As I near the end of a trip to Australia, I have taken every opportunity to leap into the water – whether off a jetty or in a creek. With temperatures at nearly 40C the water was immediately, and intensely reviving, and crystal clear. Sydney, itself, has plenty of harbour and ocean bathing spots, from the iconic Icebergs in Bondi to the rolling surf beyond. I love the sense of weightlessness, freedom, and peace when swimming, literally disconnected from the bleeps and pings that crowd our days. Under, or in, the water the outside world is muffled. As each breath lengthens, so does each stroke, gliding through the water, creating space to reflect. Swimming outdoors heightens the senses further, and provides a unique perspective on our surroundings.
For so long the lifeblood of our urban settlements, water is vital to our daily life. Cities were founded alongside rivers and the coast for pragmatic reasons, providing access to trade, transport, defense, agriculture, and essential access to fresh water. In the West, water gushes from the faucet, clean, bountiful, fresh and clean. A couple of days bush camping as a family of four with a long-drop toilet and rainwater is a stark reminder of how casual our relationship with water has become. The average person in the UK uses 150 litres of water a day. Boiling rainwater to wash the dishes and rationing water to prioritise drinking water provoked lots of questions from our daughters. Disconnected from water, we neglect it.
In London, the Thames was at the heart of urban life for centuries from Tudor pageants on the Royal Barge to Victorian floating “bath palaces” such as the 135ft x 25ft structure at Charing Cross. Caitlin Davies, author of the forthcoming book, “Downstream: a history and celebration of swimming the River Thames” describes, “by the 1930s, the Thames was a resort for families. There were beaches near the Tower of London and downriver at Greenwich”. This fascinating history of swimming in London forms the introduction to Urban Plunge: new designs for natural swimming in our cities, an exhibition at Roca London Gallery. Yet, by the 1960s the Thames was declared biologically dead, as the curator of Urban Plunge, Jane Withers, observes “We settled by rivers, we turned them into sewers”. Increasing river traffic and pollution led to a decline in swimming. When artist Amy Sharrocks invited 50 people to swim across London from Tooting Bec Lido to Hampstead Heath Ponds for Swim in 2007, the only part they did not swim was the Thames. However this is beginning to change.
StudioOctopi’s Thames Baths proposal is for a floating freshwater pool at Temple Stairs off the Victoria Embankment. The original scheme was predicated on the Thames Water upgrade of the sewer system, but a more recent proposal uses unchlorinated rain or tap water. Prompted by interest in river swimming, the Mayor’s Office has commissioned a feasibility study into tides, river traffic and possibilities for filtration.
If cleaning the whole river is too distant a goal, PlayLab‘s +Pool in New York plans are for a river water-filtering floating swimming pool. The pool is designed to echo the shape of the cities’ intersections, creating four pools in one: Kid’s, Sports, Lap and Lounge pools. The Float Lab filtration system is currently being tested in the Hudson River, and anybody will be able to access realtime water quality data via a Dashboard supported by Google Drive. Crowd-funded “tile by tile” you too can buy one and reserve a first dip in the pool some time in 2016.The King’s Cross Pond Club, due to open in spring 2015, will be a temporary oasis in the midst of a brownfield construction site. The bare landscape striped just as beaches and rivers strip us of our layers, observes Pfannes. Designed by architects Ooze (Eva Pfannes and Sylvain Hartenberg) and artist Marjetica Potrč, the 40 metre long pond will be entirely chemical free, with water purified through a natural, closed-loop process process using wetland and submerged water plants. Surrounded by wild flowers and grasses, the whole experience will change with the seasons. The number of swimmers admitted each day will be limited by the capacity of the plants to clean the water, “a symbolic act for the balance of living in a sustainable city” explains Potrč.
Copenhagen’s five harbour baths offer a vision of the future. The first harbour bath opened in 2002 after modernising the sewer system and diverting local rainwater to reach safe swimming standards. The baths are vibrant public spaces linking the city with the water. Now a new island is planned in the harbour, the House of Water, dedicated to water pursuits and education to inspire local and global audiences to invest in sustainable water solutions to create liveable cities.
The schemes exhibited at Urban Plunge are not only exciting natural swimming venues, but invite us to re-engage with our cities and our water. The schemes challenge us to think about sustainable living in cities, and our shared use of this most precious of resources. You might just be persuaded to dive in this summer, if not before.
Related links: http://www.rocalondongallery.com/en/activities/detail/129 http://www.museumofwater.co.uk http://www.wildswimming.co.uk http://www.dezeen.com/2014/01/13/swimming-pools-river-thames-london-studio-octopi