Shared Spaces

July 1, 2004
Schools that share their gymnasiums and recreational facilities with the public at large must make sure the space is designed to accommodate joint use.

As many schools strive to return to their historical role as centers of the communities they serve, more administrators have embraced the idea of opening up their facilities for use by the general public.

And, with the budgets of education institutions and municipalities growing ever tighter, the cost savings that can be generated by sharing facilities become more appealing, if not critical to the continued health of an institution.

But when building or renovating recreational facilities for joint use, school officials should be aware of the design differences that might be needed for a space to be used effectively by both students and the community at large.

Gymnasiums might need to be larger; more durable fixtures and equipment will be needed to handle greater use; additional office space and parking might be required; separate locker rooms for students and the community might be necessary; and the location of the facility should allow the rest of the school building to be sealed off from public access.

Centers of community

The U.S. Department of Education's National Symposium on School Design identified six principles for designing better schools. One principle states, “The learning environment should serve as a center of the community.”

Schools as Centers of Community: A Citizen's Guide For Planning And Design, put together by the education department, elaborates on that principle.

“At their best, schools that serve as centers of community should help meet a community's leisure, recreational and wellness needs, (and) be accessible to people of all ages,” the guide states.

Successful schools of the future, the guide says, “will be open later, longer and for more people in the community from senior citizens using the gym and health facilities during off-hours to immigrants taking evening English classes after work.”

When inviting the public to use facilities on campuses, schools have to make sure they are protecting the parts of their buildings where the public is not welcome. The best way to accomplish that is for the school design to place the recreational space on the end of a facility, so the rest of the campus can be secured from unwanted visitors.

“You have to have a means of locking off the gymnasium so that people can use it, but can't go wandering up and down the halls of the school,” says Steve Taynton, an architect in the planning department of the North Carolina Department of Education.

Confining the recreation facilities to one part of a campus also allows the school to use zoned heating and cooling to control the climate of the space more efficiently.

In Suffolk, Va., where the school district and city have joint-use agreements at five schools, each entity has its own unique access to the security system.

“We have two security key pads — one for us and one for the city,” says James Thorsen, executive director of facilities and planning with the school district.

Bigger spaces

Sharing space and the costs of building or renovating can allow both a municipality and an education institution to have the benefit of facilities that are more extensive than either group could afford on their own.

“The city could never afford to put those facilities in,” says Thorsen. “We have built full-size gyms with a hard rock maple floor.”

Without the city involvement, the Suffolk school district would have to build much smaller gyms. The larger gyms allow the district to provide students with more physical-education opportunities.

“We have been building 800-pupil elementary schools,” says Thorsen. “With the larger gyms, we can install a divider curtain and run two different PE classes at the same time.”

In many cases, school systems bow to the public's desire for community use, but do not charge rental fees that are high enough to recoup the costs of operating the facility after hours.

“Somebody's got to be there to open it up and close it up,” says Taynton. “You've got to run the heat, the air conditioning, the lights. Almost nowhere do users get charged the true cost of using the facilities.”

In many cases, when a school shares a recreation area with a city or county recreation department, that agency's administrative offices are included in the facility. In Suffolk, the city paid the additional costs for the spaces it desired.

“The city wanted its own storage and its own multipurpose room, which we never use,” says Thorsen.

In the first joint-use arrangements in Suffolk, the school and city shared bathroom facilities. But because of vandalism problems and disputes over who was responsible, the two entities have opted to have separate bathrooms in the two most recent projects. The district and the city have worked out a way to divide the costs of heating and air conditioning, and each has its own maintenance crew to take care of the facility during the hours it is in control of the gymnasium, says Thorsen.

In some cases, bureaucratic disagreements over control and the logistics of sharing space can scuttle joint-use proposals. That doesn't happen as much in North Carolina, Taynton says, because the county government typically controls school budgets, and county officials are in a better position to persuade school districts and parks departments to work together.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].


  • 110 TO 150

    The square footage per student recommended for a physical-education class so that students have adequate space to move freely and safely.

  • 25 TO 1

    The recommended student-teacher ratio for a physical-education class.

  • 400 TO 600

    The amount of square footage recommended to provide adequate storage space for physical-education equipment.

  • 12 TO 15

    In feet, the recommended height of storage space to provide adequate storage space for physical-education equipment.

Source: National Association for Sport and Physical Education, “Guidelines for Facilities, Equipment and Instructional Materials in Elementary Education.”

Raise the roof

When the Larkspur, Calif., school district decided to build a new gymnasium at Neil Cummins Elementary School, recreation officials from the town of Corte Madera saw an opportunity.

“The space available for facilities is so scarce already,” says Mario Fiorentini, recreation leader with the Corte Madera Parks and Recreation department. “The town approached the school district and offered to help out financially if it could share the space.”

To be most useful as a community resource, the gym was going to have to be larger than what was being planned for the elementary school.

“The major change that had to be made was raising the roof to make the gym large enough for adult basketball and volleyball,” says Fiorentini.

Having more diverse clientele also meant the bathrooms had to have fixtures and accessibility features sized for adults, as well as children.

Keeping gymnasium users apart from the rest of the school campus is accomplished easily. Like many California schools, the gym is in its own building and separate from the other school buildings on campus.

“The rest of the campus is gated off when we have access to the gym,” says Fiorentini.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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