Brussels residents launch petition to revive outdoor swimming pool

Summary

In 1970s, Brussels boasted several outdoor swimming pools. Today, not a single one remains

Pool is cool

Summer is in full swing, and with it the occasional insufferably hot day that just makes you want to go for a swim. But what do you do when you don’t have a pool in your garden?

In Flanders, there is the sea, but if you don’t have the time for a day trip, you’re out of luck. That is, if you live in Brussels. From Ghent to Hasselt, most other major cities have at least one outdoor pool, whether on its own or part of a larger swim park.

But not the capital. “It’s a mystery to me,” says Frederik Serroen, an architect who work in the Brussels master architect’s office. “You can find quite a lot of pools within 50 kilometres, but not a single one inside the capital.” 

It wasn’t always like this. Until 1970s, Brussels boasted several outdoor swimming pools, all of which eventually shut down. The Pool is Cool initiative, founded in 2014 by a group of like-minded citizens who met via Facebook, wants to bring some of that old urban swimming back.

“We can’t solve the problem, but we can draw attention to it,” says architect Paul Steinbrück, Pool is Cool’s co-founder. The approach appears to be working.

Sink or swim

With its guerrilla swims in the Montgomery fountain and the collective jumps into the Brussels canal, the Pool is Cool movement has been gaining traction, culminating in the launch of “Brussels’ only public open air pool” this summer, next to the Bozar. 

The water-filled container is more of a PR stunt than a proper swimming facility, but it has already attracted people of all ages and walks of life. “Our initiative is not so much about sports,” Steinbrück explains. “We think that outdoor pools are essential for the social fabric of a city, as they bring people together.”

Historically, public pools were created to make sport and leisure facilities accessible to the less affluent segments of society. “If you have money, you don’t really have a problem,” Steinbrück says. “You can afford to join a fitness club with outdoor swimming. And in some neighbourhoods lots of people have their own swimming pools.”

Outdoor pools are essential for the social fabric of a city

- Paul Steinbrück of Pool is Cool

Recently, Pool is Cool won a €5,000 grant from the Flemish master architect to help finance research on the subject. It’s also launched a petition to convince Brussels to open an outdoor swimming pool by 2020. 

Céline Oosterlinck of Flanders’ master architect’s office echoes the sentiment of her Brussels counterpart. “It’s very strange that there aren’t any public outdoor pools in Brussels,” she says. “One thing that’s already become evident is that one pool wouldn’t be enough – the demand would be too high. There needs to be a broader strategy.”

Brussels is far behind many other European capitals. Berlin, for example, has over 20 outdoor public pools, while Paris recently made headlines by opening a clean swimming zone in the city canal.

Ponds and pools

The situation is not nearly as bleak in other Belgian cities. While Antwerp offers both natural swimming areas and a conventional outdoor pool, Gentenaars can plunge into the Blaarmeersen lake, the Neptunus pool and the S&R Rozebroeken swimming facilities.

“Ghent has invested a lot in its sports infrastructure in the last 15 years, and swimming is a part of that,” says Resul Tapmaz, the city councillor responsible for health, sport and equal opportunities. “It’s also an ethnically and socially diverse city, so it’s a great way to meet each other and bridge differences.”

Like Paris, Tapmaz continues, Ghent is looking into the possibility of opening a temporary swimming area in a demarcated zone in the Leie canal.

‘Paradigm shift’

Slowly, Serroen says, the mind-set is changing in Brussels, as well. “I can see a paradigm shift on the horizon when it comes to creating public gathering spaces that add colour to urban life”

One of the people leading the charge, she adds, is Pascal Smet, Brussels minister for mobility and public works. In the past, Smet was involved in the planning of an outdoor swimming pool along the city canal, but the project was eventually scrapped.

One pool wouldn’t be enough – the demand would be too high. There needs to be a broader strategy

- Céline Oosterlinck

Undeterred, the minister is now trying to get the issue back on the agenda. “In a densely populated city like Brussels,” says Smet, “the ability to swim outdoors is an important part of public space. Bottom-up initiatives such as Pool is Cool show that. They get my full support, and I want to translate the message as quickly as possible into political action.”

The government’s plans include the development of a swimming pond,  and Smet hopes to one day see “the opportunity to swim near the canal. Paris just showed that this is possible”.

Among the possible locations for the swimming pond is the future redevelopment at Heizel. Until that happens, the only options include the water park in the Huizingen recreation domain, just south of Brussels, and the Lammekes pool in nearby Grimbergen.

Photo courtesy Pool is Cool