Connecting state and local government leaders
Many public pools and aquatics facilities around the U.S. are decades old and in need of upgrades or replacement. The problem is particularly acute in poor neighborhoods and likely to become more pressing as summers grow hotter.
A national lifeguard shortage closed a third of public swimming areas this summer, even as scorching weather drove more people to seek relief in the cooling waters of the community pool.
"It's been really, really difficult,'' said Kevin Roth, vice president of research, evaluation and technology at the National Recreation and Park Association. "We've seen communities reduce pool hours and not open some pools, not necessarily because of a lack of money or desire but an inability to safely staff those pools."
The heyday of the municipal pool dates back to the 1960s. Now, many aquatics facilities constructed decades ago are reaching the end of their lifespans. Concrete is crumbling, filtration systems are failing and other mechanical systems are in need of repair.
"These are important assets,’’ Roth said. “Pools aren’t just nice to have; they are an essential part of the infrastructure of any community.”
The problem is particularly acute in poor neighborhoods, where residents often lack air conditioning and are particularly vulnerable to the stresses of extreme heat.
And with a warming climate, demand for public pools will likely rise, Roth added. “As it gets hotter, and for longer periods of time, it’s the pool, it’s the splash pad that provides an opportunity to be outdoors even if it’s sweltering.”
Omaha, Nebraska, dealt with the effects of both the lifeguard shortage and pool maintenance issues: One of the city’s 15 outdoor pools was closed this summer for repairs.
To forestall future problems, Omaha will begin a major renovation effort at two of the city’s most popular public swimming areas, the Hitchcock and Elmwood pools, said Matt Kalcevich, the city’s director for parks, recreation and public property.
Hitchcock, the city’s only outdoor Olympic-sized pool with its 32-foot tri-level diving platform and 50-meter length, opened in 1970. The facility is located in south Omaha, a neighborhood that has felt the disproportionate effects of racism. It’s part of a national research study on “heat islands,” urban neighborhoods that experience higher temperatures due to their preponderance of roads, paved parking lots, buildings and other infrastructure that absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes.
“Omaha is defined by historical redlining of racial and ethnic minority areas,’’ according to researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which is conducting the heat study of Omaha’s neighborhoods. “Historical redlining of neighborhoods in cities has been linked to a variety of health disparities and environmental exposures. Understanding how heat is distributed in our community can help to inform heat mitigation efforts, while addressing inequitable distribution of urban heat risk and vulnerability.”
The city will use a portion of its American Rescue Plan Act funds to renovate the Hitchcock and Elmwood pools. “It’s been some time since we’ve done any type of renovation there,’’ Kalcevich said. “It’s really the infrastructure, the filter system, the gutters, that are wearing as they do in the Midwest because of some of the extreme temperatures that some of our facilities are exposed to.”
The renovation will remove the high diving platform and modernize the aquatics facility by potentially adding rock walls and zip lines, Kalcevich said.
“We're trying to evolve and have it be the most functional facility possible with new features for people to use,’’ he said.
Daniela Altimari is a reporter for Route Fifty.