If there is one thing guaranteed to make field managers cringe, it’s someone coming in with the idea of opening up the painstakingly cared-for field for community (i.e., unsupervised) use.
Often, such requests are based on the misconception that because the field is not getting active use at the time (the sports field of a school that has let out for the summer, for example), it needs to become community property during that period.
Unfortunately, that’s how problems begin. In addition to opening up the field both to incorrect use and to overuse, keeping your field’s doors open can make it vulnerable to littering, loitering and vandalism. It can also mean users begin viewing it as a makeshift dog park – something nobody wants to deal with. And it can mean that people who want to do a quick workout on the field bring along their children who think the sand pits are sandboxes, or that gates are for swinging on.
So how do you deal with these requests? First, check to make sure the fields will remain unprogrammed during the summer. In some cases, travel tournaments, local camps or others may have access to the fields. Should that be the case, it is likely you won’t need to worry about requests for unpaid field use for very long, as it will become obvious the fields are far from unused.
But even if your field won’t host sports action over the summer, it’s likely something will be happening. A natural grass field, for example, may well need time to recover after seeing heavy use from spring sports, and, for that reason, may have to be closed during at least part of the summer.
The field may be being worked on – not just mowing, adjustment of irrigation and fertilization, but sodding, seeding, eradication of pests, aeration and for adding amendments to the soil. You may find it is sufficient to post information about the ongoing work, and the potential danger to those who trespass.
If the field is synthetic, summer may be the time you’re doing maintenance on either the turf or the irrigation or drainage systems, or on the perimeter of the area – also good reasons to keep foot traffic off the field at the time.
But reasons are just that – reasons. They don’t always stand up to the claims about taxpayers’ money going toward the field; to cries about the rising inactivity and obesity levels of the public; to a local community group claiming they “only” want to use the field during certain hours for their adult soccer group; or to a parent’s claim that because their child attends the school, they should be able to enjoy the field after hours, or when school is out. Pretty soon, you find yourself faced with a bevy of requests and even outright demands for time on the field.
Communication is your best tool and your best line of defense. This is something that can come into play, for example, when a new facility goes in and local community associations start asking about using the surrounding track for morning workouts, or about letting their children run around on the field while their parents have a workout of their own. Although some requests are innocuous and perfectly harmless, the problem is trying not to let them become an avalanche that overwhelms your field.
Meet with those who are making requests. Let them know how much a new facility costs, how easily it can be damaged, and how much professional maintenance is, since these are things that most people don’t understand.
If you can’t meet directly, write something for the community’s e-newsletter or meet with the community association president on Zoom or by phone. Give them the specifics on what will be happening to the field (or track too, if that is the case) when it is not in use – whether that is repair, irrigation, grooming, fertilization, spraying of pesticides, etc. Explain the fact that the facility is going to need extensive maintenance in the offseason and that it simply cannot be used during that time.
Be able to provide information on the alternatives available. For example, for those who want to run, cycle, skate or anything else, provide information on local trails that can be used instead. Provide a list of playgrounds and tot lots in the area for those who want their kids to have access to sandboxes or other child-friendly amenities. If neighbors want ideas for keeping their children active during the summer, have information on day camps and other affordable programs offered by the local recreation and parks department. If people want to work out, find out about the local fitness courses often built along with greenway trails.
One phenomenon that field managers are reporting: During the pandemic, it became commonplace for personal trainers to host private or small-group sessions, and to look for outdoor venues where they could conduct workouts. Many still use this method; however, it is unfair for professionals to use your field or track without payment, and too much of this kind of traffic will contribute to wear of your facilities.
Granted, it’s a message nobody wants to give, and it may be that the administration of the school is not ready to be perceived in a negative light. In that case, it may be useful to offer an olive branch to those who want to use the field – as long as this is something approved by the owner of the field. Find out if it is possible to have a field open only during certain hours, and to have the community association pay to have someone (of your choosing) who can be present to unlock and supervise the use of the facility. In other words, it would be that person’s job to keep out people with dogs, dirt bikes or anything else that could harm the field. If there is a running track around the field, it would be the supervisor’s job to make sure people understand the need for proper footwear, and for them not to allow children to ride bicycles, scooters or trikes on the track surface.
Above all, make sure all rules are posted. Some suggestions are as follows; they can be adapted for use in fields, or in track & field facilities:
Shoes: Running shoes, cross-trainers, tennis shoes, and 1/8” pyramid spikes are the only footwear allowed; no baseball shoes or any shoes with sharp spikes
Vehicles: No skateboards, scooters, tricycles, bikes, (including recumbents, elliptical bikes, e-bikes, dirt bikes or other variants) or rollerblades/skates allowed
Adults are responsible for supervising children at all times
No pets (including therapy animals) at any time
Please clean up all litter, including wrappers, water bottles and other debris
Personal Trainers: Facilities are not open for private or group workouts; please work with local parks to secure space to use for workout groups.
Please use caution at all times and do not work out alone
Positive communication with the community can go a long way toward creating a better relationship and allowing the school to be viewed in a favorable light. Provide your e-mail address (or some form of communication) so that residents can get in touch regarding any questions or concerns. If a community wants to have a special task force or committee about the field, welcome this.
If rules continue to be broken, if vandalism occurs, or if there is damage to the facilities, and gates need to be locked permanently, make sure that is communicated to the community. Note that while users will be unhappy about it, it will be impossible to deny that you made every effort to accommodate them.
Mary Helen Sprecher wrote this article on behalf of the American Sports Builders Association (www.sportsbuilders.org), the national organization for builders, design professionals and suppliers of materials for sports fields, running tracks, tennis courts and indoor and outdoor courts and recreational facilities.