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9 cities making polluted waterways into swimming hotspots

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Reclaiming rivers, one pool at a time

Opening day in 2017 at the Bassin de la Villette swimming pool on the Canal de l’Ourcq in Paris.

Some of the world’s busiest and largest cities have long had a water problem. Historically a lifeline for trade, production, and travel, city rivers have also suffered from devastating pollution.

However, cities around the world are now working to make once-polluted rivers safe for swimming. That might seem shocking to urbanites who grew up seeing—and smelling—everything from raw sewage to trash in the waterways, but it’s no longer a pie-in-the-sky future plan. It’s actually happening.

This revolutionary idea aims to connect neglected river fronts with the people and businesses that surround them. From open-water swimming areas to filtering pools that help clean river water while people swim, we’ve rounded up impressive projects in nine different cities.

Some—like a canal in Paris—have just opened, while other projects are still in the planning stages. But all show that for more and more cities, a dip in your local river could be the perfect way to cool off.

The Charles River in Boston

A rendering of what a swim-park could look like in Boston’s Charles River.
Courtesy of the Charles River Conservancy

The Charles River Conservancy calls the formerly polluted Charles River the cleanest urban river in America. Recreational swimming has been prohibited in the Charles since the 1950s, when the beaches and bathhouses were closed. But since 1995, years of environmental health initiatives have cleaned up the water.

Since 2013, the Conservancy has hosted public swim days and a one-mile swim race with over 1,400 people participants. The water is tested 48-hours prior to each event to ensure public safety, and the goal is to build an accessible and permanent swimming facility in the Charles. If implemented, the swim-park would be located within North Point Park, along the border of Cambridge and Boston. While still in the planning stages, the Conservancy has held public meetings to get feedback on its plans and is actively working to bring the swim park to reality.

The Baignade Bassin de la Villette in Paris

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Opened in 2017 as a temporary—and free!—swimming zone at La Villette canal basin in Paris, this river pool is proving that even in historically polluted urban areas, swimming can be possible. The pool actually features three different pools, including one for children, and it returned this year as part of the popular summer festival Paris Plages. It’s likely that last summer’s popularity will continue; the pools were so in demand that they maxed out their daily quota of 1,000 swimmers and inspired long queues.

The success of the new canal pool has prompted increased attention for the city to tackle Paris’s most famous waterway: the Seine. Swimming in the Seine has been banned since 1923, but the city’s successful bid to host the 2024 Olympics includes plans to make the river officially swimmable.

The East River in New York City

A rendering of +Pool, a plan to create a filtering public swimming pool in New York’s East River.
Courtesy of +Pool

Eight years ago, a group called +Pool proposed what many derided as an outlandish idea: To create a floating pool in New York’s waterways that would have the ability to filter the polluted water, provide a place to swim, and help cleanse the river at the same time.

According to Curbed NY, since then +Pool has taken many small steps toward realizing the aquatic project, including launching two successful Kickstarter campaigns to raise funds and conducting feasibility studies (including one in the Hudson River) to see if its technology is viable.

The +Pool has also enlisted the help of Joshua David (co-founder of the High Line) for planning and the Tribeca Film Festival to create a documentary about their work. Another high-profile partnership includes the Heineken-sponsored “The Cities Project”, which will donate $100,000 to the cause once +POOL successfully garners 100,000 pledges. If you’re interested in signing your name, head to

The St. Lawrence River in Montreal

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For the 15th time, swimmers recently jumped into the St. Lawrence River next to the Jacques Cartier Pier in Old Montreal. “Le Grande Splash” is organized to promote the river’s recreational possibilities, especially because many locals still fear the sewage that has historically overflowed into the river after rain events.

But groups like Montreal Baignade want to prove that the St. Lawrence is safe to swim 99.9 percent of the time during the summer. They also want to encourage more access sites, like a new $4 million beach in Verdun that was announced in 2016, but won’t be complete until next summer.

The River Thames in London

A rendering of a proposed pool in the River Thames.
Courtesy of Picture Plane & Studio Octopi

Similar in concept to the New York +Pool idea, a group of architects and designers in London want to build a series of open-air pools in the middle of the River Thames. Called the Thames Baths, the project was originally launched in 2013 by Studio Octopi architects and has been supported by thousands of backers on Kickstarter.

Each pool would be filled with filtrated Thames water and heated in winter. Current designs include plans for locations adjacent to City Hall, the South Bank, and Temple Stairs and the hope is that events like cinema-and-swim nights would help make the pools cultural destinations and revitalize the river. It’s been quiet for the Thames Baths team in 2018, but according to their Facebook page, they are hoping to have better progress to report later this year.

The Los Angeles River

A rendering of what the LA River could look like in the future.
Courtesy of LA

Anyone familiar with the Los Angeles River of the past may recall an ugly concrete flood control channel that runs through the heart of the city—and sometimes runs dry. That’s changing, however, thanks to massive restoration projects both the central and lower waterfront into something much more riverlike. And that’s just the beginning for nonprofit advocacy groups like River LA who want to see all 51 miles of the river transformed.

The city plans to convert the industrial Taylor Yard space into a riverside park, and California’s 2017 budget set aside $98 million for the LA River, money that the Los Angeles Daily News said could be used to build “soccer fields, picnic areas and hiking paths.” In the section from Vernon to Long Beach, new draft plans for the 19-mile stretch show parkland, trails, bridges, landscaping, and paths for walkers and cyclists.

Friends of the LA River has not only conducted massive cleanup projects, but the organization has also helped to educate the public on kayak tours, river tours, bird watching, biking, and other waterfront recreation. While it will likely still take years for swimming in the LA River to be legal and safe, this is huge progress for a river that was basically a massive storm drain for decades. To stay updated on everything that’s happening with the river, head over here.

The Spree River in Berlin

Since the 1990s, various groups have wanted to clean up a canal off the German capital’s Spree River and create a place for public swimming. The idea has come under the umbrella of the Flussbad project, which advocates transforming the Spree Canal into a swimming area in the city center while also building natural water filters and an ecological regeneration zone.

While the project is still in the planning stages, the organization has conducted water quality studies and raised more than $4.6 million in funding to turn the concept into a reality. The group also has hosted summer swim days in the canal, most recently on July 1, 2018 after testing the water and finding it to be “excellent quality.”

The Willamette River in Portland

Long-time residents of Portland have avoided swimming in the Willamette River for decades, likely because of weekly sewage overflows that created unhealthy, nasty conditions. But the recent completion of a $1.4 billion sewage pipe in 2011 has people reconsidering their options, especially after the city hooked up with a group called the Human Access Project to hold several public swimming events. One of the biggest each year is The Big Float, a river float parade that supports the river’s preservation and gets people on the water.

Swimming in the Willamette downtown is now perfectly safe, and the Human Access Project offers a list of beaches and swim spots in downtown and around the city. There’s even a swim team that swims a lap across the Willamette River and back before or after work, about a half-mile swim in total.

Harbor Baths in Aarhus and Copenhagen

aerial view of harbor bath Photo by Rasmus Hjortshøj courtesy of BIG

Once terribly polluted, the Port of Copenhagen now hosts several harbor baths that are some of the busiest summer spots in the city. The water was first declared clean enough to swim in 2001, and shortly thereafter the city opened its first harbor pool at Islands Brygge. Quick popularity prompted the city to make the facility permanent, and since then more harbor baths have been added.

The country’s most recent pool is three hours away from Copenhagen in Aarhus, where Bjarke Ingels’ firm BIG designed a floating platform that can host 650 people. The popularity in Danish harbor pools shows just how successful cities can be when reclaiming industrial ports and transforming them into recreational oases.