At the centre of community

Through offering an increasing range of services and building innovative partnerships, community centres are finding their way back into the heart of all things local

Community centres have a history dating back to the early 1900’s when they were first introduced to offer employment, training and nurture country crafts. Today, there are more than 18,000 community buildings in the UK with an estimated 4.4 million users each week – the highest recorded usage in the world.

Community centres can be all things to all people and this is certainly ringing true today. Walk through their doors and you’ll find students, artists, singers, children, mothers, grandparents and gardeners, to name just a few. While continuing to offer basic adult education and various developmental activities for older people, the role of the community centre has evolved considerably over the last century.

As well as providing rooms to hire for local groups and organisations, many centres also include spaces such as artists’ studios and cafes. Most centres now offer a form of childcare, either through their own provision or by external commercial groups. Community centres have also become a focal point of wider events such as seasonal markets and food festivals, and in no place is this more apparent than Bristol.

Bristol has a total of 250 community centres, stacking up one of the highest incidences in the country. The city is a long established hub for creatives and community centres are opening up a whole host of opportunities for its eclectic society. All of the buildings are run and managed by volunteers, independently of the council, and cater for over 1,500 local voluntary organisations and social enterprises.

Hamilton House in Stokes Croft is the largest community centre in the city and has witnessed a significant change in the last decade. The 55 sq ft office building is let to Coexist, a community interest company that in two years has established a thriving cultural hub in one of Bristol’s most deprived neighbourhoods. A leader in innovation and creativity, the building’s use is a marker for how things are changing.

Coexist are investing in people, not just property, claims its co-director, Bex Baxter. “Hamilton House has managed to create a unique ethos which encourages mutual benefit and coexistence,” she says. “It demonstrates the need and benefits of sustainable development.”

The vibrant community hub is home to the Bristol Bike Project, which repairs and relocates unwanted bicycles; Wellbeing, a floor dedicated to holistic therapy and relaxation; DMAK UK, a not-for-profit organisation running a variety of dance and exercise classes; a music and media centre and the Coexist Community Kitchen. On top of this, the centre offers studio space to hire for local artists, hot-desking opportunities, event space for up to 100 visitors, and a community arts space running small workshops and exhibitions.

“At Coexist we’re open to respond to what is needed by the community within and without the building,” says co-director, Sennen Timcke. “Our direction and action has a single purpose: to support innovative solutions for all. This means personal, social and collective, within and without the space we facilitate, and for current and future generations.”

The arts are often the primary, and sometimes the only motivation for some people to engage in a community activity or issue

The focus on arts and creative development is also high on the agenda at Bristol’s Southville Centre. Dawn De Montfort, the centre’s manager, believes this is an important part of improving the quality of life for local people.

“We want to encourage local people to view, create and participate in art in the broadest sense of the term. Art can be educational, therapeutic, and emancipatory, and of course really enjoyable and good fun,” says Dawn.

The Southville Centre is managed by Southville Community Development Association (SCDA) and run by a board of trustees together with local residents. SCDA has always had strong links with community arts organisations. It is a founder member of the South Bristol Arts Trail; provides free gallery space to local artists; and has hosted arts-focused evening classes such as creative writing courses, children’s drama clubs, young people’s street dance and Jolly Tots, a music club for toddlers.

In December they collaborated with Show of Strength Theatre Company and produced an original piece of theatre aimed at a family audience, called Recycled Stockings, which sold out with 600 people enjoying the performances over 3 days.

Based in a former grade II listed church, another Bristol venue empowering people through art is the Trinity Centre in St. Pauls. Managed by the charity Trinity Community Arts, which works alongside the National Lottery Fund and the Arts Council, it offers performance, community arts, music events and free social events, in particular creating a platform for the development of young talent.

“The arts reach many people in communities who are not otherwise being reached,” explained Emma Harvey, Trinity Centre manager. “The arts are often the primary, and sometimes the only motivation for some people to engage in a community activity or issue.”

Projects run by Trinity, such as its Arts West Side community cafe and Respect, a series of arts workshops focusing on facilitating positive interaction between different age groups and cultures, bring together a mix of people who share a common interest.

“It is so exciting to watch the community grow, the centre thrive and to witness the positive impact on the local area,” says Emma.

Despite limited access to funding, Bristol’s community space is enjoying an exciting comeback. The number of dedicated volunteers is continuing to climb and the age and interests of users is becoming ever more diverse. Community centres have successfully challenged their reputation as homes to luncheon clubs or damp village halls and are happily nestled in the heart of all things local: people, passion and art.