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Cities, Schools Should Team Up to Realize Benefits of Joint Use

Clement Lau on
Dec 27, 2011

Everyone loves parks, right? They're a crucial amenity for young and old alike. Well, apparently not everybody. 

As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, the City of Los Angeles recently spent over $600,000 designing and building a pocket park in South Los Angeles.  However, not a single resident got to enjoy it because the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) soon acquired the land via eminent domain and bulldozed the park to make way for a new school.  This is an extreme example of the lack of coordination between the city and LAUSD.  Ideally, to meet the educational and recreational needs of communities, the two entities should not only be talking to each other, but should also be pursuing joint use projects that serve residents as both schools and parks.        

Increasing access to recreational facilities that already exist at schools is one of the oldest and most effective ways to provide more opportunities for physical activity and play in neighborhoods.  After all, even the most under-served areas have schools.  At a time of budget cuts and shortfalls, maximizing access to existing facilitiesórather than focusing on constructing new onesóis the most efficient and economical use of public resources.  

Schools offer recreational amenities, which may be made available to the public during non-school hours.  However, many school facilities are often locked and inaccessible to residents who might otherwise use them on weekday evenings and weekends.  Understandably, some school districts restrict access to their facilities because they lack the capacity and/or funds to run programs, and they may have concerns about additional legal or maintenance costs that might arise from using school property beyond regular school hours. But these obstacles are not insurmountable. 

A joint use agreement offers a way for school districts to open their facilities for community use.  It is a written agreement between a school district and one or more public or private entities setting forth the terms and conditions for sharing the use of the district's facilities.  Such an agreement can provide community access to school property by allowing the district to share with another agency the costs and risks associated with opening the property for after-hours use.  

In recent years, the Community-School-Park Plan developed by People for Parks has emerged as a strategy to maximize the use of and enhance existing facilities in Los Angeles by opening up elementary schools for public recreation and community services.  The plan also calls for the replacement of asphalt on school playgrounds with lawns and trees, and the creation of new joint use facilities that serve the community as both schools and parks.  This approach is slowly being implemented, with the projects at Trinity Street (South L.A.) and Vine Street (Hollywood) elementary schools completed this year.  

In an ideal world, school facilities should be planned, constructed, and used in a way that enables them to effectively serve the requirements not only of the schools but also of the community at large.  In reality, however, schools are under the jurisdiction of school districts formed with an important, but narrow mission: to meet the educational needs of students.  

There are also administrative challenges associated with joint use.  In the case of new schools, issues can arise in the planning phase because the needs and budget contributions of the school district and the local jurisdiction have to be ascertained and coordinated.  The two parties must negotiate compromises to resolve conflicting requirements.  Also, successful implementation of a joint use agreement requires the approval and cooperation of the new principal and staff assigned to the new school.              

Intervention by local and/or state political leaders may be necessary to make joint use happen.  Over the years, I have learned that discussions and negotiations at the staff level can drag on for extended periods of time with or without progress due to the complexity of such arrangements and the bureaucratic nature of the organizations.  To expedite matters and actually get agreements reached, politicians would need to get involved and be in direct contact with the leadership of school districts.

The joint use of schools as recreational facilities has been successful in many communities in California.  Local jurisdictions and school districts should work together to pursue joint use projects that meet both the educational and recreational needs of underserved communities, especially those lacking parks and other amenities.  To do so, they must first talk to each other, avoid the bureaucratic disaster referenced earlier, overcome challenges, and truly plan together.  After all, planning is all about vision, foresight, and coordination.

--Clement Lau

(Clement Lau is a planner with the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. He is currently working with several L.A.-area school districts on joint use issues.)


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