Then There's This: Swimming Upstream

Families' access to city pools depends on where they live

By Amy Smith, Fri., June 21, 2013

East Austin's Dottie Jordan Pool
East Austin's Dottie Jordan Pool
Photo by Jana Birchum

It's common knowledge that municipal swimming pools – once a neighborhood staple and valued community space in most towns – are always among the first to sink during economic downturns.

The worst part? Economic rebounds seldom result in reinvigorated funding for the facilities, which, as Jeff Wiltse writes in his 2010 book, Contested Waters, increasingly makes public pools at risk of extinction.

Austin's funding priorities have historically followed this pattern, with parks and recreation, along with libraries, taking the lion's share of the hits. Heather Way, an Austin lawyer and affordable-housing advocate, decided to take a look at the current state of our municipal pools and found what she called a disconcerting racial and socioeconomic divide in public pool access. She posted her findings June 13 on her blog site, WhichWay (www.whichwayaustin.blogspot.com). "I hope that I am missing something in my data analysis ... and there really isn't such a stark divide between East and West Austin in terms of public pool access," wrote Way, who teaches at the UT law school where she directs the Entre­pren­eurship and Com­munity Development Clinic.

Sadly, she hadn't missed anything, although a Parks and Recreation Depart­ment staffer did weigh in with additional detail and noted that Bartholomew Pool in East Austin, where the access disparity is greatest, is undergoing a major makeover and is due to reopen next summer.

Way cites a 2011 survey of U.S. cities by the Trust for Public Land, which ranked Austin at an impressive No. 11 for public pools per capita, or 4.5 municipal and neighborhood pools per 100,000 residents. But since that survey, Way says, Austin has dropped behind on the list and risks dropping further as the city keeps growing. "When you tally up the public pools listed on the city's website," she writes, "we are down to 31 pools." That would put Austin at 3.6 public pools per capita, or No. 20 on the national list, she says.

Moreover, the swimming season for most families is as short as the summer break from school, with few recreational swimming opportunities available in May and Septem­ber, when school is in session even as the temperature feels like summer. Worse still is that many municipal pools, particularly in East Austin, aren't open for recreational swimming during the morning hours. A family in East Austin wanting to go to a pool at 10am, for example, has limited options because there's only one pool – Martin – open for recreational swimming at that hour, while families in South, West, and North Austin have access to five pools within a short walking or driving distance from their homes.

Way received several emailed responses to her post (the blog's comment section is currently out of kilter). She shared some reader responses with me, and, with their permission, I'm sharing a couple here. Susana Almanza, a Parks and Rec board member and a leader of Eastside activist group PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources), wrote, "Not only is there a lack of access, but there is a lack of swimming lessons. The only swimming lesson taught at East Austin pools is how not to drown." She says she plans to add the issue of pool disparity to the June 25 PARD board agenda.

Tom Nelson, manager of PARD's Aquatics Division, agreed with Way that Austin's growth rate is outpacing the city's ability to build new pools. "It is also important to note the average age of [the city's] swimming pools is over 40 years," he wrote. "Much of [PARD's] capital improvement project funding is spent to keep aging aquatic facilities operational and code compliant." He said PARD has submitted an "unmet service demand" request for additional funds to "normalize" pool hours across the city, providing equal access to city pools.

Way, a mother of two, says her time spent serving on the city's Families and Children Task Force helped form her interest in how Austin grows as a family-friendly city. "It made me view the city through a different lens in terms of the way our built environment and city resources have such an impact on the quality of life for families with kids."

Giving kids access to public pools and swimming lessons sounds like such a small thing, but, as Way says, public pools require more than just money. "If you live in an area where there's no access to public swimming pools, that has such a huge impact on children's health and well-being," she said. "This isn't so much a [PARD] issue so much as it is an overall political priority."

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