When did you last step foot in your local community centre? If you’re anything like the group of residents we recently surveyed, there’s a good chance you may never have.
Recently, Built-ID carried out an estate renewal programme consultation for a Local Authority, which included looking at how community space should be used within the estate; a startling figure jumped out, namely that 85% of residents had either rarely visited or had never visited their local community centre, with almost half saying they didn’t even know it existed. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, I’ve lived next door to an award-winning community centre for the last three years and have rarely stepped foot inside. So why aren’t more people attending community centres and should we even care?
A Powerful Force For Good
Research conducted by the GLA found that there were almost 1000 community centres in London alone and done right these spaces can be a powerful force for good, delivering much needed local services and promoting community cohesion. There’s even evidence that regular attendance at community centres can improve your health. One 2013 study found a clear association between participation in community centre activities, positive health and well-being outcomes, and that framing activities in terms of fun and leisure (as opposed to illness prevention) contributed to their effectiveness. Many community centre organisations now explicitly link their aims to the promotion of health locally, and some care providers have even begun to “socially prescribe” community activities to their patients. Even before COVID-19, developed nations like Britain faced a mental and physical health pandemic which the formal health care sector could only go so far to address. As we emerge from lockdown, community centres can play a vital health-promoting role as a supplement or in some cases as an alternative to formal healthcare in the local setting.
What Do Communities Actually Want?
It’s not that local people don’t value community centres, they do. In the last year Built-ID has worked for Housing Associations and Local Authorities on a range of housing estates, and across all of these, the provision of community spaces frequently ranks as a top concern. The issue seems to be, that whilst residents recognise the importance of these spaces, often management isn’t delivering the services communities actually want. In our survey, of the 85% of residents who had rarely or never visited their local community centre, 41% said that this was because it didn’t provide enough activities that they enjoy. Our research shows that people are looking for community centres to support skills development, from employment workshops to cooking classes alongside providing sport facilities for young people and community events to combat social isolation. COVID-19 is having an impact too, as the shift to working from home continues to take hold, there’s greater demand for community centres to provide flexible workspace and increasingly we’re seeing a desire for community space to be outdoor space with huge growth in demand for amenities such as outdoor gyms and community gardens.
Community centres sometimes get a bad rap, but managed well they can play a hugely important role. Successful community centres are those which can adapt to the needs of the people they serve and we’ve found the most successful Local Authorities and community organisations are those that use surveys like Give My View to discover what people actually want. No one better understands the needs of a local community than the people who live there, so it would be a mistake not to listen.