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Pool Culture in Crisis

Professor Jessica Helfand’s design practicum course at Yale School of Management focuses on the water utility infrastructure and policies in Cape Town, South Africa in the context of the 2018 water crisis.  Through lectures by specialists and tours of local utility plants, the first half of the course prepares us to think about water utilities as both physical infrastructure and coordinated policy.  The second half of the course entails field work onsite in Cape Town and an independent project about a given typology.  I focus on the suburbs along the Atlantic Seaboard and their relationship to pools, historically and currently, both public and private.  Using face to face interviews, onsite observation, archival and academic research, mapping, digital modeling, writing, and prototyping, I examine what the pool means in the context of the water crisis and how it may be retooled to address new and changing needs of suburban residents.  The course asks us to think of the city at every scale — regionally as an area with certain climate conditions and agricultural and civic needs; municipally as a distinct zone of discreet governance; locally as a district with particular residents and patterns of consumption; block by block as sets of individual residences; and personally as a human beings with lifestyles, behaviors, and motivations.  It deals immersively with urban issues.


My project took shape in two parts.  The first examined the pool as a site of hygeine, recreation, and leisure in a historical context.  Begninning with saltwater baths and public pools that were built for white families and later designated white-only zones, the research showed that water has been racialized since colonial occupation of Cape Town in the late nineteenth century.  I traced the emergence of the private backyard pool to the moment that apartheid policies of segregation were lifted, prompting white residents to retreat to their homes instead of use integrated public pools.  This history inflects current pool policies, which have caused many public pools to be shut down in the water crisis -- many in historically disadvantaged communtiies.  This work was formatted as a lecture given in Dr. Siona O’Connell’s “Curatorship and Local Issues” seminar at the University of Cape Town and published as an editorial in the Cape Argus, one of Cape Town’s leading daily newspapers.


The second part of the project is a proposal for flipping pool cuture in Fresnaye, the suburb I studied all semseter.  The pool is ripe for reinvention in the context of the water crisis, so the project outlines how it could be converted into a water storage container for use in the event of Day Zero or to power graywater or potable water systems in the house in the service of becoming water independent.

Newlands Public Pool being drained due to the water crisis

January 2018

Sea Point Pavilion remains open during the water crisis. It is fed directly from the Atlantic Ocean

YALE SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT | Spring 2018 | Design Practicum

Jessica Helfand, advisor


Like many other aspects of life in colonial South Africa, public pools in Cape Town were segregated by race.  This map of the Atlantic Seaboard from c.1919 shows that Sea Point Pavilion and attendant Graaf's and Milton's Pools served the predominantly white suburbs of Fresnaye and Sea Point, while a separate pool for "Coloureds" accommodated their domestic workers.

In 1966, Fresnaye had 21 backyard pools.

Today there are 622 private pools in Fresnaye.

Fresnaye's pools hold approximately 32,000,000 liters of water

Rough calculations show the holding capacity of the pools in Fresnaye

Water restrictions require all pools be fitted with covers to reduce evaporation. Only 35 of the 622 pools have covers

I wrote an editorial about the water crisis and pool culture for the Cape Argus, a daily newspaper

Fresnaye statistics

The Pool Owner's Dilemma

Many products have entered the market

The proposal has four parts, each intended to address a specific need of suburban pool owners during the water crisis

A line of pool covers offers options for moving into compliance with Level 6b regulations

"My pool was kept up for one reason only... for my family to bathe and wash ourselves in the event of no water.  It is difficult to come back from that thought and consider recreation."

Yael Shapiro, resident

March 2018

94 Geneva Drive

Signaling and Signage

94 Geneva Drive

94 Geneva Drive

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