While on maternity leave, Nancy Waldoch, a 31-year-old production manager, brought her baby to Webber Pool in North Minneapolis, the first naturally filtered public swimming pool in the country.
“It’s just less chemicals to worry about ... not quite so scary,” she said, sitting on a blanket in the grass that surrounds the pool’s concrete edging. “Lakes sometimes have parasites,” she added.
Opened in July, the 21,000-square-foot, $7 million pool has a wading area and a deeper swimming area, both with sloping, zero-depth entry, as well as four lanes for lap swimming and a faux-wood diving platform. The landscaping is basic, just a few trees and bushes, and some boulders to sit on. There are few amenities: no refreshments or locker rooms, only open-air showers. The water gives off a greenish tint.
Natural swimming pools, which are more common in Europe, don’t use chemicals. Every 12 hours, water is pumped through a nearby regeneration basin, similar to a wetland, which has thousands of plants, rocks, and a fabric filter that act as organic cleaners. The pool’s surface is cleaned by a vacuum.
Now closed for the winter, the pool, which can hold up to 500, was open on weekends through Labor Day, free of charge. “By charging people, you’re keeping people away,” says a city park board commissioner, Jon Olson.
There has been a swimming hole on the site since 1908, when nearby Shingle Creek was dammed. In 1910, a swimming facility was built here, called the John Deer Webber Memorial Baths. A modern pool replaced it in 1979.
Back in 2005, when the concrete walls of the Seventies-era pool began to crumble, Olson walked the property with then-state Sen. Michael Jungbauer, who has a background in designing sewage treatment systems, taking in the creek and the site’s history. What Olson envisioned in place of the old pool was a natural pool to bring Webber Park, a city park, back to its swimming-hole roots.
The catch: Minnesota state law required the use of chemicals. That didn’t fit with Olson’s vision. “Chlorine is a toxin,” he says. “People have allergies to it.” (Chlorine is considered safe at low levels, so much so that it’s in drinking water; however, some studies have linked chlorinated pools to health problems, and the chemical irritates the skin of many swimmers.)
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board worked with both the city and state health departments as well as Governor Mark Dayton to get an exemption to take on this pilot project. From legal hurdles to design and construction delays, and even a duck-dropping problem (natural pools can get contaminated, too), building the pool grew into a 10-year process.
While Minnesota is known for its lakes, North Minneapolis is not. Within this part of the city are 20 census tracts where more than half of the residents are people of color, and 40 percent live at or near the federal poverty level.
“We don’t really have a lake up this way, and there’s lakes all over the place,” Olson says. “So we created a lake in an area that didn’t have one.”
Opening weekend drew 2,300 people. But for Olson the numbers are only part of the story—his pride comes from the sense of community that arises from a shared gathering space. “The first day a lady came up to me and said, ‘Jon, I’ve been here for two hours, and in two hours, I’ve met more of my neighbors than I have in the five years I’ve lived here,’” he says.
A drowning scare days after the opening—which fortunately ended up being a false alarm—resulted in new safety protocols and free swimming lessons.
“We think in terms of access,” says state Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, who represents the area and sponsored the legislative effort to create the pool. “If they can’t afford a lesson, you take away the opportunity to learn to swim.”
Sen. Champion is happy for the chance to showcase his district. “Whenever there’s a community of color, we’re not usually in those places where we get those opportunities,” he says. He believes the new pool gives people from around the region a taste of the neighborhood that will erase any faulty perceptions they may have: “North Minneapolis is a great place to live.”
According to Olson, cities including Vancouver and Houston have expressed interest in learning more about the pool. “I think you’re seeing a new type of swimming facility that’s going to be cropping up all over in the decade to come,” he says.