

The simple reason is that they are not financially sustainable, nor are they as popular as their indoor versions.

My favourite outdoor pools are in the City of Burnaby, which has four (!) outdoor pools all built in more prosperous times. While I've not visited them all, I'm told they all share similar designs for the pool in terms of range of depths, decking and shower/change facilities. The pools are opened on the Victoria Day weekend, and closed after Labour Day, making them only available for one-third of the year and therefore very expensive to recoup costs on.

Perhaps my favourite outdoor pool is the hidden gem at Robert Burnaby Park. Never heard of this place? You're not alone. I was speaking to a City of Burnaby engineer recently and even he didn't know there was a pool there (he only knew of one outdoor pool in the city).

Robert Burnaby Park is a gorgeous but challenging plot of land built on a slope south of Highway 1 near the Edmonds Street community and close to the New Westminster border. There isn't a bus route that comes near the park for several blocks, making this park the choice of a few neighbours and car commuters.

When first built the neighbourhood surrounding Robert Burnaby Park had homes all under 2500 square feet, and families had two or more kids. Today these structures are being replaced by much larger homes 4000 sq ft or higher. Family birth rates are much lower. Many of the older homes are occupied by either retired couples, or by new Canadians less drawn to outdoor pools.

Without public transportation nor the density of the Baby Boom to support these pools, taxpayer dollars are quite literally being poured down the drain to support outdoor pools.

When I decided to pedal out to East Burnaby last week to swim in my favourite outdoor pool on a warm but slightly overcast day, I was shocked to see I had the pool all to myself. Public swimming had been open for over 30 minutes, yet the pool was empty. A cashier and two lifeguards were on-hand with no customers. By the time I got in for a dip a few more swimmers arrived, but in the back of my mind I could see the meter was running.

Speaking with some of the staff I learned of other challenges the pools face. Vandalism has been a frequent problem. Recently some dirt bag had connected the pool's protective chain-link fence to the bumper of his pickup truck tearing it down. Then they had the great idea of tossing all the destroyed fence into the pool. Nice, eh?

This not only happened at one but two of Burnaby's outdoor pool facilities, prompting the Park Board to replace the chain-link with costly galvanized steel fences.

Another challenge apparently has been finding reliable caretakers for the pools. Many pools and parks have small, inexpensive caretaker residences. In trade for the low rent that cities subsidize, it's expected that these tenants will be attentive to problems like vandalism and other emergencies. But that expectation is often disappointed.

Reportedly, when a chlorine leak at one of the pools forced an emergency clean-up operation, the resident in one of these cheap suites complained about the disruption of their sleep. In another park, two residents would let their dogs off-leash in the park despite a by-law against it. "It's a shocking sense of entitlement these folks get," commented the source. "But it's really hard to find responsible tenants for these buildings."

In Vancouver, Mount Pleasant Pool became a political lightning rod. Vision Vancouver Park Board candidates like Aaron Jasper campaigned on a promise that this pool would stay open. Those close to the Vancouver Park Board knew it was a promise that couldn't be kept, and Jasper and his bumbling Vision Park Board colleagues have since had to eat a lot of crow.

A source close to the Mount Pleasant pool operation told that the facility is in such a poor state of repair that the pool has to be filled up twice before its Spring opening to allow for seepage. The sentimental attachments of the immediate neighbourhood notwithstanding, there are no plans to keep this facility open thanks to the high cost to taxpayers of operations and repairs.

I love outdoor pools, and I hope that facilities like Central Park in Burnaby or Kits Pool will always be available. But no one is building outdoor pools anymore in Metro Vancouver, and as many of these facilities come close to their fiftieth birthday I can see that there will be more tough decisions by park boards on whether to keep these pools open.


Mt. Pleasant Pool is packed with families on a sunny summer day. Most of them are clearly coming from walking/biking distance of the community centre, as the parking lot isn't even close to full, yet there are tons of parents and children enjoying some sunshine and a swim.

It's a huge disservice to the community to close this pool.

An indoor pool blocks away at Riley Park is no substitute.

What on Earth does this line suppose to mean: "new Canadians less drawn to outdoor pools."

Anecdotal evidence shows that public outdoor pools are not as popular as indoor pool facilities among some cultures who've come to Metro Vancouver in recent decades, and bigger draw for many are the whirlpools and saunas featured in newer indoor facilities. You just have to go to both kinds of facilities and see who uses them. Ask people who run the facilities, then draw your own conclusions. It's only one contributing factor that the outdoor facilities face.

Indoor pools operate at a very similar loss as outdoor pools. If not for tax dollars, we wouldn't have public swimming pools at all.
Robert Burnaby pool is part of the surrounding community and like with Mt. Pleasant pool, there really is no substitute for something like truly would be a disservice to the surrounding community if it were to ever close.
On hot days, this pool is packed! On overcast days, not so much, but lessons continue to bring in a revenue prior to the public swim.
The area is facing a shortage of children-- this is true. One can correlate Elementary School numbers (Second Street and Armstrong), with the shortage of kids using programs in the area. They are down.
BUT, populations cycle! There are new families developing and moving into the community as retirees depart. In 10 years, this area will once again be full of kids.
I don't quite understand the Sq. footage example that you gave regarding surrounding homes. Why would that decrease the population? Much of the surrounding park is a duplex zone - new duplexes are being built from single family homes, so population is definitely not going to go down.
Also, Edmonds area is just on the other side of the forrest, maybe a 10-15 minute walk. This area is going to be filled with condos in the next 10 years. Middle Gate/ High Gate Village is already on it's way, and those developments will continue to move North towards and past Canada Way.
The "New Canadian" thing is your opinion - what "anecdotal evidence" are you referring to? It's a multicultural crowd at Robert Burnaby...unlike Burnaby Indoor pools which don't usually have a good mix. It's also full of families. Coming here is a great way to spend time with your kids. And if you're a lap swimmer -- try swimming in the rain sometime! It's the most refreshing thing ever - and the pool is practically all yours!
P.S. This is supposed to be a secret pool!!! What's it doing on the internet! Shhhh!!! But honestly, out of all the pools in B.C., this one is also my favorite!

RD, thanks for your comment and your passionate support for my favourite outdoor pool anywhere, the one at Robert Burnaby Park. And your perspectives as a member of the community are indeed more fresh than mine as a very occasional user. I'd love to swim there in the rain, it sounds wonderful.

The problem these facilities all face is age. At 50, the cracks (literally) start to show. Cities simply do not have the budgets available anymore to pay for facilities with a limited user base and in operation for only 1/3 of the calendar year. That's why full range covered facilities featuring whirlpools and saunas have been built lately.

Cities must now pay for social services such as expanded policing and social care that didn't have to back in the period when they were built. It's just not feasible to think that outdoor pools are falling down on the list of priorities for cash-strapped governments.

I hope that these pools are kept open for my occasional pleasure, but I will not be surprised to see their service discontinued.

Swimming pool enclosures are fantastic for all year round swimming. Anyone with an outdoor pool should seriously consider the investment!

how can burnaby have 4 outdoor pools and vancouver the same-or less.??Also it is cheaper to swim in Burnaby-they have a parks board who cares.

If the parks board has no $$$-how come they are building a brand new rec centre at the new Millenium development-when there are 2 close by-at 1 kingsway and at Granville island??They could have replaced a much loved pool at Mt pleasant,a neighbourhood builder,according to the parks board itself.

vancouver will actually soon have 5 outdoor pools, so more, not the same or less.

but the bottom line as mike stated is age. most of these tanks have a lifespan of around 50 years, then they cost more to fix then they do to operate. even kerrisdale pool, which was originally an outdoor pool, now indoor, is nearing the end of its lifecycle.

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