Philly’s New Pop-Up Pool: Tactical Urbanism or Just Plain Common Sense?

How about both? The City of Philadelphia has more outdoor public pools per capita than any other major city in the U.S. but unfortunately some people (myself included) pictured Philly’s public pools as barren concrete wastelands. A new Pop-Up Pool Project funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation is working to turn that image around by introducing more green, fun, shade, and comfort into Philly’s pools. The initial response to the project’s inaugural project at the Francisville Playground in the Callowhill neighborhood of the City is overwhelmingly positive. Kids and adults alike seem to welcome the new seating areas, games, food, and art that are meant to make their neighborhood pool more welcoming and safe.

The pristine pool is now framed by comfortable modular seating and faux palm trees.

The pristine pool is now framed by comfortable modular seating and faux palm trees.

Creative and colorful branding helps to communicate the project.

Creative and colorful branding helps to communicate the project.

The “pop-up” concept is being applied across Philly from pop-up parks to pop-up retail to pop-up yoga. Philly’s dozens of parklets, arts festivals, and food truck nights could also be considered “pop-up” as they are meant to be temporary installations that enliven an area for a short period of time by highlighting an alternative use of an often underutilized space. A pop-up is usually a seasonal use of a space that encourages reuse and engages people and the built environment in a new way.

Here are a few of my favorite examples from the last couple of years:

  • The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) was at the forefront of the pop-up craze introducing their first Pop-Up Garden in 2011. PHS’s pop-up gardens are meant to activate a vacant space, often using recycled materials from their popular Flower Show. The PHS gardens have expanded each year by evolving to include beer gardens and partnering with local businesses to offer hungry garden-goers food.
  • The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation has multiple examples of pop-up installations that have successfully brought people back to the waterfront throughout the year. DRWC’s Winterfest expanded last year to include The Lodge in addition to ice skating and arcade games on what was a barren parking lot under the I-95 expressway. Many people welcomed the evolution of Winterfest into Summerfest this summer with retro rollerskating.
  • DRWC’s insanely popular Spruce Street Harbor Park is in it’s second year and is as popular as ever. Spruce Street Harbor Park enlivens what was an under-used waterfront plaza that did not engage people with the waterfront by adding colorful hammocks, food and beer trucks, boardwalk games, and a floating barge.

The relatively simple central lawn attracts families with comfortable seating, welcoming shade, and creative landscaping.

Families enjoying the new lawn with games, comfortable seating, planters, and food trucks.

Families enjoying the new lawn with games, comfortable seating, planters, and food trucks.

  • Also in its second year, the Independence Beer Garden, a for-profit venture, has transformed a cold and impersonal granite platform surrounding the brutalist Dow office building overlooking Independence Park by adding food (and beer, of course) with large-screen TVs, table tennis, and unique landscaping and seating areas.
  • The Oval also returns this year to the former isolated parking lot in the center of the City’s iconic Benjamin Franklin Parkway in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum. The cars were kicked out last year (perhaps partially in response to the “More Park, Less Way” plan) and the Fairmount Park Conservancy and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation brightened up the space with unique art, beer gardens, large-scale yard games, and events.

The transformation of these spaces causes us to see potential and beauty where we didn’t know there was any. Philly’s pop-up spaces are family-friendly (and sometimes dog-friendly!) destinations where we can mingle, enjoy good food and drinks, and appreciate the City’s beauty from a new perspective. We are going for the experience of these combination of things… Of course I want to drink a beer, sitting on a colorfully-painted Adirondack chair on a floating dock on the Delaware River; or sip on a spiked cider sitting on a comfy couch next to a salvaged fireplace in a beautifully-lit, riverfront “Lodge.” And I am certainly not alone. I, along with thousands of others, are thankful for the creativity and ingenuity behind each and every one of these installations.

Quality and whimsical additions t

One addition to the Francisville pool are these showers that double as a whimsical mural.

Pop-Up Pool branded planters adorn the pool deck adding color and

Pop-Up Pool branded planters adorn the pool deck adding color and soften the concrete.

Is part of their success and charm that they are temporary? This is a question I have been struggling with. Knowing that a pop-up will not be there forever can draw some visitors for their novelty but the continual evolution and return of pop-ups such as Spruce Street Harbor Park and the Oval suggests that Philly wants them to stay. In fact, last year the Spruce Street Harbor Park extended their season by one month at the request of Mayor Michael Nutter (and the rest of the City).

But as for Philly’s Pop-Up Pools, the low-cost, high-impact improvements are planned to be implemented at additional pools in 2016 based on what the project leaders learn from the Francisville Playground this year. I predict that most of the improvements will be here to stay. After all, providing shade and comfortable seating at the City’s public pools seems like common sense to me!