Streamline, Save, and Serve: Cities Benefit from Joint Use

Cities are seeking new ways to help stretch lean budgets and meet changing resident needs. Joint use agreements allow cities to team up with school districts and other partners to find practical and programmatic synergies by maximizing use of school buildings, athletic fields, parks, libraries, and other often under-utilized community assets.

Joint use takes different forms. Generally it means that two entities, often a city and a school district, arrange to share an indoor or outdoor space. Projects are customized to meet the unique needs of a community. They might be relatively simple - a city allows the school district to use its parks for athletic practices - or quite elaborate. Increasingly, partners are collaborating to plan, develop, and finance new facilities together from the ground up to meet broader community needs.

Joint use can maximize public dollars, streamline facility planning and coordination, and improve resident access to amenities like performance spaces, pools, computer labs, and more. Diverse examples of successful projects abound. But the practice must be undertaken with care, especially for partners unaccustomed to working together.

Many communities have informal sharing arrangements. However, experts recommend that cities undertaking joint use craft a joint use agreement (JUA), a legal document laying out terms and conditions for shared use of a property. Getting explicit about responsibilities will create as smooth a road ahead as possible. Common obstacles include liability, costs, maintenance, scheduling, and even janitorial issues. However, such issues are surmountable with a well-crafted JUA and a collaborative spirit.

The following examples highlight cities that have successfully employed joint-use strategies in various ways to strengthen their communities.

In Tucson, Ariz. (pop. 525,000), city leaders pledged that every resident would live within one-half mile of a park or playground. The city conducted a "play space audit" and determined that opening school play spaces to the public would be one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to achieve this goal.

The school district historically had restricted after-hours and summer access to its play spaces due to liability and maintenance concerns. But the issue gained traction through the play space audit as well as the efforts of a city councilmember who championed the cause. The city and the school district crafted a 75-year agreement to share in maintenance, upgrades, and liability for a dozen school play yards in priority locations. The city covers maintenance during summer months for around $4,000 per year, per park. It also paid for initial upgrades to bring certain parks into compliance with the city's higher safety standards.

To allay community concerns about security and vandalism (which ultimately did not emerge as problems), the city formally engaged the police department to conduct additional patrols of all parks involved in the joint use agreement. The project has been a success. Only budget constraints prevent the city from opening up additional parks.

The City of Lincoln, Calif. (pop. 44,000), near Sacramento, partnered with the community college and school districts to plan and construct a new joint-use public library. The project grew out of a needs assessment that revealed dire need for expanded library services in this rapidly growing, diversifying community.

The Lincoln Library at Twelve Bridges, which opened in 2007, was collaboratively designed to serve both students and the public. It offers community and group meeting spaces, computer labs, tutoring areas, curriculum development labs for faculty, and a spacious children's section.

The Lincoln Public Library, a city department governed by the City Council, is responsible for the management, supervision, staffing, administration and operation of the library. However, it also is subject to the terms of the joint use cooperative agreement with the school district and community college.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., the City of Charlotte (pop. 751,000) has helped make joint use a formal, integrated part of all capital planning in the county.  In 1995, it was one of four entities to establish a Joint Use Task Force, whose two dozen member agencies have one thing in common: they are charged with developing, managing, or financing public facilities.

Task force members from the city include representatives from engineering, real estate, budget, fire, police, the transit system, housing, utilities, storm water, transportation, neighborhood and business services, and planning. Other members include county agencies (school district, parks and recreation, etc.), not-for-profit organizations, and six Mecklenburg County towns.

The task force plans and coordinates "all things capital" by seeking opportunities for joint use, development, operation, or occupancy of facilities. Its work has resulted in numerous successful projects. The school district, for example, donated land to the transit system for a parking structure at the end of a light-rail line; in exchange, the transit system (a city department) built a playground atop the parking garage for nearby Sterling Elementary School.

Lydia Morken is a Research/Extension Specialist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Her research on joint use and other planning issues is part of the Planning Across Generations project in Cornell's Department of City and Regional Planning. The project, led by Professor Mildred Warner, is funded by the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture Research. She holds a Master of Regional Planning degree from Cornell.


Additional Resources

The following resources can help city officials learn more about joint use strategies:

"Joint Use: School Community Collaboration."
Lydia Morken and Rebecca Baran-Rees. 2012. Department of City and Regional Planning, Cornell University.

National Policy & Legal Analysis Network (NPLAN)

NPLAN is a project of ChangeLab Solutions, which has provided legal and policy guidance on public health issues for more than 15 years.  Key reports and resources include:

  • Opening School Grounds to the Communities After Hours
  • Playing Smart: A National Joint Use Toolkit
  • Checklist for Developing a Joint Use Agreement
  • Model Joint Use Agreements resources

Center for Cities & Schools (CCS)

CCS is an interdisciplinary initiative between the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Education and the College of Environmental Design.  CCS conducts research, provides education and facilitates collaborative policy making between local governments and school districts to help improve urban and metropolitan communities and public education.  Key reports and resources include:

  • Joint Use of Public Schools: A Framework for a New Social Contract
  • Partnerships for Joint Use: Expanding the Use of Public Use Infrastructure to Benefit Students and Communities
  • Joint use cost calculator
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