Let the sea reclaim the pools?

I’ve just returned from the beach. Made my usual, favourite stop at the ocean pool. One of Wollongong’s series of bathing pools cut into the rock platform in the mid- to late-19th Century. Today saw a mix of people there: a bearded guy doing laps; the elderly woman with bright swimming cap I see regularly (I’m sure she swims every day); and a bunch of early 20-somethings looking happy and relaxed.

Climbing the stairs back up to the path, I spotted the flyer – neatly attached with cable-ties to the metal railing – that motivated this post. A newspaper clipping and hand-printed note announcing ‘Save Our Rock Pool’. You see, Wollongong City Council is proposing that it cease to maintain and/or demolish two or three of the city’s ocean pools as a cost-saving measure.

Community action to ‘Save Our Rock Pool’.

For people who live in or visit Wollongong, or indeed Newcastle or parts of Sydney, rock-cut ocean pools will be familiar. For others they’re likely to be pretty striking. They’re an iconic, and much-loved, part of this bit of coast. The idea of demolishing or allowing them to ‘run to fail’ – as is proposed – is wrong-headed in the extreme.

The ocean pools are a key cultural asset of the city of Wollongong, and part of the city’s living heritage. Many Wollongong residents use them on a daily basis, and have done so for decades. For newer residents, like me, they are a prized element of daily life in the city. For people of all ages and origins, they are a free, outside place to swim, gather socially, relax, and enjoy the spectacular coastline and sea.

High tide flushes one of Wollongong’s much loved ocean pools.

With the population of Wollongong set of grow, Wollongong City Council should be seeking to invest in the coastal strip. The Council and state government clearly appreciate this, as evidenced by major new coastal infrastructure projects including the Blue Mile, the re-furbished North Beach Bathers Pavilion, Grand Pacific Drive, and the proposed Grand Pacific Walk. But urban regeneration needs diversity. We know that people want variety; we don’t like too much uniformity. Particularly not in our cities. So investment in the coastal strip needs to include a range of facilities and elements, including the old and loved and a bit shabby, as well as the shiny and new and uniformly marketed.

Part of the Council’s proposal is to target ocean pools that are close to other facilities. Being near the newer (and also wonderful) Continental Pool, the Wollongong city ocean pool is on the short-list. But this idea fails to recognise the distinct cultural associations and functions of each pool. Different people use different facilities; unlike more established pools, ocean rock pools are accessible at all times of day and year; they have unique historical significance and heritage value; and the ocean pools hold intangible value connected to their history, their unique setting within the rock platform, and their tidal variability. People love them. What’s more, the proximity of a range of facilities adds to the livability and walkability of the city.

Local people have mobilised around this issue, in an effort to ‘Save Our Rock Pool’, especially in Wollongong and Coalcliff, two of the targets of demolition or planned neglect. People have spoken out about the health benefits of the pools for older residents, the provision of a safe place for children to swim, the history and architectural heritage value, and the significance of the pools in everyday life, among other issues. Let’s hope their voices are heard.

Postscript: Looking through Council and regional websites, I am struck by an irony. This proposal is inconsistent with other plans and priorities for the region, including Council’s own. For example, the website for the Grand Pacific Drive – a scenic road between Sydney and Nowra – boasts ‘some of the states most beautiful beaches and rock pools’. And two objectives of the Blue Mile development – the foreshore area surrounding Wollongong harbour and encompassing the city ocean pool – are to: ‘provide a range of facilities for families, visitors and local residents’; and ‘provide high quality facilities of distinctive local design that respond to and enhance the unique natural environment’. If the city’s ocean pools don’t address these two objectives, I cannot imagine what does.

You can follow Leah on Twitter @LM_Gibbs. Leah has written other posts on this blog about Ocean users and sharks in Western Australia, Water and the politics of environmental knowledge, The matter of water, and on collaboration with visual and performance artists.  

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