Act: Inspiration

No need to reinvent the wheel: The settlement house as a time-tested model for community resilience

October 3, 2022

How can we best equip our communities as we transition to a new normal? This question is driving resilience researchers and practitioners across the nation to seek out new models that support local adaptation to a variety of crises. Recently, the climate crisis has increased the challenges faced by our communities, making the future even more uncertain and community resilience all the more necessary. Scholar Kristen Magis describes resilience as

“the existence, development, and engagement of community resources by community members to thrive in an environment characterized by change, uncertainty, unpredictability, and surprise.”

Importantly, resilience is the human ability to recover, and even thrive, after crises.

However, communities need a supportive model to respond well to the accelerating environmental challenges. The more useful and durable community resilience models are resident-led and expertly informed, capable of enacting flexible responses using community strengths and local resources. Fortunately, we already have a time-tested model at hand: the settlement house.

The Settlement House Model for Fostering Community Resilience

Settlement houses offer an inspiring model for increasing community resilience today. The settlement house originated in the early 1900s as a Progressive Era measure to empower vulnerable populations to overcome the difficulties they were facing. It is a community organization that is founded and managed by community members, using the concept of mutual aid to facilitate adaptive response to local challenges. Community members are encouraged to share their knowledge, insight, and skills within settlement house programs—building support from the ground up. With this high level of participation, community members can experience increased meaningfulness, agency, and sense of place.

The Settlement House Model in Action

The Henry Street Settlement provides a galvanizing example of a single community overcoming a diverse set of challenges. Lillian Wald founded Henry Street Settlement in 1893 in response to the crushing poverty she witnessed as a nurse in New York City’s Lower East Side. Since then, the settlement house has continued to play a crucial role in helping vulnerable residents obtain food, shelter, medical care, and employment. Community members also developed programs in art, theater, and music—giving voice to marginalized populations and providing an enriching environment for children.

Over the last century, Henry Street found itself at the epicenter of several formidable crises. In the 1980s, New York City was grappling with the weight of the AIDS epidemic and rising street violence. Henry Street became the provider for AIDS Mental Health Services and expanded after-school programs to help protect children from gang activity. Later, when tragedy struck during 9/11—just blocks from where the center was located—workers from Henry Street ran into the smoky streets, handing out water and food to survivors suffering from shock. Later, community members filled Henry Street’s Arts Center with memorials to those who were lost. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit New York City, Henry Street set up a helpline for residents and organized food pantries to address food insecurity. The settlement also raised funds for emergency cash assistance for those who did not have access to unemployment.

These adaptive maneuvers were characteristic of Henry Street. CEO David Garza described their  actions following 9/11 in Henry Street’s remembrance newsletter:

“Regardless of the cause, for us, the question was not ‘What happened?’ but ‘What do we do next?’ It was a characteristically Henry Street response, which was repeated during the COVID-19 crisis: We listened intentionally and acted instinctually, supporting our community and our team, figuring it out as we went.”

This settlement house is still in operation today, standing as a testament to their ability to maintain their focus, while modifying their operations, thus withstanding the test of time.

Variations of the Settlement House Model

Over the years, many settlement houses became known as neighborhood centers. Following the peak of the industrial revolution, the influx of immigrants abated in the mid-1900s. Settlement houses transitioned their focus from areas featuring a high immigrant demographic to include all marginalized residents within urban settings, changing their name as a reflection of this shift. Many of these neighborhood centers hold true to the framework set in place by their predecessors: community members maintain an integral role in decision-making and community outreach with the intention to educate and empower fellow residents. These newer versions of the settlement house can be seen within many cities throughout the United States.

Increasingly, neighborhoods are building resilience hubs to combat climate change. These also might be viewed as examples of the settlement house notion. USDN describes resilience hubs ascommunity-serving facilities augmented to support residents, coordinate communication, distribute resources, and reduce carbon pollution while enhancing quality of life.” Often, these are developed in trusted locations that are positioned and outfitted to support residents in times of climate crises.

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Boyle Heights Art Conservancy (BHAC) in Los Angeles offers an example of this approach. Recently, BHAC partnered with Climate Resolve to equip a trusted community space with resources to aid adaptation to climate change. These measures proved critical when a recent heat wave smothered the city. When temperatures in Los Angeles soared, families were able to find a safe respite from the heat within its walls. Beyond functioning as a cooling center, BHAC has installed an air filtration system and air quality monitors. The center’s resilience soon will be increased by the addition of solar panels.  Education also plays a key role in community outreach, with workshops addressing wide-ranging topics from first aid to decolonized diets. As a result, the Boyle Heights Resilience Hub empowers and connects residents while also mitigating climate risks. This is exactly the type of local response to local problems that was exemplified by early settlement houses.

Support for the Settlement House Model

Beyond anecdotal evidence, research indicates that the settlement house model can be a valuable tool for increasing community resilience. Neighborhood centers in Houston, Texas, had a positive influence on community resilience following Hurricane Harvey in 2017. In the wake of this damaging storm, mental health and employment rates in areas with neighborhood centers improved over those areas without, suggesting that neighborhood centers may enhance community resilience to adverse climate events.

More importantly, neighborhood centers were quick to respond to local needs when federal aid fell short. Baker-Ripley, a neighborhood center in Houston, created Neighborhood Restoration Centers to provide targeted aid to vulnerable areas. Baker-Ripley also set up Disaster Recovery Services to give qualified residents access to financial assistance, resources, and home repair. These neighborhood centers went on to develop a Humanitarian Action Plan to provide a framework for addressing future crises and potential impacts on vulnerable immigrant populations.

Notably, these were local solutions to local problems using local resources. Not only were these neighborhood centers adapting to the current crisis, they also laid out a path for a just transition towards a more resilient future.

Driving Toward a Resilient Future

The settlement house provides an inspiring example of positive community transformation in the face of a variety of local and national challenges. Moving forward, we may see these refurbished settlement house models as strongholds within communities. They may take root in libraries, town halls, and other long-standing institutions that the community views as a safe gathering place, in both times of challenge and times of ease. Community members would view their participation as essential and valued by the community, knowing that each citizen has something to offer their neighbors—through sharing skills and knowledge, providing leadership, or lending a helping hand.

The words of Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement, leave little room for hesitancy: “In times of need, act.” Communities can build resilience to climate change within the heart of their neighborhoods through incorporating the settlement house model within climate action plans. While society is pressing for new tools and more resources in an age of overshoot, it’s time to pause and consider the tools given to us by history. As we look to the future, the settlement house model can enable communities to embrace a just transition to a new normal.


Special thanks to Dr. Raymond De Young and Rob Dietz for their insightful contributions to the formation of this article

Photo: Aerial Photography of Buildings Under Blue and White Sky during Golden Hour by Almada Studios

Tara-Sky Woodward

Tara-Sky Woodward is currently completing a dual master’s program at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, as well as the School of Social Work. Her field of study is environmental psychology with a focus on community resilience and behavior, education, and communication. Tara-Sky received her bachelor’s degree in psychology and history at the University of Michigan, where she completed her undergraduate honors thesis on the role of the settlement house in building community climate resilience.

Tags: building community resilience, settlement house model