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The Pools Factor:
Does Your Community Have Enough Space?

by Ron Shaw, CLP, and Dave Arnolde

The most precious commodity most park districts have is swimming pool capacity. If pressed, very few aquatic supervisors would say their communities have enough pool capacity for all they would like to do. There is always a squeeze of one kind or another. Too little room for programs, too little space for public swim on hot days, not enough time in the day. We asked ourselves, is there a way to decide if a community has adequate pool capacity? Is there a way to decide what a community needs for aquatic facilities?

Most communities that have ambitions toward building new or expanding existing aquatic facilities begin with a needs assessment. This arduous process is made more difficult by the lack of empirical research into community needs. This deficiency led us to begin a research project to establish norms against which a community can measure its "Pool Factor."


The hypothesis of the project states that a benchmark for the pool capacity a community requires can be established through population and other community data. There are 137 park districts and recreation departments in the 1992-1993 IAPD/ IPRA Membership Director1 that list swimming pools among their facilities. These agencies represent a variety of communities from urban to suburban to rural, from economically advantaged to disadvantaged, from very large to very small. These communities also have a tremendous variety in swimming pools, from the smallest lap pools to the scope of Rockford's Magic Waters Waterpark. Our hypothesis holds that there is a correlation between the factors that describe a community and the size and type of swimming pools it has built.

Research Method

The initial phase of the project consisted of identifying all the park districts listing swimming pools in the 1992-1993 IAPD/IPRA Membership Director. A majority of these park districts were contacted by telephone to verify the information in the directory. From this information, a database of aquatic facilities and supervisors was constructed.

The second phase of the project involved sending a general survey to all the agencies in the database. This survey probed community data such as EAV2, population and square miles in boundaries. The survey also asked other questions about aquatic facilities such as licensed maximum bather load, approximate surface area of water, size of enclosed area and other available amenities.


Fifty-six of the park districts that received the survey responded. This produced a significant sample (41%) of the park districts maintaining public swimming pools in Illinois. The fifty-six park districts in the study maintained a combined total of 69 outdoor and 10 indoor pools. The average number of people serviced by each of these pools was 21,587.

The size of the communities ranged in population from 2,500 (Walnut Park District) to 204,000 (Rockford Park District). Average population for the respondents was 31,880.

However, population alone doesn't adequately describe a community. A park district of 25,000 spread out over a rural county is a very different community from a district of 25,000 in a Chicago suburb. Population density was derived by dividing the population into the square miles within the boundaries of a park district in the study. This calculation yielded an average number of people per square mile. Density ranged from as little as 25 people per square mile (Walnut Park District) to 7,333 (Morton Grove Park District).

The EAV of the park districts in the population yields an indication of a community's relative wealth. Relative wealth ranged from $32,927/person (Beardstown Community Park District) to $357,143/person (South Barrington Park District). Average relative wealth of the park districts in the study was $134,969/person.

The dependent variable in the study was combined bather load. Combined bather load varied from 100 (Gurnee Park District) to 7,610 (Rockford Park District). The average combined bather load for the communities in the study was 1,092.

Bather load divided by population yields a percentage that shows the portion of a community able to use the community's pools at any given time. Bather Load as a Percentage of Population (BLPP) ranged from 0.4% (Harvey Park District) to 14.8% (Palos Heights Recreation Department). Average BLPP in the study was 4.7%.

The variables of population, EAV and square miles in

Illinois Parks and Recreation 19 July/August 1993

borders were used in a multiple regression study to determine their effect on a community' s combined bather load. This statistical tool establishes the weight each variable has in predicting the dependent variable. It also produces a formula that can predict what a combined bather load should be given the other variables. This formula is listed in Figure 1.

The regression procedure yielded a multiple correlation of .77. This figure shows the relative ability of the three variables to predict the dependent variable. Correlation figures vary between -1 and 1. A figure of 1 would indicate a perfect correlation. Consequently, we can be assured that these three variables have a strong ability to predict the combined bather load.



Standards for determining if a community has adequate swimming pool facilities are difficult to come by. The National Park and Recreation Association has published a recommendation for communities to have one pool per 20,000 people. Further, NRPA's recommendation establishes a base line that community swimming pools should accommodate 3-5% of the total population at one time.3 According to these standards, 29 of the 56 communities in this study (52%) have insufficient pool capacity to serve their population.

The norms established by the communities in this study are similar to the NRPA standards. Using the regression formula, it is possible to establish a "predicted combined bather load" for a community.

Figure 2: Bather Load as a Percentage of Population


Bather Load



Harvey Park District




Peoria Park District




Rockford Park District








Glenview Park District




Palos Heights Rec. Dept




It is dangerous, however, to use any standard as a universal rule for determining if a community has sufficient pool capacity. There are many other factors that must be considered. For example, this study does not distinguish between indoor pools and outdoor pools. Indoor pools and outdoor pools have very different functions in most communities. Indoor pools tend to be more programmed with classes and more likely to be used for fitness. Outdoor pools tend to be used more for recreation. Consequently, it is not likely that an indoor bather load and an outdoor bather load have the same meaning even if they are equal.

Another factor that must be considered in the question is what other aquatic facilities are available in the community. For example, Naperville Park District does not operate any swimming pools. Yet Naperville does operate a large, man-made beach constructed from an old quarry. In addition, the city of Naperville has two high school pools, a YMCA pool and numerous private and semi-public pools in clubs and residences.

The type of pool also seems to be worth considering. Contemporary pools have features like zero depth edges and water slides that attract more people. A bather load in a traditional, "flatwater" pool apparently does not have the same meaning as an equal bather load in a contemporary pool. According to Carl Furst of the consulting firm Leisure Concepts and Designs, a community that builds a new pool with contemporary features must expect much higher bather loads than if they build a traditional pool. Forty-three percent of the communities that responded to the survey have at least one water slide and 41 % have some kind of zero depth edge.

Finally, this study has two significant limitations that may be addressed in future research. First, the study only looks at the capacity of a community's pools. It does not look at how that capacity is used. In some communities, the demands of public for one type of programming may affect the way pools are scheduled and require more or less capacity. For example, communities with larger populations of young families tend to need more pool time devoted to youth swimming classes. Since this can take time away from recreational swimming, these communities may require more capacity to make up the difference. Communities that have large competitive swimming programs may also see this effect.

Second, the study does not address the level of satisfaction people have with their pools. It doesn't matter whether a park district meets any given standard; the people it serves will decide if they are too crowded when they use their pools. In the end, this is the most difficult factor to measure, yet the one worth the most attention.


1 Illinois Association of Park Districts and Illinois Park and Recreation Association, 1992-1993 IAPD/IPRA Membership Director and Buyers Guide, 1992. p. 1-50.
2 EAV refers to "Equalized Assessed Valuation." This figure gives an approximate value on the taxable property within the community.
3 Lancaster, R. A., Recreation, Park and Open Space Standards and Guidelines. National Recreation and Parks Association, 1990, p. 61.3.

About the Authors
Ron Shaw, CLP, is the Facility Supervisor for Buffalo Grove Park District and the Aquatic Division Coordinatorfor IPRA 's Facility Section.

Dave Arnold is the Aquatic Supervisor for the Lisle Park District.

Illinois Parks and Recreation 20 July/August 1993

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