Community centers

Community centers are public venues where community members go for a variety of reasons, including socializing, participating in recreational or educational activities, gaining information, and seeking 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 sub-population, such as seniors, youth, or immigrants. Community centers can be run by the government, by local non-profit organizations, or by faith-based groups.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Improved social networks

  • Reduced isolation

  • Improved well-being

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Increased community involvement

  • Increased civic participation

Evidence of Effectiveness

Engaging community members in community center activities is a suggested strategy to strengthen social connections, reduce social isolation (US DHHS-NPC 2011, ILR-Ottmann 2006, Aday 2019*, Grzeslo 2019), and to improve health and well-being among participants (US DHHS-NPC 2011, CDC-Health equity guide 2013, ILR-Ottmann 2006, Aday 2019*, Rhynes 2013*). However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Participation in senior centers may increase older adults’ well-being and provide a social space to build supportive networks (Aday 2019*, Rhynes 2013*). For grandparents raising a grandchild, attendance at a senior center appears to decrease caregiver burdens and improve quality of life (Rhynes 2013*). Community technology centers, community centers that emphasize technology access, appear to support positive youth development and strong peer-to-peer relationships, especially among minority youth in families with low incomes (London 2010*). Available evidence indicates that residents who complete additional activities at a community technology center are more likely to feel connected to others and to their wider community than residents who complete fewer activities (Grzeslo 2019).

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 support (Colistra 2017). Community centers may also increase community engagement and participants’ sense of citizenship (CDC-Health equity guide 2013, Glover 2004*).

In a Boston-based study, 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 facilities (Hannon 2006). Establishing community centers may help reduce disparities in access to services and recreational facilities for residents with low incomes and under-resourced communities (CDC-Health equity guide 2013). Addressing community-level barriers to healthy lifestyles, considering social and economic environments, and engaging community members in program development are all suggested best practices for community centers that support healthy living in low income, urban communities (Broeckling 2015*). 

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

Community centers are common throughout the US, especially in urban and suburban areas. Boston Centers for Youth & Families (BCYF), BronxWorks’ community centers (BronxWorks), the Walnut Way Center in Milwaukee (Walnut Way), the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and the Jewish Community Center (JCC) 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 country (NISC). The College of Menominee Nation’s community technology center is an example of tribal efforts to provide internet access and outreach services to underserved communities (CMN-CTC). Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción’s community technology center provides free computer classes and technology programs to low income individuals and families in Boston (IBA-CTC).    

Implementation Resources

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.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

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

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.

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.

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

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: US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS); 2013.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

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

BronxWorks - BronxWorks. Lifting lives, building futures.

Walnut Way - Walnut Way Conservation Corp.

YMCA - Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The Y.

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

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

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

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

Date Last Updated