Ben Bryant's love for Philadelphia's public pools started on a sweltering summer day. He slogged along South Street when people emerged from a brick facade at 26th Street that hides O'Connor Pool. They looked happy and refreshed.

He was curious. The 33-year-old urban planner discovered Philadelphia boasted more outdoor public pools per capita than any other city in the country. Bryant started using Ridgeway Pool at 13th and Christian Streets with his son. He marveled at the recent rise of other public spaces in Philadelphia, and always had an idea for improving the city's pools.

"Now we actually get to do something with it," Bryant said Monday. "It was something that started off as a simple idea of how to make a city better, with no funding attached to it, but now it will be very gratifying to put it in place."

Bryant's idea received a $297,000 grant from the Knight Foundation as a part of the first Knight Cities Challenge. His was one of seven winning projects in Philadelphia, more than any other city.

More than 7,000 ideas were submitted. There were 32 winners in 12 cities. The Philadelphia projects were awarded a total of $1.1 million.

"We were extremely impressed by the quality of ideas that came from Philadelphia," said Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation vice president for community and national initiatives. "It is clear that there are a lot of people in Philadelphia with good ideas who want to make their city better. We saw that in these applications."

Bryant's idea, the Pop-up Pool Project, secured the largest grant among the Philadelphia winners. Group Melvin Design, his employer, wants to add movable seating, shade, planters and programming like games or food-truck visits to the bare concrete decks at the city's pools.

Look, Bryant said, at the success of other reimagined open spaces - piers and gardens - with small design touches.

"We know how to make good open spaces now," he said. "This is a way to take that knowledge and see if we can branch it out more equitably across the city, throughout the neighborhoods."

The Knight Foundation said it has invested $33 million in Philadelphia since 2008. The other winners in this challenge were:

$261,500 for Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation Hub, by Mount Airy USA, to provide low-cost space and resources for immigrant entrepreneurs.

$166,394 for Next Stop: Democracy! The Voting Signage Project, by Here's My Chance, to entice voters with signs and performing artists at polling places.

$149,050 for DIG Philly, by the Big Sandbox Inc., to create a movement to reinvent schoolyards across the city.

$146,960 for South Philly's Stoop, by Scout, to remake the vacant space surrounding Bok High School

$65,000 for Urban Arboreta, a City Parks Association of Philadelphia project to transform vacant land into urban forests to be replanted on city streets.

$20,000 for Neighborhood Conservation Kit, a Central Roxborough Civic Association project to help residents create a special zoning designation for preservation.

Coletta said it is important to capitalize on the city's current momentum for change.

"Quite frankly, if we had double the money, we would have given double the number of grants in Philadelphia," Coletta said. "There were plenty of ideas that we loved and couldn't fund in Philadelphia."

South Philly's Stoop is Lindsey Scannapieco's first step in renovating Bok, shuttered since 2012. Her vision of a shared space for entrepreneurs will require more funds. But the Knight Foundation money will pay for a shared community space and refurbished dog park on Bok's grounds.

Edward Bok, the longtime editor of the Ladies' Home Journal credited with coining the term "living room," is Scannapieco's inspiration.

"In our mind," Scannapieco said, "a stoop is a public living room in the summertime in South Philadelphia."

Bryant's pool project will start this summer with one pool as a trial. He will work with the city's Parks and Recreation Department to determine which pools can most benefit from the money.

"It's a key part of Philly's open-space system that flies under the radar," Bryant said. "It's an asset we can have in our city and grow upon in the future."

mgelb@philly.com

215-854-2928 @MattGelb