Of all the things the post-industrial East River has been known for (dead bodies, raw sewage, oil spills), a safe public swimming opportunity was never really one of them. That changed in 2010, when three designers and architects launched a project that, at first, seemed to defy common sense. Dong Ping Wong, Archie Coates, and Jeffrey Franklin wanted to make a plus-shaped, self-filtering, free-floating public pool in one of the most notorious urban waterways in the country.
Two blockbuster Kickstarter campaigns and more than $300,000 later, +Pool is testing the waters for a real 2016 launch. Its creators have gained the support of key political figures, donors, community groups, environmental watchdogs, and even Jay-Z (via tweet). This week, at a meeting held at Kickstarter's East River waterfront headquarters, +Pool announced the next phase of its development, as well as a new feature: A partnership with Google.
In addition to filtering half a million gallons of river water every day, +Pool will send water quality data to an iPad app and website developed by Google Drive. Without having to pay a dime, New Yorkers will be able to look up things like water murkiness, oxygen content, and how much of their raw sewage has made it into the river that day. (When +Pool passed around Nexus tablets
iPads to show what the app will look like, it informed us that yesterday's fecal bacteria test came back "pretty grim.")
"I think that changing how people think of their water is changing their idea of whether it's possible to change the river," designer Ping Wong says.
The water quality data comes from the early stages of a test pool off Pier 40. The pilot will spend a total of six months on the East and Hudson rivers, while Arup engineers and Columbia University researchers continue to test and refine the pool's filtration systems
So far, +Pool advisor and Columbia University geochemist Wade McGillis is optimistic. "Preliminary results show in the East River, which is particularly contaminated from Newtown Creek, is that we removed most of the bacteria. And that was in the initial phases where we were using coarse filtration," he said. "We will not let people swim if there are bacteria in the water which is unacceptable."
Hopefully, those bad bacteria days won't happen too often. But as Hurricane Sandy showed, storm surge can overwhelm New York City's combined sewer system. In 2011, the storm unleashed 11 billion (yes, billion) gallons of raw sewage into New York waterways.
"We're designing for the worst case scenarios," Ping Wong tells me when I asked him about the possibility of another torrent of human waste. "The walls actually work better the worst the water gets."
Another real-life experiment might be the only way to find out. In the meantime, the pool's creators are registering for nonprofit status and hope to have the final permits approved by next summer.