The waterways running east and west of Manhattan are notoriously grimy. + POOL was founded 14 years ago by Dong-Ping Wong, Oana Stănescu, Archie Lee Coates IV, and Jeffrey Franklin with a simple vision: Bring free and safe river swimming to New York City. The group made waves (pun intended) in 2010 when it unveiled plans to build a plus-shaped swimming pool in the East River off of Brooklyn Bridge Park.
The branding was by PLAYLAB, and + POOL’s design was by multiple firms. After a trial run in 2019 that saw the installation of a prototype for the concept in the East River, complete with LED lights that changed color depending on water quality, + POOL has received $16 million in funding to extend its program to cities and lakes throughout the state of New York.
+ POOL received $12 million from Governor Kathy Hochul, and $4 million from the Adams administration. The pilot program will deliver plus-shaped pools to New York City, and tentatively Buffalo, Newburgh, Rochester, Lake George, and the Finger Lakes. The funding for + POOL follows an investment in swimming infrastructure announced by the Hochul administration today in a new statewide program dubbed NY SWIMS: the New York Statewide Investment In More Swimming.
“Think about this. + POOL. Do you know how long we fought for this?” Mayor Eric Adams said. “This was an invention that was possible, to be able to use our own waterways to have pools in communities that have historically been ignored.”
If everything goes according to plan, New Yorkers could have a swimming pool in the East River by summer 2025, a press statement from + POOL stated. Forthcoming pools could measure out to be 217 by 217 feet long. The pools double as water filtration systems meant to help New York reach its climate goals and reduce pollution, as envisioned in the Clean Water Act. Renderings show the concepts against the backdrop of various computer-generated New York City and State locales, with recognizable landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, and Newburgh Bridge beyond.
The architects say the floating swimming pools filter water through their walls. This will clean more than 1 million gallons of water per day without chemicals or additives. The filtration system was engineered to bring raw river water to acceptable microbiological standards for swimming. The design team utilized the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality modeling software, the Water Quality Analysis Simulation Program version 8.1 (WASP; USEPA, 2018a), for the system. + POOL has since patented the design.
The pools will double as recreational places for lap swimming, lounging, water sports, and children’s activities. They can be configured as Olympic-length swimming pools, or a 9,000-square-foot pool for play.
Despite the project’s contemporary look, it’s grounded in New York history. After the U.S. Civil War, public health reformers wanted to build swimming pools for working class New Yorkers to cool off on hot summer days. Their solution was for public baths floating up and down New York Harbor. By the 1940s, there were fifteen bathhouses in and around New York that served 40 percent of the population.
New York City saw an uptick in swimming pool construction during the New Deal, when Robert Moses built 11 new public pools with the WPA. Then between 1970 and 1972, the city added 19 new municipal pools; the last real investment in swimming infrastructure. The pools were such a hit, one NYC Police Commissioner announced an 18 percent decline in crime in 1973, partially as a result of the construction program.
“Municipal swimming pools were extraordinarily popular during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Cities and towns across the country opened thousands of new pools that served tens of millions of Americans. These pools became emblems of a new, distinctly modern version of the good life that valued leisure, pleasure, and beauty,” said Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters. “By 1933, swimming had become as popular as going to the movies. Pools were, in short, an integral part of the kind of life Americans wanted to live.”
But since the 1970s, myriad municipal swimming pools across all five boroughs closed due to budget cuts. Today, designers and friends of + POOL seek to buck that trend, and bring their designs to the Finger Lakes, Buffalo, and elsewhere.
“For the amazing community of supporters that have been pushing for river access with us for so many years, this is a day to celebrate, said Archie Lee Coates IV, one of the + POOL designers. “A lot of incredible people have been working daily to make this happen in New York. It’s projects like + POOL that make New York, New York, and we are excited for the work ahead that will contribute to the overall quality of life in the city for all New Yorkers.”
Update: A previous version of this article stated that + POOL could open in New York City for public access by summer 2024. It was revised to say 2025. It also inaccurately stated that PLAYLAB was responsible for both branding and design of + POOL. It was updated to say that PLAYLAB was responsible for branding only, and multiple firms were involved with design.