Community centers

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Expert Opinion

Strategies with this rating are recommended by credible, impartial experts but have limited research documenting effects; further research, often with stronger designs, is needed to confirm effects.

Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Potential to decrease disparities

Strategies with this rating have the potential to decrease or eliminate disparities between subgroups. Rating is suggested by evidence, expert opinion or strategy design.

Health Factors  
Date last updated

Community centers are public venues where community members gather to socialize, participate in recreational or educational activities, learn, and/or seek counseling or support services. Community centers house a variety of programs and can be open to everyone in a community or only to a particular group, such as seniors, youth, or immigrants. Some community centers emphasize technology access (e.g., the internet and computer access) or recreational programs. Community centers can be run by the government, by local non-profit organizations, or by faith-based groups.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Improved social networks

  • Reduced isolation

  • Improved well-being

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Increased community involvement

  • Increased civic participation

What does the research say about effectiveness?

Engaging community members in community center activities is a suggested strategy to strengthen social connections, reduce social isolation1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and improve health and well-being among participants1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8. Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Participation in senior centers may improve older adults’ well-being, physical and mental health, and provide a social space to make friends and build supportive networks4, 7, 8, 9. One survey of mostly white, middle-aged, and female community wellness center visitors found that more social interactions with other visitors from different backgrounds is associated with better self-rated health3. For grandparents raising a grandchild, attendance at a senior center appears to decrease caregiver burdens and improve quality of life8. Community technology centers appear to support positive youth development and strong peer-to-peer relationships, as well as provide space for natural mentoring relationships with adults, especially among minority youth in families with low incomes10, 11. Available evidence indicates that residents who complete more activities at a community technology center are more likely to feel connected to others and to their wider community than residents who complete fewer activities5.

Community centers appear to improve the health and well-being of users by building positive social relationships that include the exchange of resources, information, and emotional support12. Such relationship building appears to be based on shared identities, mutual support and trust, and program participation among center users13. Community centers may also provide a space for civic dialogue, increase community engagement, and increase participants’ sense of citizenship6, 14, 15. Senior center and youth center users who have minoritized racial and ethnic identities may have opportunities to engage in civic behavior and make positive community change by sharing their opinions about center programming, assisting at centers, and developing connections with each other16, 17.

Experts recommend consistent, long-term programming to develop and maintain social relationships among community center users13. Researchers suggest that senior centers offer health promotion programs and education, provide programs on weekends and evenings, develop diverse programs meeting the needs and interests of older adults, make outreach efforts, and create inclusive environments for socialization9, 18.

In a Boston-based study using data from 2000, neighborhoods with a low density of community centers and recreation facilities were shown to have lower median incomes and larger minority populations than neighborhoods with a higher density of facilities19.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential to decrease disparities: suggested by expert opinion.

Community centers are a suggested strategy to reduce disparities in access to services and recreational facilities for residents with low incomes and communities with fewer resources6. Studies on senior centers and community technology centers serving Hispanic communities report benefits for older adults and youth, including improved health outcomes and positive relationship building between youth and adults7, 11. Community centers can provide individuals who have minoritized identities with opportunities to be civically engaged and build social capital16, 17. Community centers can also address the needs of historically underserved communities who experience chronic health conditions29.

Addressing community-level barriers to healthy lifestyles, considering social and economic environments, and engaging community members in program development are suggested best practices for community centers that support healthy living in urban communities with low incomes30. A Philadelphia-based study recommends local transportation and aging agencies work together to design public transit for older adults with accessibility difficulties who want to travel from suburb areas or underserved neighborhoods to senior centers31.

What is the relevant historical background?

Throughout U.S. history, discriminatory housing, lending, and exclusionary zoning policies entrenched racial residential segregation and concentrated poverty32, 33. The built environment in under-resourced communities is a significant contributor to health inequities for people of color with low incomes34, 35, 36.

Community centers began as school centers that used school buildings as evening recreation centers for residents of all ages37. The National Conference on Civic and Social Center Development, a conference of community organizers and advocates held in 1911, accelerated the growth of community centers across the U.S., including New York, Boston, and Chicago38. During the early 20th century, community centers, along with public schools and other organizations, focused on assimilation of immigrant families and children by providing education, recreation, and instilling fundamental American values.39, 40. Through the late 20th century, community centers became more supportive toward communities of racial and ethnic minorities by providing places to socialize, offering training and education, and connecting them to social services. For example, El Centro de la Causa is a Mexican American community youth center built in Chicago in 197141.

Equity Considerations
  • How can a state or a local government build an equitable funding system to support community centers?
  • How can your community secure funding for outreach efforts, programs, and services to meet the needs of community residents?
  • Who uses a community center? How can your community improve outreach and accessibility to a center and programs?
  • Are community center staff trained in diversity, equity, and inclusion? Does the center’s programming reflect the voices and interests of community residents? What efforts are needed to create inclusive environments?
Implementation Examples

Community centers are common throughout the U.S., especially in urban and suburban areas. Boston Centers for Youth & Families20, BronxWorks’ community centers21, the Young Men’s Christian Association22, and the Jewish Community Center23 are examples of community centers that provide a variety of programs and services for all ages.

The National Institute of Senior Centers supports about 11,000 senior centers across the country24. SAGE Centers in New York provide LGBTQ+ older adults with programs, resources, and advocacy25. Center on Halsted offers programs and services for LGBTQ+ individuals of all ages in Chicago areas26. The College of Menominee Nation’s community technology center is an example of tribal efforts to provide internet access and outreach services to underserved communities27. Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción’s community technology center provides free computer classes and technology programs to individuals and families with low incomes in Boston28.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

Innovation Center 2001 - Innovation Center for Community & Youth Development, National 4-H Council. Building community: A tool kit for youth & adults in charting assets and creating change. Takoma Park: Innovation Center for Community & Youth Development; 2001.

CTCNet-Stone 2003 - Stone A. Center start-up manual. Cambridge: Community Technology Centers’ Network (CTCNet); 2003.

HOST-PA - Healthy Out-of-School Time (HOST) Coalition. Resources: Physical activity (PA).

NISC - National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC). Supporting the nation's senior centers.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 US DHHS-NPC 2011 - National Prevention Council (NPC). National Prevention Strategy. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. DHHS); 2011.

2 ILR-Ottmann 2006 - Ottmann G, Dickson J, Wright P. Social connectedness and health: A literature review. Ithaca: Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR); 2006.

3 Pitas 2021 - Pitas NA, Mowen AJ, Powers SL. Person-place relationships, social capital, and health outcomes at a nonprofit community wellness center. Journal of Leisure Research. 2021;52(2):247-264.

4 Aday 2019 - Aday RH, Wallace B, Krabill JJ. Linkages between the senior center as a public place and successful aging. Activities, Adaptation and Aging. 2019;43(3):211-231.

5 Grzeslo 2019 - Grzeslo J. Building communities, bridging divides: Community technology centers and social capital. The Journal of Community Informatics. 2019:78-97.

6 CDC-Health equity guide 2013 - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A practitioner’s guide for advancing health equity: Community strategies for preventing chronic disease. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. DHHS); 2013.

7 Noel 2020 - Noël PH, Wang CP, Finley EP, et al. Provider-related linkages between primary care clinics and community-based senior centers associated with diabetes-related outcomes. Journal of Applied Gerontology. 2020;39(6):635-643.

8 Rhynes 2013 - Rhynes LT, Hayslip B, Caballero D, Ingman S. The beneficial effects of senior center attendance on grandparents raising grandchildren. Journal of Intergenerational Relationships. 2013;11(2):162-175.

9 Pardasani 2021 - Pardasani M, Berkman C. New York City senior centers: Who participates and why? Journal of Applied Gerontology. 2021;40(9):985-996.

10 London 2010 - London RA, Pastor M, Servon LJ, Rosner R, Wallace A. The role of community technology centers in youth skill-building and empowerment. Youth & Society. 2010;42(2):199-228.

11 Denner 2023 - Denner J, Torres D. How natural mentoring is used by Latinx youth at a community technology center. Journal of Latinos and Education. 2023;22(1):339-356.

12 Colistra 2017 - Colistra CM, Schmalz D, Glover T. The meaning of relationship building in the context of the community center and its implications. Journal of park and recreation administration. 2017;35(2):37-50.

13 Colistra 2019 - Colistra C, Bixler R, Schmalz D. Exploring factors that contribute to relationship building in a community center. Journal of Leisure Research. 2019;50(1):1-17.

14 Moore-Vissing 2023 - Moore-Vissing Q, Portrie C, Holt-Shannon M, et al. Local civic health: A guide to building community and bridging divides. The Carsey School of Public Policy. 2023;459:2-79.

15 Glover 2004 - Glover TD. The 'community' center and the social construction of citizenship. Leisure Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 2004;26(1):63-83.

16 Lavalley 2021 - Lavalley R, Bailliard A. A communal perspective of occupation: Community change in a senior center welcoming Spanish-speaking immigrants. Journal of Occupational Science. 2021;28(1):29-41.

17 Wray-Lake 2020 - Wray-Lake L, Abrams LS. Pathways to civic engagement among urban youth of color. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. 2020;85(2):7-154.

18 Pardasani 2019 - Pardasani M. Senior centers: If you build will they come? Educational Gerontology. 2019;45(2):120-133.

19 Hannon 2006 - Hannon C, Cradock A, Gortmaker SL, et al. Play across Boston: A community initiative to reduce disparities in access to after-school physical activity programs for inner-city youths. Preventing Chronic Disease. 2006;3(3):A100.

20 BCYF - City of Boston. Boston Centers for Youth & Families (BCYF).

21 BronxWorks - BronxWorks. Lifting lives, building futures.

22 YMCA - Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Strengthening individuals and communities.

23 JCC - Jewish Community Centers Association (JCC). Jewish community centers of North America.

24 NISC - National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC). Supporting the nation's senior centers.

25 SAGE - SAGEServes. Advocacy, services, and innovations for LGBTQ+ elders.

26 Center Halsted - Center on Halsted. Building and strengthening community.

27 CMN-CTC - College of Menominee Nation (CMN). Community technology center.

28 IBA-CTC - Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA). Community technology center.

29 Milanes 2022 - Milanés LL. Latinxs in Chicago: Managing health inequities with community centers. Human Organization. 2022;81(4):327-337.

30 Broeckling 2015 - Broeckling J, Pinsoneault L, Dahlquist A, Van Hoorn M. Using authentic engagement to improve health outcomes: Community center practices and values (at the agency). Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services. 2015;96(3):165-174.

31 Li 2021 - Li S, Duan H, Smith TE, Hu H. Time-varying accessibility to senior centers by public transit in Philadelphia. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. 2021;151:245-258.

32 Zdenek 2017 - Zdenek RO, Walsh D. Navigating community development: Harnessing comparative advantages to create strategic partnerships. Chapter: The background and history of community development organizations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan; 2017.

33 Kaplan 2007 - Kaplan J, Valls A. Housing discrimination as a basis for Black reparations. Public Affairs Quarterly. 2007;21(3):255-273.

34 Prochnow 2022 - Prochnow T, Valdez D, Curran LS, et al. Multifaceted scoping review of Black/African American transportation and land use expert recommendations on activity-friendly routes to everyday destinations. Health Promotion Practice. 2022.

35 McAndrews 2022 - McAndrews C, Schneider RJ, Yang Y, et al. Toward a gender-inclusive Complete Streets movement. Journal of Planning Literature. 2022;38(1):3-18.

36 Brookings-Semmelroth 2020 - Semmelroth L. How Wilmington, Del. is revitalizing vacant land to rebuild community trust. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2020.

37 Hansan 2013 - Hansan J. The beginning of the recreation movement in the United States. Social Welfare History Project. 2013.

38 Johnson 1989 - Johnson RM. Black and white apart: The community center in the District of Columbia, 1915-1930. Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. 1989;52:12-28.

39 Butler 1920 - Butler FC. Community Americanization: A handbook for workers. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Education. Bulletin 1919, no. 76. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior; 1920.

40 Paul 2017a - Paul C. Americanization. Social Welfare History Project. 2017.

41 Fernandez 2005 - Fernández L. From the Near West Side to 18th Street: Mexican community formation and activism in mid-Twentieth Century Chicago. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-). 2005;98(3):162-183.