Swimming, public pools, social infrastructure, and public health. And what my mother gave.
You may be aware that our outdoor public pool facilities—the ones adjacent to Thomas Worthington High School, opening in 1954 on school property, and managed since then by a community-based nonprofit called Swiminc—will soon need major renovation/reconstruction if they are to continue operating, and that your local city government is discussing the future of the pools with both Swiminc and the schools. If you have followed the recent discussions at City Council, you know the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.
Swimming pools, whether public or private, can be portrayed as something discretionary for both the individual and community—superfluous, perhaps even a luxury, compared to other basic demands and amenities. To be clear, I do not share this viewpoint.
Fortunately, an article appeared today that can help us see what is at stake in the survival of public pools in general, and our pools in particular (I urge you to read the article in its entirety as I feel unable to adequately summarize this far-ranging story: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/27/opinion/drowning-public-pools-america.html).
The article makes the case that, yes, public pools, like public spaces in general, are an “essential piece of social infrastructure in a democracy,” bringing people together from diverse backgrounds for play and shared experience. And this is a very good thing. But beyond, or before, the social good, public pools play the vital role of providing a safe and accessible place for persons of all backgrounds and ages to learn to swim. The article makes clear that the ability swim, this most basic life-and-death skill, should not be taken for granted.
Surprisingly, to me at least, “…more than half of the [U.S.] population lacks basic swimming abilities.” As a result, cause and effect, an estimated 4,000 Americans die by drowning every year, comprising “a public health crisis America has largely ignored.” The national data is very sobering indeed: “Drowning is the leading cause of death among 1- to 4-year-olds, the second-leading cause of accidental deaths by injury among children 5 to 14, and the third-leading cause of accidental death by injury for Americans 24 years and younger. Younger Black adolescents are more than three times as likely to drown as their white peers… [and] deaths among persons with autism spectrum disorder are nearly 40x as likely to be caused by drowning as deaths in the general population.”
The response, the solution? Like many public health issues, there are multiple strategies and effective actions that can be taken at the federal, state, and local levels, that cumulatively make a huge difference. “America can build more public pools. It can transform natural bodies of water into safer places to swim. It can subsidize swimming lessons and raise pay for lifeguards, making the job more attractive. The United States can build a culture of swimming instead of one of drowning.”
That arresting phrase is worth repeating: “The United States can build a culture of swimming instead of one of drowning.”
The article explores the history of public investments in swimming pools, from major New Deal projects in the 1930s to its decline from the 1960s onward. Worthington, in its own unique way, fits into this national arc, and we now are faced with a decision about how we value our public pools and the resources we are willing to commit to ensure their continued role in our individual and communal life. City Council will again be taking up this issue in September when we reconvene.
In closing, a personal note: Outdoor swimming—in pools, ponds, lakes, quarries, rivers, oceans, and streams—has been an integral, unforgettable part of my life—a source of simple joy, camaraderie, and adventure—ever since my mother dragged me to early-morning lessons decades ago. After reading this article, now more than ever, I am grateful for those public pools at Hastings Jr. High, and those who built them, that made this life of swimming possible for me. My mother, who grew up and lived on Long Island into adulthood, swimming frequently in the Atlantic, knew well the value of strong swimming. Hence her determination to pass it on, even though in waters far from the ocean she loved. What a gift!
I’d love to hear from you on the topic, and I urge you to reach out to my colleagues on Council as well. It is my hope that the residents of Worthington will make it clear to their elected officials that we too, as a community, highly value swimming and the public pools that make this vital skill readily possible and available to all.