British Columbia

Closure of Vancouver's neighbourhood pools would have social costs, planner says

Two Vancouver pools won a last-minute reprieve late this year. But the Vancouver Park Board plans to phase out older pools, marking a potential end to an era of small, neighbourhood pools.

‘If that pool gets shut down, I will go down,’ said Gillian LaPrairie, who argues pool saved her life

The threat to the local neighbourhood pool is something that sparks protests from Toronto to Australia, as people fight to protect one of the last places left for the public to gather in a community. (Tom Markham)

Two Vancouver pools recently won last-minute reprieves from plans to close them, but their future is uncertain. 

Vancouver is not alone. Cities worldwide are moving to consolidate amenities such as pools and schools, say city planning experts.

But at what cost?

The Vancouver Park Board's plan to phase out older pools means the end of an era when teens could walk to the neighbourhood pool without adults, and lifeguards knew their names. 

"It's one of many neighbourhood amenities cities are losing, largely due to consolidation and cost savings, ironically at the same time as we're writing new policies about creating more walkable, 'complete' neighbourhoods," said Brent Toderian, former chief planner for Vancouver.

​Toderian said there are significant social costs to closing community pools, including the erosion of neighbourhood cohesion and reduced accessibility for disabled people and seniors.

After much outcry, the park board decided to revisit its closure plans and will vote on the Van Splash policy on Jan. 29. The policy outlines the next 25 years of aquatic and sports facilities planned for Metro Vancouver.

The vision describes phasing out older pools "nearing the end of their lives."

It's a plan that's sparked outrage from pool users who have petitioned and protested to save Lord Byng and Templeton pools. 

Gillian LaPrairie is passionate about the Lord Byng pool.

"If that pool gets shut down, I will go down," said LaPrairie, who uses a wheelchair and is partially blind. 

The 49-year-old swims daily to combat the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis and she's not interested in shifting to Hillcrest, Britannia or a larger facility promised to replace Lord Byng Pool.

Gillian LaPrairie was a primatologist in Africa, where she cared for orphaned chimps, before an aggressive form of Multiple Sclerosis changed her life. (Gillian La Prairie)

She prefers the smaller, intimate community-centre-style pool where the lifeguards know her.

She often rented the entire pool for birthday parties, and nearby schools use the pool for swimming lessons.

For now, the city is delaying pool closures. But the threat still looms, despite support from Vancouver Point Grey MLA David Eby and planning experts, who urge the park board commissioners to rethink the pool closures.

It's a fight other cities also face as infrastructure ages. There is a push to consolidate and create mega-structures that serve more people.

But locals do not want to lose the heart of their community, often a community centre or pool. In Toronto, a fight over a pool facing closure due to budget concerns got support from Olympic gold medal winner Penny Oleksiak, who once used the pool. Council has since reconsidered.

In Australia, pool closures sparked studies.

"Communities feel that they are losing social capital and a sense of equity about access to well-maintained pools," said Australian modern history professor Hannah Lewi, who has studied the disappearance of the local pool.

Lord Byng proponent Tom Perry can't understand why any city would be closing pools, which can help combat everything from loneliness to obesity.

"It's really an argument about societal priorities," said Perry, a medical doctor who points to research on the physical and mental health benefits of public pools.

Pools can reduce social isolation and stress for those who use them, and they offer youth a healthy place to gather, he said.

"Why would you want to reduce any such facilities. We actually have way fewer pools than many Canadian large cities — per capita or per city. So why are they so stingy?" said Perry.

4 new indoor pools

The park board said its vision will give more citizens more varied aquatic experiences. 

It plans to replace three indoor pools — Britannia, Kerrisdale, and the Vancouver Aquatic Centre — and build a new one, Connaught Pool. 

It's also planning two new outdoor pools: One co-located with Killarney or Marpole community centres; the other somewhere in South Vancouver.

The fight for Lord Byng Pool's life is not over, say protectors. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

Park board staff declined interview requests until later in January.

The park board has made no commitment to keep Lord Byng and Templeton pools open in the long-term.

Small pools still under threat

That is not good enough for LaPrairie.

Seven blocks from her home she can be winched into Lord Byng's waters every day.

"Swimming has always been very important to me. Water does something magical," she said.

An aggressive form of MS forced her to give up a life as a primatologist caring for African chimps.

But she's convinced pool access has kept her moving.

Gillian LaPrairie's boys Owen, 10, (left) and Bryn, 9, (right) when they received a life-saving award in 2014 for leaping into action to save their mother who had a cardiac arrest while swimming with them in a hotel pool. (Gillian La Prairie)

"Our community pool is one of the few places left where people come and meet," she said.

Because the pool is small, lifeguards knew her and her sons, who got some unique lifeguard training.

She is convinced that's how the boys prevented her from drowning after a cardiac arrest on holiday a few years ago at a California hotel pool in Disneyland.

"My kids were the first responders and one of the things that [swimming at Lord Byng pool] did — it was a great tool — all the lifeguards at the pool know me and they got to know my kids."

Those lifeguards played rescue games with LaPrairie's boys while she swam.

And she believes that's how they were able to act so fast to rescue her when she almost drowned.

So for her, any pool closure hurts.

The thought of a permanent shut down? Unthinkable.

The campaign to save Lord Byng Pool in Vancouver includes pins, T-shirts and petitions. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)


Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist. or on Twitter or Instagram @ybrend