Flow in Brussels, much more than an outdoor swimming pool

Flow © Marcelline Bonneau

After the two months of July and August 2021, the temporary outdoor Swimming pool Flow, coordinated by POOL IS COOL at Pont Pierre Marchant / Digue du Canal, in Anderlecht, Belgium, has come to an end. “We just want it to happen again next year”, said Nabil A., neighbour and visitor of the site. Both adults and children loved it. Inhabitants from the neighbourhood and beyond enjoyed it enthusiastically. What has this Flow been about then?

Here are some crossed reflexions and suggestions for the next editions, combining analytical insights from Marcelline Bonneau with those of a local resident, Nabil A.

Swimming outdoor

POOL IS COOL has been promoting outdoor swimming pools in Brussels for 7 years. Such swimming pools existed in the past in Brussels, in Evere or Anderlecht, for example, and are now still very common in all other European capital cities. Such a practice is public and accessible to all, sportive, inclusive and social.

As Nabil A. shares: “It’s a clear shame for a European capital not to have such an elementary facility available to citizens. When I was living in Trier (Germany) I was surprised that a medium sized city of 100 000 inhabitants possessed 2 outdoor swimming pools while, in Brussels, we did not even have a single one! Such situation is generating frustration among the population and mostly the poorer or middle-class who cannot afford to buy a house, even less a house with a swimming pool.”

Usually, POOL IS COOL is developing messages and are proactive in their offers for solutions, for local authorities to act by themselves. For this first edition of Flow, it actually implemented the project itself.

Political support

The very first and very last day of the opening of Flow, Fabrice Cumps, Mayor of Anderlecht came to swim (notwithstanding the bad weather). Indeed, since 2019, POOL IS COOL has received support from local elected representatives. For Nabil A., the political leadership should be obvious in this case: “Elected representatives should definitely allocate public funding for these kinds of initiatives, not only via volunteering activities, but also in ensuring their economic viability, with a long-term vision”.

The young staff working with ART2WORK © Marcelline Bonneau

Creating new opportunities for residents and visitors

Flow was developed as a partnership with a range of local stakeholders: for the building of the swimming pool itself with volunteering citizens (Decoratelier), for the daily coordination and activities with youngsters from the neighbourhood in professional training (ART2WORK), for the participatory cultural activities (ZinnemaKunstenfestivaldesarts and Cinema Galeries,), … In particular, Nabil A. stressed that “The young staff was very pleased to help people, we just felt surrounded by our neighbours.”

Also, POOL IS COOL has benefited from activities organised on the bridge against which Flow laid, Pont Pierre Marchant, from the local NGO for residents to enjoy the public space (while eating, rollerblading, …), a guinguette, as well as nearby concert and event place – Circle Park.

Appropriation of public space

2020 was meant to be “Biestepool” a first attempt of outdoor swimming pool, on Digue du Canal. As Paul Steinbrück from POOL IS COOL expressed, “hopefully coronavirus arrived: we could realise our project was not well designed, in isolation from the neighbourhood, and would have been failure. We got an extra year to further think through a meaningful and integrated project”. On the contrary, visitors of the site – Swimming pool and surrounding areas – felt this was really “their” city, and that they did not need to go outside Brussels (e.g. to Domaine d’Huizingen) to swim outdoor. Yet, Nabil A. stressed that “This is a rare meeting place for citizens of different backgrounds. People meet, exchange and create social links. The appropriation is less visible in other parts of the neighbourhood. Circle Park should also be more linked to Flow and the local activities, to attract more locals or at least not giving the idea of exclusion by not being visible.”

Conference around Flow’s experience at Recyclart, Brussels, on 29.09.21 © Marcelline Bonneau

Gentrification or social cohesion?

Aren’t you scared the swimming pool will gentrify the neighbourhood?” asked a participant at a conference presenting the outcomes of the project at Recyclart on 29 September 2021. “Gentrification is already here, the price of real estate is booming in Anderlecht. So, we should focus on living altogether rather than creating further segregation”, replied, Nourhen Farjallah from Zinnema. Nabil A. got angry by this sterile debate “We all want the quality of our lives to improve, so let’s just all make the most out of it!: If you ask locals whether they prefer the value of their houses to increase with gentrification or to remain low, they will definitely chose to get more out of their investment in case they want to  sell it  and develop a business or buy a larger house , etc …”

Next year?

Flow might re-open in Summer 2022, a few questions remain in the meantime, to which we are making some suggestions:

  • Re-thinking public urban space? The objective of POOL IS COOL is purely to promote outdoor swimming. Working with partners enables achieving wider social, environmental, cultural and economic objectives. Key is the reflexion upon the use and design of public urban space.  Two major (indoor) swimming pool projects are currently under reflexion in Brussels: on the roof of the former slaughterhouse of Anderlecht and close to the West station.   Installing a temporary outdoor swimming pool would give visibility to these upcoming projects, while promoting them, getting residents engaged with their buy-in, at the same time as benefiting from direct feedback from them for the future of tailored swimming – ensuring greater support (and potentially economical return in the long-run…). (This is without the current reflexion upon the transformation of an existing pond into a swimming pond in the Neerpede area in Anderlecht, under the lead of Bruxelles Environnement!)
  • What will happen of the site in the meantime? Currently, residents still go and picnic there. Should there be a sauna or other activities on the spot? Wouldn’t it be a waste to leave it vacant for a whole year?  The City of Anderlecht should definitely not lose the momentum it created and prevent degradation from the site.
  • Should the communication be increased? The project has been mainly targetig residents from the neighbourhood. And the swimming pool was already full everyday –> there is for sure a need to better communicate on the integrated projects in the neighbourhood, but reflexion as to extending this communication should also be carried out in order to prioritise efforts and resources and create a meaningful local ecosystem.
  • Evaluating in an iterative way? At the end of the project, it was presented at Recyclart – POOL IS COOL, Decoratelier and Zinnema shared their experiences. Those present were participants of Recyclart’s activities: only a third of participants in the room had been to Flow. Nobody from the users or the neighbourhood was invited to testify.  Time should be taken for this reflexive process in the upcoming months to share and evaluate – and improve – such a project in participatory way, with end-users of the swimming pool.
  • Is it realistic in financial terms? Obviously, Flow will need new financial resources to continue, modify, upgrade. It is never too early to apply for funding, for shorter or longer term, for ad hoc or iterative projects, for hard or soft investments, for a single project or networking, building on embarking on peer learning and exchange.  Regional and European (public and private) funding resources should be identified to make the most out of the potential of this project.

* Nabil A. had been one of the most engaged resident-users of the swimming pool with his 4 and 6-year old children. He lives in Anderlecht, the neighbourhood were Flow took place.