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British Columbia Vancouver’s outdoor pools are making a bigger splash than ever

A lifeguard keeps an eye on the water as people swim at Second Beach Pool located in Stanley Park in Vancouver, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

With Vancouver’s beaches periodically out of commission for swimming, our city’s pools are rendered even more precious. There is nothing more divine than a swim at one of our three full-sized outdoor pools on a smoking hot day.

Consider the marvel that is Kitsilano Pool. At 137 metres, it is Canada’s longest, filled with saltwater and heated for comfort. For old-school lap swimmers like me, it takes only 13.5 seemingly endless lengths to go a mile and once you are done, you can lounge on the pool deck with a book and a view of the North Shore Mountains and ships on English Bay.

There are two others as well, Second Beach Pool at Stanley Park and my neighbourhood outdoor pool, New Brighton, which I almost hesitate to mention lest it grow even more crowded. At any of these pools, look up, and you might see an eagle being chased by crows.

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When school is out, multigenerational families flock to outdoor pools with sunshades, lawn chairs and picnic coolers in tow. Myriad languages are spoken, but the universal pool language is the delighted squeal of children splashing in the water. It really doesn’t get any better and this is why the Vancouver Park Board is planning to build another full-size outdoor pool at South Vancouver’s Marpole Community Centre.

Park Board chair Stuart Mackinnon says the decision bucks a past trend to close outdoor pools, which are costly to build and typically only open about 100 days of the year. Between 1993 and 2009, four outdoor pools – Hastings, Oak, Sunset and Mount Pleasant – reached the end of their lifespans and were shuttered.

Even when situated beside a community centre where change-room facilities can be shared, an outdoor pool still costs between $6-million and $9-million to build, Mr. Mackinnon says. Indoor pools cost far more – approximately $20-million – but are open all year, so the subsidy for each swim is typically lower.

Mr. Mackinnon says the park board’s decision to build a new outdoor pool was not based on dollars and cents. Surveys show Vancouverites miss their outdoor pools, he says. “This reflects the views of the public.” If, as expected, summer temperatures start to last longer as a result of climate change, the outdoor pools will stay open longer too, he adds. The outdoor pools used to shut down on Labour Day, but in recent years closing dates have been extended.

Whether they are indoor or outdoor, people grow attached to swimming pools, which have different vibes and personalities. When it comes to indoor pools, the park board tries to build facilities that will attract the greatest number of swimmers and phase out those that are old and not well used.

Plans were being discussed to open popular large destination pools at Britannia Community Centre and Connaught Park, which would allow the park board to close aging pools at Lord Byng and Templeton. The closures were halted after a community outcry, but if attendance slumps once the larger pools are built, they likely won’t survive.

From a financial point of view, this makes perfect sense. But it will only work well for swimmers if the park board can build fast enough to keep up with increases in population and demand.

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Hillcrest, Vancouver’s star destination pool attraction, is a wonderful bright new facility and, no doubt, people love it. The pool drew swimmers away from some of the drearier facilities, such as the Aquatic Centre, and consequently felt overcrowded the moment it opened.

As much as I loved the idea of early morning swims in Hillcrest’s 50-metre pool, I found myself mowed down by droves of other early-bird swimmers. So, after a few tries I migrated back to a small community pool close to home where I felt comfortable.

Swimming is a fabulous, low-impact form of exercise. Canada’s demographic is aging and as it does, pools will become even more popular. As the park board moves forward, it must continue to balance the need for fiscal prudence with user satisfaction.

Opting to build an outdoor pool at Marpole is a case where citizen demand should trump cost. But to my mind, the jury is out on Lord Byng and Templeton. If the community wants those pools saved, there’s only one way to do it. Swim.

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