hack the city

Soon You Might Be Able to Swim Safely in Your City’s Polluted Harbor or River

Photo: +Pool

A weeklong series of ideas for improving urban life.

A new vision in urban swimming that may be on the brink of going global started as a daydream on a hot New York day five years ago. Three young newcomers to the city were grousing about the heat and how frustrating it was that they couldn’t go take a dip in either the East or Hudson rivers.

Of course, the city only exists today because of its great harbor and the rivers that feed into it, but New York’s waterways have long been considered more a place to dump a body than to go for a refreshing swim. Even as ambitious new parks have replaced the postindustrial ruins along the waterfront, freshwater swimming hasn’t caught on as anything more than a stunt. Design consultants Archie Lee Coates and Jeff Franklin and architects Dong-Ping Wong and Oana Stanescu are angling to change that.

In 2010, Jeff and I didn’t have a ton of projects, and neither did Dong,” recalls Coates. “We had this conversation with Dong at a coffee shop. It didn’t even start with the idea.” It was more a notion: “’It would be really rad to swim in the river.’ I think I put that up on my Facebook in 2010.”

There is ample precedent for their wish in New York’s history. Before the city’s harbor became intensely commercial in the 19th century, swimming and boating in the harbor was commonplace. As pollution and the business of modern global trade made these activities dangerous, New Yorkers found a workaround: “floating baths,” built on pontoons. By 1890, there were 15 free public floating baths in the Hudson and East rivers, each 95 feet long and four and a half feet deep. In 1911, more than 1.8 million people swam in them. As the city’s pollution problem grew worse, though, they were slowly phased out, replaced by Robert Moses’s massive swimming-pool complexes (including McCarren Park Pool in Williamsburg, which was refurbished and reopened in 2012).

But Coates, Franklin, and Wong didn’t want to cool off in a big chlorinated hole in the ground — they wanted to splash about in the river itself, and they dedicated themselves to figuring out how they and other New Yorkers could start doing so regularly.

They weren’t totally on their own. In 1999, another group decided to raise money to convert a 260-foot barge into a floating swimming pool. Nicknamed the Floating Pool Lady, it opened off of Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2007, attracting 50,000 swimmers that summer before being donated to the city and moved up to the Bronx, where it’s now called the Barretto Park Pool.

But the floating pool lacked what Coates and Wong wanted most: that river-water experience. Addressing that involved overcoming a major obstacle, though: The East River is full of human poop. When it rains, the city’s sewers flush into the rivers, making them a potentially hazardous place to swim. Realizing this, Coates and Wong had a fun idea: Why not clean the water with, like, a big Brita filter?

The idea was zany and optimistic — not surprisingly, people were drawn to it. If a couple of determined guys could remake an abandoned railroad spur into the urbanist juggernaut known as the High Line, why couldn’t these three make a giant floating pool? Maybe even one that was basically four pools stuck together and shaped like a plus sign? Here their nonprofit got its name: Plus Pool (or +Pool, as they choose to write it).

It was goofy,” says Coates. “But we thought, We need to have four pools” — separate ones for kids, lap swimmers, loungers, and splashers. Stuck together, they take the distinctive form: “X marks the spot,” he says.

A concept image of the Plus Pool off the Brooklyn waterfront. Photo: pluspool.org

The Plus Pool is a case both of good branding and telling a good story, and it’s been benefiting from both attributes from the beginning. One booster has played a particularly important role. “Somebody saw the website and called us and said, ‘Let me help out,’” says Coates. Her name was Rachel Sterne, and she was the Bloomberg administration’s chief digital officer. Sterne drew them a chart of whom they needed to talk to to get this done in the city bureaucracy.

What about the poop, though? “The way we first thought about it is a bunch of giant Brita filters,” he says, laughing. The trio weren’t engineers, but the big engineering firm Arup heard about their project and, in Coates’s words, “They called us up. They said, ‘You realize this technology doesn’t exist, right?’” But they were intrigued enough to try to help. Soon enough Plus Pool raised enough money on Kickstarter to begin looking for a solution. Eventually, after much experimentation, they settled on “this three-layered, porous fabric,” which was an adaptation of existing municipal water-filtration technology. “There’s no market for recreational water filtration,” he notes. “We’re borrowing from lots of different types.” In 2014, they ran a test in the East River with Float Lab, a “mini, temporary, and floating science-lab version of Plus Pool’s filtration system.”

The experiments have underlined a significant benefit of the project: By filtering 600,000 gallons of water a day, “it makes the river better,” says Coates. “That’s the plus.”

This past summer, ten potential locations for New York’s first Plus Pool were studied. If all keeps going according to plan, they should get approval from the city and state health agencies; then they could be swimming in the river in 2020. “It really is dependent on permitting,” Coates says. The pool is expected to cost about $20 million to build.

And then? Well, the rest of the world, naturally. “The designers got a call from the mayor of Sydney, who was interested in the project, and Archie has been on a panel with the mayor of Munich, who convened international groups working to reengage citizens with their waterways,” says Kara Meyer, Plus Pool’s deputy director. “I just met last week with someone from the Auckland Chamber of Commerce who is interested in our system for New Zealand. The project was in an exhibition in London that is traveling this year to Barcelona — and we’ve gotten interest from those cities as a result.”

The nonprofit’s model has become increasingly global. “We could potentially have this funding thing in which we license the technology, which would fund the Plus Pool in New York,” says Coates. “I have no idea if that is the way it will play out. It could work.”

It’s all gotten much bigger than what they brainstormed over coffee in 2010.

Ten years, after all, is not bad for a new piece of infrastructure in New York — especially one based on millennial fantasizing (Coates and Franklin are still only 31, Stanescu 32, and Wong is 36) about changing Gotham into a more playful and responsive place.

And yes, they know that the Plus Pool is not going to solve the recreational social-justice problems of this or any other city: “At the end of the day, only 450 people can swim in the pool at a time,” Coates says. “And there are 9 million people in the city.”

But it’s a giddy urban bauble with a higher purpose. “I’m a big fan of Jeanne-Claude and Christo,” Coates explains, evoking their Surrounded Islands project from the early 1980s. “When they were asked why they spent ten years wrapping those island in Miami, people asked, ‘Why did they do that?’ Christo said, ‘Because it is beautiful.’”

Soon You Will Be Able to Swim in Polluted Water