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New York City’s rivers are full of shit. Annually, more than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater careen into New York Harbor, according to clean water advocate Riverkeeper.
So, who wants to go for a dip in the East River?
While groups like NYC Swim encourage open-water swimming around New York, most city dwellers would never consider diving into any of the murky waterways that ring their home. But that could change with Plus Pool, a civic initiative (and crowdfunding campaign) to install a floating pool in the East River.
Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeffrey Franklin, two halves of the art and design firm PlayLab, laid out the details for me when I visited their West Village office one sweltering, late June afternoon.
Plus Pool works like “a giant Brita filter,” they explained, with a three-layered filtration system that cleans and disinfects river water. The first layer removes fine sediments (mostly fecal coliform), the second layer provides backup filtration, and the final layer disinfects the water — all without the use of chlorine, because Plus Pool introduces clean water back into the river.
If Plus Pool becomes a reality, it would not only provide a safe, surreal place for New Yorkers to swim, but also clean a half-million gallons of water daily. That’s 182.6 million gallons annually, a big step forward for New York’s ailing waterways.
Plus Pool fits in nicely with Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 initiative, which refers to the New York’s 578 miles of shoreline as the city’s sixth borough. One of the proposal’s goals is to improve the quality of the city’s waterways, restoring coastal ecosystems and increasing recreational opportunities.
The Plus Pool project “sets a precedent for going back toward the water in a very grand way,” said Coates. “Let’s carve out this literal plus [sign] in the middle of the river, allow people to go into it, and that can be a testament to the future of the waterfront.”
Together with Dong-Ping Wong, the Family architect who initially conceived Plus Pool, the team sprang into action in 2010, pitching the idea to anyone who would listen. As it turns out, that was a lot of people: Plus Pool collaborators now include Arup, a global engineering firm; Ideo, a global design consultancy; and Columbia University, among many others.
The across-the-board consensus: it’s totally viable. The technology exists. In fact, it’s not even that expensive; the Plus Pool team pegs the total cost of constructing the pool at $15 million.
There are some problems, though, like the fact that public pools are a complete drain on the city’s economy.
“We knew from the very beginning that if we were going to design this pool, it had to have some economic benefit,” said Coates. “It had to be productive not only water quality-wise, but also monetarily.”
A lot of the plans remain speculative, but Coates and Franklin pointed to the High Line as a model ripe for emulation. The High Line is a public park owned by New York City, but it’s operated and maintained by Friends of the High Line, a non-profit organization. Since opening in June 2009, the High Line has proven a hot spot for tourists, buoying local business and raising real estate prices in the area.
Corporate sponsorship is another option for Plus Pool. But at the end of the day, they want to keep the project “as public as possible,” which is why they turned to Kickstarter. Twice.
In June 2011, they launched a Kickstarter campaign in order to raise funds for a tank testing the pool’s primary filtration layer. They surged past their $25,000 goal in just six days, ending up with $41,647 from 1,200 backers when the campaign came to a close. They built the test tank, which improved water quality to near-swimmable levels — and that’s without two of the three essential layers.
Last month, they launched another Kickstarter campaign with a much more ambitious goal: $250,000. If the campaign succeeds, they’ll build a 35-foot “float lab” off the Brooklyn shore this August that tests all three filtration layers. It would also represent one of the largest — if not the largest — civic crowdfunding successes to date.
If it fails, there’s no immediate contingency plan.
At the time of writing, the campaign had $240,000 in pledges from 2,700 backers. They need another $10,000 in 34 hours.
“We feel good, but of course not super good until we're at that $250K mark,” wrote Coates in an email last night.
Backers who pledge at the $25 level will get their name engraved on a Plus Pool tile, becoming a physical part of a New York landmark. Coates likes the idea of “public ownership” of the pool.
“That surreal experience of swimming in the river will be that much more surreal [when you can point to your tile] and be like, ‘Hey, I did this,’” he said. “The theme of Plus Pool is everybody.”
In that spirit, they hope to make the pool free to use, or “as free as possible.”
Coates is hugely appreciative of everyone who backed the campaign, especially the people outside New York who may never even use the pool but believe in the idea. He shared the story of one Guatemalan backer:
He said that his mom grew up swimming in triathlons in a lake by their house, in Guatemala, but the government has been throwing sewage into that lake for the past 20 years and now they can’t swim in it. He said that this pool could set a precedent for the rest of the world. When you hear something like that, you’re like, ‘Wow’ … and we get stories like that a lot.
In a lot of ways, these people are the client: they have all these ideas. Most of them are just thankful and grateful, and then you have a lot of them that [ask questions because] they feel like they’ve been invited to be involved. That’s an incredibly powerful and special part of the project.
There are plenty of detractors, people who think this pool will never happen. That’s okay, said Coates, who acknowledges the risks.
“What we’re doing is not good business,” he said. “What we’re doing is actually kind of dumb. But I mean dumb in the best sense.
“As three young designers, we can’t promise you that [it’ll happen]; we can just tell you that we’re putting our best foot forward. But the fact that Ideo and Arup are on board, and Columbia University, and certain parts of the city — that should hopefully be enough to tell you that we’ve got this.”
Disclosure: The author pledged $25 to the + POOL, Tile by Tile Kickstarter campaign.
Update: The campaign is now closed. It raised $273,114 from 3,175 backers, surpassing its $250,000 goal by nine percent.