Spengler's survey found that, like the school principals he surveyed earlier, park administrators reported motivation to share their facilities by the desire to provide safe, affordable places where people can be active, and to form partnerships with community groups. "This suggests to us they care about their communities and the health of families who live in them," Spengler notes.
The park administrators also are motivated by a desire to maximize the use of their facilities and thereby make public investments more efficient. This underscores that administrators believe parks, like schools, are public resources that should be connected to their community rather than operating as disconnected "islands," Spengler says.
The barriers to sharing facilities reported by park administrators included difficulty scheduling and prioritizing multiple uses, having enough space or facilities to expand services, maintaining the facilities, and preventing misuse of or damage to the facilities. Most of these concerns reflect the challenge of creating partnerships or relationships and the added costs of expanding existing services, Spengler observes—whereas for schools, which may not already be open to their communities for nonschool uses, the concerns often center on "startup issues" such as managing liability and safety concerns, obtaining insurance, staffing and maintaining the facility during nonschool hours, and adding new programs.
Spengler was surprised to find that "the types of shared-use contracts between parks and schools varied greatly, but when parks have formal agreements or contracts with schools, we see a greater variety of activity areas and programs shared. Groups that provide assistance to communities with shared use contracts therefore serve a very important function," he concludes.
Policy Implications. Although decisions about sharing park or school facilities are made locally, state and federal policies can either promote or discourage shared use. Spengler sees several ways in which his research can educate people about policy opportunities and inform policy development.
For example, state and local governments receive money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to acquire and develop public outdoor recreation areas and facilities. Schools, in partnership with municipalities, are often eligible for this funding. "It's a matter of increasing awareness of shared use and the potential of using funds for this purpose, and also continuing to support LWCF state funding as a means to provide opportunities for shared use," Spengler says. States also prepare comprehensive outdoor recreation plans, and identifying shared use as a need within those plans can draw attention to the opportunities and resources for sharing, he adds.
Looking Ahead. The shared use of municipal parks and schools for community members' physical activity is a rapidly evolving issue. Several national entities have taken a stand to promote more shared use, including the American Heart Association, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign. The CDC has provided grants for community efforts to increase access to schools' recreational facilities during nonschool hours, and several states have passed legislation to encourage collaborations between schools and local governments and to address schools' liability concerns about sharing the use of their facilities for nonschool physical activity.
Jim Sallis, Active Living Research program director, notes a recent surge in the adoptions of shared use agreements at the state and local levels. "Making better use of existing recreation facilities is a low-cost approach to making it easier for children to be active. There is special benefit in promoting community use of school grounds, because many low-income neighborhoods lack parks. John's research on the barriers and potential solutions to shared use is already being used as the basis for action to provide more opportunities for children to be active," says Sallis.
Looking forward, the key is to support shared use more effectively at the local level, Spengler says. To that end, Spengler received a grant from Active Living Research (ID# 69554) in January 2012. This project, which he co-directs with the Public Health Law Center, will evaluate outcomes of recent legislation in Minnesota supporting the shared use of schools' recreational facilities. The Public Health Law Center and Spengler are developing a toolkit and training materials to help school administrators understand shared-use issues.
Spengler is a member of an American Heart Association writing group that is developing recommendations for future research and policies on shared use. He believes that more parks and schools will become more accessible for physical activity when their administrators better understand the process and benefits of shared use, and when more supportive policies are in place.
In the meantime, Spengler is doing his part to stay active. For now, he exercises regularly and plays racquetball. But he hopes—someday soon—to take his old tennis racquet out for a good spin.
RWJF Perspective: Launched in 2000, Active Living Research is a $31-million national program that supports research to examine how physical and built environments and policies influence the amount of physical activity Americans get as part of everyday life. Findings from the research are used to help inform policy, the design of the built environment and other factors necessary to re-engineer healthy levels of physical activity into everyday life for all Americans. Over the past few years, the program has focused on reversing the rise in childhood obesity, particularly in the lower-income and racial/ethnic minority communities in which childhood obesity levels are highest.
A recent analysis by Program Director Sallis documents dramatic growth in research to identify policy and environmental factors and interventions affecting physical activity at the population level and in high-risk populations following the program's launch in 2001.
Active Living Research teams are required to be transdisciplinary, involving investigators from multiple disciplines and backgrounds who work together across traditional disciplinary boundaries. The researchers represent more than 20 different disciplines (e.g., public health, urban planning, architecture, behavioral science, exercise science, transportation, sociology, and political science). "In addition to building an evidence base to guide physical activity policy and community design, Active Living Research is developing a vibrant, new transdisciplinary field and diverse network of researchers," says C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, RWJF distinguished fellow and senior scientist.
Active Living Research actively seeks to translate research findings rapidly into policy and practice change. Says Orleans: "For instance, if we find out that adding bike paths and sidewalks or walk-to-school programs significantly increases physical activity, we want to get this information out to key decision- and policy-makers as quickly and effectively as possible, so they can start using it."
Orleans adds, "The Active Living Research program has sparked new awareness among policy-makers and community leaders in many sectors that how active we are depends greatly on the built environment and on the presence or absence of environmental and policy supports for physical activity. In addition, a growing number of urban planners and transportation policy-makers recognize that community design is critical for health."