Despite hot temperatures, some pools were closed this summer due to staffing shortages or repairs. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images
By The Numbers

Public swimming pools, by the numbers

Catie McCarthy Sep 18, 2023
Despite hot temperatures, some pools were closed this summer due to staffing shortages or repairs. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Summer may be winding down, but in many parts of the country, the weather isn’t cooling off just yet. You might want to spend your weekends lounging in a pool trying to beat the heat. However, for many Americans, public swimming pools are difficult to access. Turns out there are a lot of factors involved in the history of public swimming pools, and these pools have a lot more to do with racial and economic inequality than you might think. Below, we do the numbers:

It’s tricky to find a current number of swimming pools in the United States, but estimates from the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals (now part of the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance) suggest there are more than 10.7 million. Only about 309,000 of these pools are available to the public, however, with the remaining 10.4 million pools belonging to residences or individuals. Mara Gay from the New York Times broke down this number even further, explaining that many “public” pools aren’t readily available to the public, since they may be part of schools or hotels.

Boston opened the country’s first municipal pool in 1868, though it was designed as a bathing area rather than a recreational pool. The pool was segregated by gender, so men and women had to swim in different pools. This was the general trend until 1913, when a gender-integrated public pool opened in St. Louis. However, the pool was segregated by race; despite being built in a majority-Black city, Black swimmers were not allowed to use the pool.

Public pool construction hit its stride in the 1920s and 1930s. Before the Great Depression, a shorter working week in the 1920s and more leisure time led to higher demand for pools and more pool construction, according to Jeff Wiltse, author of “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.” As America climbed its way out of the Depression, about 750 pools were then built as part of New Deal programs, suggests Wiltse. (This cool website lets you see which pools, among other infrastructure projects, were part of the New Deal and explains their individual histories.) However, as public pools began to be racially integrated, pools like this one in Kansas City closed either temporarily or permanently rather than comply.

Today, public pools continue to be a flash point where racial and income disparities play out in ways that can, in some cases, be fatal.

Access to pools is a key part of public health and safety, meaning that reduced access can lead to inequality in swimming skills, and higher risk of drowning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 4,000 people in the United States die from unintentional drownings each year, with unintentional drowning deaths generally spiking in July and remaining high for the summer months.

Children are particularly affected: Drowning is the number one cause of death for children ages 1-4 and the number two cause of “unintentional injury death” for children ages 5-14, according to the CDC. Drowning locations also vary depending on age, with most drownings for children ages 1-4 happening in swimming pools, whereas only 30% of drownings for children ages 5-14 happen in pools. For those 15 years or older, more than half of drownings happen in natural water. Regardless of where these drownings happen, increased swimming ability — which can often come along with public pool access and swim lesson access — could help reduce drowning rates. (With this in mind, the New York City Council recently passed a bill that would include free swimming lessons for the city’s second graders.)

As it stands now, drowning rates for Black children ages 10-14 in swimming pools are 7.6 times higher than those of white children, and Black children are more likely to drown in public pools (white children are more likely to drown in residential pools). On average, drowning death rates for Black people in the U.S. are 1.5 times higher than those of white people, a number which grows to 3.6 times when looking at Black children ages 10-14. These discrepancies span to American Indian and Alaska Native people as well, whose drowning death rates are 2 times higher than those of white people, and who have the highest drowning death rates in natural water.

Swimming ability is suggested to correlate with socioeconomic class, as well. A 2017 study from the USA Swimming Foundation found that 79% of children in families with incomes under $50,000 have no or low swimming experience. The USA Swimming Foundation also found that children in households where a parent does not know how to swim only have a 19% likelihood of learning learn to swim, making the problem of swim knowledge a generational one. A Red Cross study looking at reasons why people may not seek out swim lessons found that limited free time, limited lesson times and affordability commonly came up as obstacles. 

Public pools are critical parts of city infrastructure as temperatures get hotter. This past July, 10 of Boston’s 18 public pools were closed for repairs in the middle of a heat wave, despite the city website recommending that residents cool down in said pools. Reportedly, the ratio of people in the United States to public pools has gone up in recent years (meaning more people, fewer pools), and that’s before looking at individual and systemic barriers to access.

One U.S. city is still a notable (and somewhat surprising) hotspot for pools: There are 10.8 public swimming pools per 100,000 residents of Cleveland, Ohio, which is the highest average in the country. Cleveland is followed by Cincinnati (7.9 public pools per 100,000 residents), Atlanta (7.7 public pools) and Pittsburgh (7.2 public pools). However, higher numbers of pools do not always correlate to more access. Among other problems, Cleveland’s pools were hit by a lifeguard shortage this past summer, leading to reduced hours.

While public pools might simply seem like a nice place to spend a hot day, their influence and purpose are tightly woven into historical issues of race, access and equity. And as days get hotter, the problems of America’s public pool system may become a more urgent part of the national conversation.

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