The Climate Case for Pool Parties
If you’re going to have a giant hole of water in your backyard, put it to good use.
In the grand ranking of Fun Things You Should Feel Bad About, swimming pools are up there with Oreos and road trips. After all, when the U.N. says two-thirds of the world could face water-stressed conditions by 2025, it tends to put a damper on the guilt-free enjoyment of the giant hole of clean water in your backyard.
A new study published Monday in the journal Nature Sustainability more or less confirmed that yes, swimming pool ownership is bad. Looking at water usage in Cape Town, South Africa, the researchers found that the richest residents, who make up 14% of the population, consume 51% of the city’s water by doing things like “garden watering, car washing, and filling swimming pools,” while the city’s poorest residents, who make up 62% of the population, consume just 27% of the water resources doing things like “maintaining basic hygiene” and “hydrating themselves.” As the researchers concluded, “Urban water crises can be triggered by the unsustainable consumption patterns of privileged social groups.”
One takeaway from this study, though, is that the problem isn’t so much the swimming pools — which have many positive benefits — but the fact that the pools are in the hands of “privileged social groups,” where they go heavily underutilized. Private pools are often only used by one family, the homeowner’s, and only for a few months a year, if that. To make the tremendous energy and water costs of swimming pools actually worth it, we need to get a lot more people into them.
America used to be covered in these sorts of community pools, some of which could fit a thousand swimmers or more. During the 1880s and early 1890s, municipal swimming pools were places “where Blacks, immigrants, and native-born white laborers swam together,” though people of mixed classes and sexes did not, author Jeff Wiltse writes in Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. As Wiltse explains, “During the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the difference between people with ‘black’ skin and those with ‘white’ skin was a less significant social distinction than class … That changed during the 1920s, when race emerged as the most salient and divisive social distinction.”
Municipal pools were frequently segregated after World War I, but they were also “extraordinarily popular" from the 1920s to the 1940s, with swimming as much a part of the average American’s life as going to the movies. Tens of millions of Americans visited community pools each year, with sometimes “hundreds and even thousands of people at a time” taking a dip. But after desegregation in the 1950s opened public pools to everyone, some bigoted communities “found a loophole,” The New York Times writes. They could also close the pools for everyone.
So-called “drained-pool politics,” the attitude that “if ‘they’ can also have it, then no one can … helps explain why America still doesn’t have a truly universal health care system, a child care system, [or] a decent social safety net,” the Times postulates. For our immediate purposes, it also explains the rise of private pools across the country: “After racial desegregation, millions of Americans chose to stop swimming at municipal pools and chose instead to organize and join private swim clubs,” Wiltse writes. Those discriminatory choices still reverberate today: There were fewer than 15,000 pools at private homes before 1952; now there are more than 10.4 million. By comparison, there are only about 300,000 municipal pools in the U.S. and many are closing because they’re too expensive to maintain.
But as the world continues to warm, community pools are becoming vital pieces of infrastructure again. We know that small bodies of manmade water can actually somewhat help to cool down urban areas; we also know that having access to water like beaches and pools saves lives when cooling centers are in short supply. They also offer an outlet for physical recreation when others become dangerous or deeply unpleasant due to high temperatures. Additionally, part of the original popularity of community pools had been as relief from the heat before air conditioning; from an energy-saving standpoint, it still makes sense today to turn off your a/c whenever possible and cool down in water instead.
Despite all the net good of public pools, there hasn’t been a lot of movement to actually build more: only 198 of 3,310 commercial pools built in the U.S. in 2020 went into parks, Bloomberg reports (most of the rest “went to hotels and multi-family developments”). And while we shouldn’t take our foot off the gas in advocating for more swimming facilities, particularly in lower-income areas, private pool owners can also do themselves, the planet, and the rest of us a solid — and share. Pool party, anyone?
Okay, so no, pool parties obviously won’t fix over a century of racially motivated infrastructure decisions. Nor are they very likely to fix the “atomized recreation and diminished public discourse” that Wiltse says resulted from “private-pool owners [fencing] themselves into their own backyards,” since said private-pool owners would presumably be inviting attendees from their own homogenous social groups.
But sometimes pool ownership happens to good people, and it is in those cases that wringing as much use out of a pool as possible — and in doing so, minimizing the per-person costs of maintenance, energy expenditure, and water usage — actually start to make sense. Gristfound that “the average pool uses about 20,000 gallons of water a year,” which is “a little less than a lawn” — lawns, of course, being another item up there on the Fun Things You Should Feel Bad About list. But if 50 people share one lawn, it starts to look a little less wasteful, particularly if that “lawn” also serves as a cornerstone of the community and local social life. (Introverted pool owners, meanwhile, can list theirs cheaply on Swimply, the “Airbnb for swimming pools,” so others can enjoy them when they’d otherwise be sitting empty).
Pool parties won’t save the world; to be honest, they won’t even entirely redeem private pools. But they could start to make swimming more broadly social again and nudge us back toward a culture where taking a dip with acquaintances, neighbors, and strangers is a value rather than a source of disgust and suspicion. It may be a drop in the bucket, but it’s one that’s worth it.
Just remember to invite me.