Sharing Spaces: A Researcher Learns What Motivates or Discourages Parks From Sharing Recreational Facilities With Schools and Other Community Organizations

    • November 28, 2012

The Problem: One reason for childhood and adult obesity in the United States, especially in low-income neighborhoods, is lack of access to safe and affordable places for physical activity. Schools and municipal parks have an opportunity to promote physical activity, and the health and social benefits that accompany it, by making their facilities more available to community residents and organizations for sports and recreation. Shared use agreements (also known as joint use agreements) can support this broader use of schools and parks, but barriers often get in the way. Understanding how and why recreational facilities are shared, and what the barriers are, is a first step toward developing practices and policies that increase community access to parks and school facilities.

RWJF Approach: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) Active Living Research program (James F. Sallis, PhD, director and Carmen L. Cutter, MPH, deputy director) stimulates and supports research to examine environmental factors and policies that influence physical activity. Funded researchers use a transdisciplinary approach—one that encourages experts from various disciplines to collaborate on identifying environmental factors and policies that are related to physical activity. The program places special emphasis on children of color and children residing in lower-income communities and neighborhoods, who are at greater risk for obesity. See Program Results Report for more information on Active Living Research.

Grantee Background: John O. Spengler's hometown of Hendersonville, N.C., is a small community near the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains of western North Carolina. It has lots of places for a young boy to hike, swim, and bike, and Spengler grew up loving those outdoor activities. In high school he competed on the tennis team, and he worked as a counselor and tennis coach at nearby Camp Greystone. Those early experiences "set me on the path to maintaining a lifelong interest in physical activity," Spengler says.

Spengler majored in exercise science at Wake Forest University; later, he earned a law degree from the University of Toledo and a doctorate from Indiana University that combined sport and recreation management with law and policy. Spengler became a teacher and researcher, first at Indiana University and then at the University of Florida, and wrote books and articles on law and risk management in sport and recreation. But it was the issue of increasing access to public facilities for sport and recreation that really brought his experiences and interests together. "[Shared use] has legal and policy implications, health issues and outcomes, sport and recreation elements, and the research component," Spengler says. "And it fits what I have a passion for: physical activity."

The Project: In January 2010, Spengler and a colleague, Yong Jae Ko, PhD, began a two-year study funded through Active Living Research (RWJF grant ID# 67106) to learn about the nature and frequency of shared use of parks across the United States. Working with RWJF's National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN), they developed an online survey and administered it to a randomly selected sample of municipal park administrators in 45 states. They received 266 responses, for a response rate of 31 percent.

The survey asked how parks shared their facilities with schools: What types of organizations did they share with? Did they share for sports team practices, physical education classes, recess, or free play? What motivated them to share, and what acted as barriers to shared use?

This study of park use built on several other RWJF grants Spengler received, most of which focused on school facilities. For example, in 2006, Active Living Research commissioned him to develop a paper reviewing and summarizing the chief legal considerations in opening schools as a community resource for physical activity. The article was published in a 2007 special supplement of the American Journal of Health Promotion devoted to Active Living Research, March–April, pages 390–396.

With funds from a related 2009 Active Living Research grant (ID# 65714), Spengler surveyed principals of K–12 schools in low-income communities across 46 states, to understand their perspectives on sharing school facilities with community members; findings from this study were published in articles in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (abstract available online) and the American Journal of Health Behavior. As part of a 2011 Active Living Research grant (ID# 68484) designed to translate and disseminate findings from this study, Spengler worked with the Public Health Law Center in Saint Paul, Minn., and the American Heart Association to integrate his research findings into a paper offering policy guidance and sample statutory language on the shared, or joint, use of recreational facilities.

In April 2012, Active Living Research released a Research Brief by Spengler summarizing the research, challenges, and opportunities for promoting physical activity through the shared use of school and community recreational facilities.


  • Final findings from the study of park use had not been published as of October 2012. Spengler reported, however, that parks were used most often by youth sports leagues (96% of parks were used for this purpose), K–12 schools (88% of parks), and adult sports leagues (86%). Parks were used most often during the afternoon after school (82% of parks) and during the school day (75%), with the lowest usage occurring before school (17%).

    For parks that had shared use arrangements with schools in their community:

    • The types of park facilities most often used were baseball or softball fields (at 90% of parks), playgrounds (at 77% of parks), and tennis courts (69%).
    • Children who used the parks participated most often in team practices (at 87% of parks) and sports (at 84% of parks), individual sports (75%), and unstructured physical activity or free play (71%).
    • The populations benefitting most from parks' shared use with schools were lower-income children (83%), Hispanic/Latino children (80%), and Black/African American children (75%).

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."