A Flickr photo slideshow of a Crosstown Aquatic Adventure
Last summer I wrote about the troubled state of outdoor pools, not realizing I was tapping into a widespread sentiment that our cities and municipalities should be making sure that these costly facilities survive and prosper. For some, taking a dip in the neighbourhood outdoor pool is the very definition of summer. This would explain the emotional reaction to the loss of not one but several outdoor pools in Vancouver in recent years – including Mount Pleasant and one at the old Sunset Community Centre.
The Vancouver Park Board has a written policy titled the Aquatic Renewal Strategy, which in effect explains that outdoor swimming is heavily subsidized, and that the City will no longer build outdoor facilities. As they age, other outdoor pools are expected to be also closed. The only outdoor pools that the Vancouver Park Board plans to keep are the iconic Kitsilano outdoor pool, and the recently upgraded (in 1996) Second Beach pool.
Are outdoor pools going the way of the Dodo bird? Do we really want pools that badly that we're willing to subsidize them with precious public dollars like we would several other services such as libraries? Why are these facilities slipping in popularity in some communities? I decided I needed to take some of this radiant summer weather we've had lately and explore this topic.
Last Friday I conducted what I call my Crosstown Aquatic Adventure. It's not such an original idea though. In the mid-1960s American author John Cheevers used swimming pools as a metaphor for the crumbling edifice of a man's life. The character Ned Merrill crosses the prosperous New England county he lives in through swimming pools as a route to his home, and to face his destiny. A somewhat brilliant film version was shot a couple years later starring Burt Lancaster – looking as fit as any 53-year old has ever been – in the role of Merrill. The movie version of The Swimmer was held up for release until 1968, after a change of director stalled the project. It's reported that Lancaster hated the movie and its unsympathetic lead character.
Using The Swimmer's pool hopping approach, I decided to cross several boundaries in an all day "swim across town". I chose New Westminster as my starting point, then would swim lengths in two of my favourite outdoor pools in Burnaby, then would arrive in Vancouver to visit three pools and finish up at Stanley Park.
As it turns out the new Hillcrest Aquatic Centre was open to media on the day I decided to have my swim, but to suit the Vancouver Park Board's schedule it would be my first stop. New West would have to wait.
The brand new Hillcrest Aquatic Centre is a remarkable facility. Within its walls you can start to see the argument for why Vancouver pushed so hard to stage the 2010 Olympics. Large facilities like these are expensive – in the case of the Vancouver Olympic Centre at Hillcrest Park it was $88 million. Nearly of those funds ($40 million) came from another source: VANOC. The swimming centre, it was argued, was a logical way to justify the development of this large sport facility when nearby Percy Norman Pool was ready to be de-commissioned.
Inside the new Aquatic Centre you can see the vision for the future of public amenities in our cities. Large, multi-purpose facilities are more cost-effective to operate, and make better use of public land and help to coordinate transportation planning. This is not to say that all local facilities will go, but it's clear from the experience of both Richmond (the Oval) and Vancouver (Hillcrest) that cities would rather build fewer but grander facilities.
My goal on this day was to swim in outdoor facilities, and lucky for all of us Hillcrest has a beautiful, state-of-the-art outdoor water park and pool. Although, the pool is shallow – NO DIVING, say the signs painted on the pool deck. That said, if you want to do a backstroke across the pool, you can because it's over a metre deep in one section.
I noticed what I described the "cruise ship-like" surroundings. The Park Board had invested in lovely deck chairs to give you that Holland America feel. "All that's missing are the cabana boys," said Peter Fox, the proud new supervisor who is running the Hillcrest facility. Indeed, this was something that I noticed in all the swimming spots I visited later that day. If you provide people with some simple luxuries – like a place to stretch out and read a book – you can tap into what people are really looking for. I surmised that one of the most important things people are seeking when they visit outdoor pools is the presence of other people. We all crave a little company.
What will be interesting to see is if those who felt they lost something when Mount Pleasant pool closed will find Hillcrest to be a worthy alternative. For some I think that the new facility will suit their needs, albeit a little further distance away (Hillcrest is 1.8 Km from the old pool). I've swam in the Killarney facility and while impressive I believe that Hillcrest takes it up a notch with its design, the outdoor pool and the shiny new weight and exercise room.
But what of the other outdoor pools across Metro Vancouver? I couldn't visit them all, but people tell me that pools on the North Shore, Langley and Surrey also attract big crowds during the summer months. In New Westminster, the city council decided to invest millions in a brand new outdoor pool at Moody Park. This was my first pool after the Hillcrest stop, and I was greeted by Park Board staff before opening hours at just after 11am.
Moody Park pool is situated in a neighbourhood with many rental apartments, which is why the pool gets most of its traffic during warm summer evenings. Most of those old 3-storey walk-up buildings were not built with the best insulation. I asked if the New West Park Board had given some thought to extending hours into the morning, especially during the warm weeks of July and August. It was something that may be considered, they responded, but only after they've had a couple of seasons to see what the response from the public is. The new Moody Park pool opened during the warm summer of 2009. The cool weather last June kept crowds away.
Friends who live in New West told me that the Moody facility was considered by many to be a "kids-only" pool, but in fact adult-only times are scheduled for those who want to have a soak without all the rugrats dropping cannon bombs around them. Certainly, the City of New Westminster have taken a gamble by being the last city in the region to build an outdoor-only pool. I left Moody Park asking myself why can't cities afford to invest in these facilities more often? Is it because these are "seasonal" amenities and we only can use them for a few weeks out of the year?
On I went to perhaps my favourite outdoor pool facility in the Lower Mainland. The outdoor pool at Robert Burnaby Park is a little gem straight out of the early 1960s when it was built. You could almost see Burt Lancaster's fit physique making its way across it during that time. Burnaby is proud of their outdoor facilities, but they admit they are costly to keep running. Like Central Park pool (my next stop) Burnaby has nestled their pools within gorgeous natural surroundings. Tall evergreen trees rise up around the facility, and a wading pool and picnic area borders the pool. At one time there used to be a full snack bar serving ice cream and hot dogs, but dwindling crowds and the costs of staffing these operations have shuttered them.
Swimming at Burnaby Park and Central Park pools is a joy, but the old washroom and change facilities are bordering on grim. The brick walls in the Central facility feel cold and prison-like, and the toilets are odorous and old. Staff at the Central Park facility told me that they're seeing a decline in crowds over the years, and I wonder if improving these change facilities might turn that around.
The thing that Moody Park and Hillcrest have that these pools are missing is a place to sit comfortably. In Burnaby you have to settle for the concrete pool deck and a towel. Whereas at Hillcrest you get lounge chairs (but no cabana boys of course). Investing in some furniture might also be an affordable way to attract people back to these outdoor facilities.
Back across Boundary Road I headed over to the "iconic" Kitsilano pool with its 500-foot long lap pool. I get about halfway across before I'm gasping for breath, but for the truly strong swimmer is a wonderful challenge. Kits still remains a great family venue when compared to the sporty beach beside it, where many go just to strut their bods. Last year with our long, warm summer Kits pool had some of its biggest crowds ever. This pool will always remain no matter what happens in other parts of the City with aging outdoor facilities.
My last stop was all the way in Stanley Park at Second Beach pool. There are few postcard settings that rival this lovely pool, which was reconstructed from the ground up back in 1996. Condo and apartment dwellers from the West End visit here, as do thousands of visitors to the city. According to the lifeguard I spoke to, people rent roller skates to travel the seawall then see the pool and decide to come back.
When I asked the guards at these facilities why people come to outdoor pools, the answer to them was obvious. People don't want to feel closed in, they want the fresh air and not the scent of chlorine. They want the sun and the sky and the beauty of our cities' surroundings. People want outdoor pools as much as they always did, but are we prepared to invest in them when so many other needs take priority?
To me this was a rare indulgence. I will probably never "cross town" again through pools, but it was a true pleasure to see these public amenities up close. Can our cities continue to afford seasonal facilities like these? It's looking less likely that we want to pay for them, unless of course they're tied to year-round facilities like Hillcrest.
Should we try to keep outdoor pools as part of our mix of park amenities for generations to come? I think it would be a shame if we didn't.
- post by Mike. See the Flickr photo slideshow of the Crosstown Aquatic Adventure. Video interviews will be posted shortly.