Nine years ago, New Yorkers were promised a floating, self-filtering pool on the East River, but all they’ve gotten so far is a floating light sculpture. Plus Pool Light has been installed, temporarily, in place of Plus Poola floating outline one quarter the size of the original proposal, consisting of LED lights that change color depending on water quality. 

“It’s about having people look at something beautiful and coming here if they want to learn more,” said Archie Lee Coates IV, a partner at New York-based Playlab and a cocreator of the public pool proposal. But, as he also told The New York Times “It’s been incredibly difficult, painful and exhausting,” navigating the red tape and blockades associated with publicly funded projects in NYC. 

Plus Pool (or +Pool) was conceived in a brainstorming session amongst Coates and his design friends Jeff Franklin, Dong-Ping Wong and Oana Stanescu back in 2010. The concept began with the frustration that New York City residents are constantly within walking distance of water, but live largely cut-off from it. The Hudson and East Rivers remain too polluted for safe swimming, and public beaches often take over an hour to get to.

Rendering of the +Pool proposal

Rendering of the +Pool proposal (Courtesy Plus Pool)

While waterways in several other major metropolises have been cleaned up in the interest of the public as well as tourists, like the Seine in Paris, New York’s rivers have been unswimmable for over 70 years. Plus Pool would use a state-of-the-art filtration system to help people reclaim their rivers for recreational use, and even strengthen campaigns to keep the waters clean. 

In response to the passing of the Clean Water Act, many liquid assets in NYC were adopted as Superfund sites by the government, but sites like the Gowanus Canal remain in deplorable condition, as the city has yet to adequately update their storm surge systems—a system so inadequate that a 2018 NYT article titled “Please Don’t Flush the Toilet, It’s Raining,” drew viral reactions.

All of that intake affects the ecosystem of the East River, and therefore the light show of the Plus Pool Light. When the quality is at an acceptable level, the LEDs shine turquoise-blue, but as sewage and bacteria levels increase, the lights shift to pink. This real-time quality indication comes from data collected by on-site sensors as well as an algorithm developed by researchers at Columbia University and the tech firm Reaktor

While Plus Pool has been compared to other “Instagrammable” public projects like The High Line, this environmentally sensitive project may be more about addressing the physical effects of human degradation of the environment than reclaiming leisure space. The Light installation has already turned public attention towards the water by offering an unflinching visual representation of urban pollution, and in the era of Instagram and visual storytelling, potentially generating more attention for realizing the Plus Pool project. 

Plus Pool Light will be on view off of Lower Manhattan’s Seaport District until January 3, 2020.

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