August 8, 2020

Splash Pad Review: Neighborhood Pool Replacement or Glorified Fire Hydrant?

With ongoing budget cuts being discussed in City Hall and a new City Aquatic Advisory Committee now underway, CPHA went to check out the state of Baltimore’s pool facilities, with a particular focus on the City’s new Splash Pads.

Baltimore currently has 32 pool facilities operated by the Department of Recreation and Parks:

  • 6 larger Park pools
  • 12 smaller “Walk-To” Neighborhood Pools
  • 3 indoor pools
  • 6 smaller wading pools for children
  • 5 Splash Pads
  • 17 Baltimore City Public School indoor pools that, though not run by the Department of Recreation and Parks, and mainly out-of-service, could potentially complement the city’s existing aquatic facilities in the future

According to the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, many of these facilities, especially the Neighborhood pools, were constructed between the 50s and 70s. Built to meet Baltimore’s needs then, these pools are now under-used, increasingly difficult to maintain, and no longer adequately serve the needs of today’s population. According to a recent presentation to the Aquatic Advisory Committee,  pool attendance today remains a quarter of what it was in the 70s, operating at less than half capacity even in the busiest months of the summer.

A Closed Down Former Neighborhood Pool in Oliver

To fix this, the Department of Recreation and Parks started its “Dive-In Baltimore” project last Fall. The project’s primary goals include:

  • make pool facility equipment more efficient and less costly to maintain
  • redevelop facilities and facility programming to address the current needs of citizens
  • eventually develop new partnerships with the Baltimore City Public School system and other private pool facilities to make a comprehensive city-wide pool network

The city’s new Splash Pads are a key to this agenda. They do not require any pool attendants or lifeguard supervision and the city expects the Splash Pads to provide a cost-efficient way to provide a more effective outlet from the summer heat than the the more expensive and dilapidated neighborhood pools–and subsequently allow for increased funding and programing at the larger park pools.

The Solo Gibbs Splash Pad

So the Splash Pads save money in a time of tight budgets, but are they really a replacement for neighborhood pools? CPHA doesn’t think so.

Particularly disconcerting is the potential health impact of losing existing pool programming in Neighborhood and especially Park pools, e.g. “Learn to Swim” classes, youth triathlons, and lap swim time. Furthermore, according to a survey presented to the Aquatic Advisory Committee, a third of city third graders today are obese and, nationally, over two thirds of African-American children do not know how to swim. Splash pads don’t come with programming and they are not magnets for exercise. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone over the age of 12 reaping benefits from these well designed and well pressured fire hydrants–beyond that as a place to take one’s children. What do splash pads offer for Baltimore’s senior citizens, particularly those with ambulatory issues?

In a world not constrained by budgets we would improve the neighborhood pools, increase neighborhood programing, teach children how to swim, and thus make the pools meet the needs of today (and we could still add splash pads as an additional neighborhood amenity). But in a world constrained by budgets we are gaining Splash Pads and losing the opportunity for programming and exercise within our neighborhoods.

The city’s potential solution (or rather its real replacement for the outdated and dilapidated neighborhood pools) lies in its Park pools. The product of much of the Department of Recreation and Public Works’s funding over the last decade, these facilities provide a larger pool, a Splash Pad, and even a wading pool for children. Though they do require several lifeguards and pool attendants, these Park pools, combined with nearby but separately maintained recreational centers, offer all of the flexibility and  programming that the Splash Pads in isolation do not.

The Clifton Park Pool

But Park Pools face their own challenges –chiefly, they aren’t everywhere and they aren’t accessible to all our neighborhoods.  With only 6 serving the entire city, many visitors will be traveling a distance to reach the nearest one. This will put a greater demand on services and space that may be difficult to meet.  The Clifton Park pool, for example, offers a stunning pool and Splash Pad  yet its locker room may be inadequate for the number of visitors expected at such a large facility. Some people, we worry, may even abandon going to the pool altogether. Thus, if the City must make the tough decision to close some pools at the benefit of others, the decision of “which pools” may ultimately end up being most important. Finally, the new Aquatic Advisory Committee should have been part of a greater task force that included the Recreation Center Task Force which the Mayor formed in 2010. Baltimore  cannot keep operating in silos–it’s not healthy for our pools, its not healthy for our recreation centers, and it’s not healthy for our City.

So as the city continues with the  “Dive-In Baltimore” program and likely an ever decreasing budget, CPHA is impressed  by improved Park Pools like the one we toured in Clifton Park. And while we welcome Splash Pads as a new neighborhood amenity they should not be seen or sold as a neighborhood pool replacement. As a member of the Aquatics Advisory Committee, CPHA looks forward to raising these issues, making sure the conversation on pools doesn’t forget our poorest neighborhoods and is well connected to the state of our rec centers.