Community centres (centers) and associations: their history, theory, development and practice

Community centres (centers) and associations: their history, theory, development and practice. Community centers (centres) and associations have played a significant part in the life of many local communities and networks. Yet relatively little has been written about their history theory and practice. In this piece we examine a little of their development and the ideas that inform their practice.

contents: introduction · community centers in the United States · community associations and centres (centers) in Britain · community centers (centres) and associations today · further reading and references · links · how to cite this article

The picture of the Lawn Community Association, Swindon sign by P. L. Chadwick. Believed to be in the public domain (sourced from Wikimedia Commons) 2008. The premises were for many years a pub known as The Gamekeeper. For more on the association: appreciate the nature of community centre (center) and association work in the UK we need to recognize its roots in the activities of priests and church workers; of mutual aid and friendly societies (Beveridge 1948); of early social work organizations (Young and Ashton 1956); and in the development of adult education (see, for example, Kelly 1970; Harrison 1961). We also need to be mindful of the development of theory and practice in the United States – which influenced a number of the early pioneers, and was a powerful expression of the growing professionalization of social welfare neighbourhood organizing (Fisher 1994: 15).

Early community centers in the United States

The history of community centers (centres) usually begins with the efforts of settlement workers and other activists in the inner areas of fast developing cities for the use of school buildings after school hours as neighbourhood social centers (centres). School buildings had been used for various community activities for many years. However, as Robert Fisher has commented, those arguing for social centers departed from previous attempts to provide free adult education classes and recreational activities (often to speed up the process of ‘Americanization’).

The new social centers were to be different… because they were not limited to recreational activities, and, most important, because ‘socialized schools’, their organizers argued, could act as magnets attracting citizens whose segregation into class and ethnic groups had obscured their common bonds, loyalties, and responsibilities. Like social settlements before them, social centers would lend harmony and foster cooperation among the working-class and immigrant elements and at the same time ease some of the difficulty of slum life. (Fisher 1994: 16)

The best documented (and the earliest) efforts took place in Rochester, New York from 1907 onwards. Edward J. Ward, a local Presbyterian minister who had been involved in various educational and recreational efforts, became an important advocate and the focus of a national campaign. In 1909 he joined the Extension Department at the University of Wisconsin where he organized the Wisconsin Bureau of Civic and Social Development. The Bureau sponsored a landmark national conference in 1911 on schools as social centers in which centers (centres) were endorsed as agencies of reform (Stubblefield and Keane 1994: 173. See, also, Stevens 1972). While there was significant disquiet amongst politicians and public officials about social and community centers (especially around the extent to which they might develop into an alternative political voice and focus) the idea took off. By 1918-19 there were community centers (centres) in 107 cities (the name changed from social to community centers around 1915 and especially after the establishment of the National Community Center Association in 1916). By 1923-24 there were centers in 240 cities and by 1930 New York City alone had nearly 500 centers with a regular attendance of more than four million (Fisher 1994: 16).

Some of the early activists began to see social center as important vehicles for neighbourhood democracy. A flavour of this concern is given by Clinton Childs the organizer at PS (Public School) 63, the first center (centre) in New York City (located on the Lower East Side):

A community clubhouse and Acropolis in one; this is the Social Center. A Community organized about some center for its own political and social welfare and expression; to peer into its own mind and life, to discover its own social needs and then to meet them, whether they concern the political field, the field of health, of recreation, of education, or of industry; such community organization is necessary if democratic society is to suceed and endure. (Childs 1912 quoted by Fisher 1994: 17)

It was a vision later powerfully extolled by Mary Parker Follett. In 1908 she had became involved in the movement (as chairperson of the Women’s Municipal League’s Committee on Extended Use of School Buildings). She, like the other pioneers, sought to make the centers (centres) into ‘institutions for overcoming civic apathy, further mutual understanding among groups, and creating a local framework for the integration of churches, trade associations, lodges and youth groups’ (Quandt 1970: 39). Her direct experience of social and community centers (centres) radically changed her view of democracy and the place of local groups  – and was a major force behind her work on the promotion of local networks and democratic forms in The New State (1918). She drew upon insights from ‘progressive’ schooling (and especially the significance of the group) as well as her own background in political science.

Centres prepare for citizenship through group activities, through civic clubs and classes and through actual practice in self-government. The Centres may be a real training in self-government, a real opportunity for the development of those qualities upon which genuine self-direction depends, by every club or group being self-governed, and the whole Centre self-directed and self-controlled by means of delegates elected from each club meeting regularly in a Central Council. If we want a nation which shall be really self-governed not just nominally self-governed, we must train up our young people in the ways of self-direction. (Follett 1918: 371)

The reality in the vast bulk of community and social centers (centres), was that citizen involvement was limited to the organization of clubs and center activities (a similar phenomenon had occurred in the early settlement initiatives.

While club and organization leaders sometimes participated in the initial neighborhood groups, planning and supervision was left primarily to the professional organizers who initiated and directed the centers. The initial idea of having professional serve as advisers degenerated into an elitist relationship in which social welfare professionals made all important decisions without the assistance of community people. (Fisher 1994: 18)

While there were some notable exceptions the trend was for community centers (centres) to become a base for professional and bureaucratic activity rather than the rich expression of associational life that Follett and others argued for. It was a trend accelerated by the need to mobilize neighbourhoods in support of war efforts after the United States entered the First World War.

As the work in the centers (centres) developed, there was a growing call to have buildings that could be used all day, were designed for their purpose, and that were not constrained by the various requirements of schooling. The result was a growth in the numbers of free-standing community centers (centres) that offered a base for various educational, welfare and social activities.

The development of the community centre and association movement in Britain

The community association and centre (center) movement in Britain has had as its objective, ‘the creation of a network of all-purpose and all-embracing neighbourhood organizations’ (Broady et al 1990: 12). Three bodies were immediately significant in its development – the National Council of Social Service (founded in 1919); the Federation of Residential Settlements – which included bodies such as Toynbee Hall and Oxford House in East London; and the Educational Settlements Association. This latter body involved just seven educational settlements – but was highly influential through its involvement in adult education activities (it grew out of the Adult School movement associated with the Quakers) (Martin 1924).

The settlement movement had, from the start, emphasized the need for people of different social classes to meet, mix and work together. As Pimlott (1935: 252) put it: ‘the Settlement idea was one expression of the far wider Christian-Socialist conception of co-operation between the classes’. The residential idea involved ‘University Men’ living in, and joining in the life of, poorer areas of the ‘Great Cities’. The educational settlements were part of a wider adult education movement which involved bodies such as the YMCA and the Workers Educational Association. Some local education authorities were also developing provision via evening institutes. Significantly these went beyond offering continuing basic and vocational studies.

In all of them great stress was also laid on the social side of the work. the men’s and women’s institutes aimed at a club atmosphere, and student societies and social activities were regarded as essential to the success of the work (Kelly 1970: 290)

To the work of the Settlements and Institutes can be added the emergence of initiatives such as the social service clubs that grew out of the miners strikes of 1926/7. By 1939 there were around 2,300 of these, involving some 250,000 members. They provided unemployed people with the opportunity to work and organize together for the benefit of their local communities. Early activities included allotment gardening and repairing children’s footwear; later there was a move more generally into handicraft activity. Around the clubs there were many adult educational, social and cultural activities (op cit: 16). Further significant developments in rural areas were first the development of village halls – particularly from 1910 on; and second the phenomenal growth of women’s institutes from 1915. (They originally began in Canada in 1897). By 1927 there were close on 4000 Institutes, with 250,000 members (Kelly 1970: 301-3). They made a fundamental impact on village life through the provision of adult education opportunities; the development of women’s self-organization; and in their concrete contribution to initially to the war effort (through knitting, fruit bottling etc.) and latter in their promotion of rural crafts.

With these various elements flourishing it is not difficult to see how the idea of the community association came into use as a response to the needs of the new housing estates built following the end of the First World War. Add to this Mary Parker Follett’s (1918) and others belief in role of group and neighbourhood activities in sustaining a vibrant democracy the shape of the project was clear. One of the first recognizable associations was formed in Dagenham. This East London development had over 90,000 inhabitants by 1929 – but few services and amenities (Willmott 1963). Pettits Farm Association (formed in 1929) combined:

The encouragement of and provision for social contact;The development of groups with an educational purpose; and

Efforts to co-ordinate and extend local services (Broady et al 1990: 29).

The Association was also used to represent the neighbourhood to the authorities. Other associations were also formed e.g. Watling, Middlesex, five estates in Birmingham, and Avonmouth and Sea Mills in Bristol. A national organization was set up within the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) in order to promote work on new estates. In 1937 NCSS was in contact with 171 towns having community centres (centers) in existence or contemplated; in 1938 the number had nearly doubled to 304, 33 of which were in Scotland (ibid: 40).

In an early paper, New Estates and Community Councils Paper 1, NCSS set out the following, influential, definitions of community centres (centers) and community associations:

A Community Centre may be defined as a building which (1) serves a community organized in an association which is responsible for the management of the building; and (2) provides facilities for the development of the recreational, cultural and personal welfare of members of that community; and (3) constitutes a meeting place for voluntary organizations or other groups in the community which need accommodation.

A Community Association may be defined as a voluntary association of neighbours democratically organized within a geographical area which constitutes a natural community, who have come together either as members of existing organizations or as individuals, or in both capacities, to provide for themselves and their community the services which the neighbourhood requires. (quoted by Mess and King 1947: 73)

The quality of the building, according to Mess and King (1947: 76) was a major determinant of the success of the centre (center) and association. a ‘good social life’, they wrote, ‘is dependent upon good buildings’. This included having a large hall suitable for meetings, social events and theatre, and, if possible, a common room,canteen, games facilities and a number of small meeting rooms. Alongside the the quality of the building, the nature of the leadership was also identified as a very significant factor in the success of centres (centers) and associations. ‘In a movement with such a great possible future it is no longer practical to depend upon the voluntary part-time leadership of enthusiasts as was so often done in the early days’ (op. cit.).  Mess and King go on to comment ‘The organization of the Community Association and of a Community Centre is a skilled and difficult job needing men and women who not only have natural gifts but considerable experience and training’.

With post-war reconstruction and developments such as the ‘New Towns’ the future of community associations – and government funding seemed assured. Indeed, a Ministry of Education publication (1944) proposed that:

A community centre should be regarded as an essential amenity of normal community living in normal circumstances;

The provision of communal facilities for the rational an enjoyable use of leisure is a necessary part of the country’s education system; and

Voluntary effort, unaided, is quite incapable of meeting the needs for social and recreational facilities.

The number of community centres (centers) grew from around 300 in 1947 to 929 in 1960; and the number of full-time workers increased from around 60 in 1947 to 221 in 1956. (Broady et al 1990: 56-7). Over this period there was also some important shifts in the way centres (centers) and associations operated: the educational function expanded and the social service concept diminished; the individual members had become more important than the corporate member within the association; dependence on local authorities had increased; and associations were more likely to be focused around the maintenance and operation of their community centres (centers) (ibid: 70).  In 1960, following the report of the Albemarle Committee on the Youth Service (HMSO 1960), professional training for youth work and community centre (center) wardens was largely provided jointly – but was in fact biased towards the needs of youth workers.

These themes can also be found in Twelvetrees’ (1976) study of four community associations in Edinburgh. He also suggested that there problems around communications.

The… inward-looking association loses contact with the rest of the community as it is not concerned with meeting outside needs. The larger association representing different interests and running several activities may stifle initiative through its unwieldy bureaucratic structure and it may co-ordinate only in theory, or passively rather than actively. (Twelvetrees 1976: 140)

In Britain the vision of the community association as a way of articulating community needs and issues, and as a vehicle for tackling them had become much more modest. Community associations were now largely linked to community centres (centers). They were able to provide a base for a large number of local groups and clubs – and in this way help to foster associational life. Involvement in the larger association tended to be through representation of the different groups and clubs, and involvement in larger social and fund-raising events like dances, bingo and fairs. A number of centres (centers) became focused around their bars – and in some respects came to resemble a local version of a working men’s club. In addition, very little research was being undertaken around the work of community centres (centers) and associations, and practice was not being written up. With financial cutbacks following the oil crisis in 1974, and the rise of Thatcherism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the failure to fully articulate and demonstrate the contribution of community associations and centres (centers) to the enhancement of local life and well-being there was a significant cutback in state support. Those that had full-time community or development worker frequently found them being replaced by an administrator. The hours that buildings could be open for communal use often shrunk through the inability to pay for caretaking, cleaning and repairs. Increased attention was given to money-making activities such as wedding receptions, multi-gyms and bars.

Community associations and centres (centers) today

A significant number of community centres (centers) continue to offer basic adult education activities and various developmental opportunities for older people. Many host some sort of nursery or pre-school provision. This can be through hiring out space to other voluntary or commercial groups, or through the development of their own provision. Community centres (centers) are still a place where local social and political activity takes place (again often via groups hiring their rooms) and they continue to provide a facility where local people can organize social and family events. In some inner-city areas community centres (centers) have been able to develop substabtial programmes of work by tapping into regeneration monies and making use of other funding streams around early years provision and continuing and lifelong learning.

When Alan Twelvetrees returned to the experience of British community associations in a study of democracy and the neighbourhood in 1985, he argued that while community associations as neighbourhood associations with a generalist rather than a specialist brief may have lost their way somewhat in the 1950s and 1960s they still held considerable potential. They were a forum for local specialist groups to meet and organize; through centres (centers) they provided a much needed community resource; and they could be an organizational focus for community development (Twelvetrees 1985: 55-79).

Paul Marriot (1997) later explored the contribution of community buildings (community centres, village halls, church halls and other faith-based buildings) and was able to identify some 18,809 community buildings in England and Wales. More than a third were village halls, a quarter are community centres and one in twelve are church buildings. From a sample survey conducted for the research project, it was estimated that 4.4 million people – equivalent to almost 10 per cent of the total population of England and Wales – used community buildings every week. About 235,000 people were involved in their management as committee members or trustees (this figure does not include all the other volunteers who run activities within the buildings). In terms of more recent debates they could be significant contributors to the generation of social capital. Just whether they are to flourish in this role is dependent on the extent to which governments are prepared to reverse the process of centralization that has occurred over the last thirty years, and to unhook themselves from a narrow, objective-driven outcome orientation. The benefits of associational and group life have been amply demonstrated by Robert Putnam and others (as have the pressures on communal life). Community centres (centers) continue to offer physical space where community activities take place. With some thought, commitment and money they could also enhance the associational space on offer. Marriot (1997) found that many of those involved in the organization of community buildings had a ‘poorly developed sense of the changing needs of their local community, and the market for what they have to offer’. He continued, ‘they are often much more concerned with the physical management of the building than with the development of the local community and the role the building has to play within such development’. Intervention in this area could both benefit the individuals involved – and contribute towards the deepening of civic community.

Further reading and references

Broady, M., Clarke, R., Marks, H., Mills, R., Sims, E., Smith, M. & White, L. (Ed. Clarke, R.) (1990) Enterprising Neighbours. The development of the community association in Britain, London: National Federation of Community Organisations. 209 + ix pages. Chapters examine community associations as a people’s movement; roots and influences; early days; high promise and disappointment: fifteen post war years; community associations in changing society: 1966-1980; local groups and community development; group activities and personal development; retrospect and prospect.

Fisher, R. (1994) Let the People Decide. Neighborhood Organizing in America (2e), New York: Twayne Publishers. 287 + xxiv pages. Fisher provides a good discussion of the emergence and development of community organizing in the United States. The first chapter on social welfare organizing is a discussion of the settlement and community center movement (1885-1929).

Marriott, P. (1997) Forgotten Resources? The role of community buildings in strengthening local communities, York: York Publishing Services. Important study that explores the contribution that the 18,800 community buildings make to local life in England and Wales (used by 4.4 million people per week). Focuses on the key role that volunteers play and the lack of attention paid to their potential by policymakers. A summary (Findings 218) can be downloaded from:

Twelvetrees, A. (1976) Community Associations and Centres: A comparative study, Oxford: Pergamon Press. Useful research study that highlights some significant issues and questions facing community associations in the early 1970s


Beveridge (1948) Voluntary Action. A report on social advancement, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Childs, C. (1912) A Year’s Experiment in Social Center Organization, New York: Social Center Committee.

Fieldhouse, R. and Associates (1996) A History of Modern British Adult Education, Leicester: NIACE.

Follett, M. P. (1918) The New State – Group Organization, the Solution for Popular Government, New York: Longman, Green and Co.

Harrison, J. F. C. (1961) Learning and Living 1790 – 1960. A study in the history of the Englih adult education movement, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Johnson, R. M. (1992) ‘Forgotten Reformer: Edward J. Ward and the Community Center Movement, 1907-1924’,  Mid-America: An Historical Review, Vol. 74 (January, 1992), 19-35.

Kelly, T. (1962; 1970; 1992) A History of Adult Education in Great Britain, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Kett, J. F. (1994) The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: From self-improvement to adult education in America, 1750 -1990, Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press.

Martin, G. Currie (1924) The Adult School Movement. Its origin and development, London: National Adult School Union.

Mess, H. A. and King, H. (1947) ‘Community centres and community associations’ in H. A. Mess (ed.) Voluntary Social Services since 1918, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co.

National Federation of Community Organisations (1991) The community centre vs. the outside world, London: National Federation of Community Organisations.

Pimlott, J. A. R. (1935) Toynbee Hall. Fifty years of social progress 1884 – 1934, London: Dent.

Quandt, J. B. (1970) From the Small Town to the Great Community. The social thought of progressive intellectuals, New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Stevens, E. Jnr (1972) ‘Social centers, politics and social efficiency in the progressive era’, History of Education Quarterly 12: 16-33.

Stubblefield, H. W. and Keane, P. (1994) Adult Education in the American Experience. From the colonial period to the present, San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

Twelvetrees, A. (1985) Democracy and the Neighbourhood, London: National Federation of Community Organisations’

Ward, E. C. (ed.) (1913) The Social Center, New York: Appleton.

Willmott, P. (1963) The Evolution of a Community : A study of Dagenham after forty years, London : Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Young, A. F. and Ashton, E. T. (1956) British Social Work in the Nineteenth Century, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Acknowledgement: The picture of the Lawn Community Association, Swindon sign by P. L. Chadwick. Believed to be in the public domain (sourced from Wikimedia Commons) 2008. The premises were for many years a pub known as The Gamekeeper. For more on the association:

To cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2002). ‘Community centres (centers) and associations’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

©  Mark K. Smith 1998, 2002

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