Can an airline improve the destinations it flies to?

Southwest’s Heart of the Community Grants Aim to Make Better Places

By Matt Carmichael on December 10, 2014 at 3:10 pm CST

Southwest and Project for Public Spaces Created a beach in Detroit

Typically, the role of airlines is getting people from place to place. One can certainly argue about how pleasant that experience is, but one airline is taking some unusual steps to help make the places we land and the places we live better places.

Southwest has embarked (travel pun, sorry) on a placemaking campaign in partnership with one of the pioneering groups in this space, the Project for Public Spaces . Through its Heart of the Community program, the airline is working to do public placemaking projects in the markets it serves, which are also the markets where its employees live. The program kicked off in 2013 with projects in Detroit, San Antonio and Providence, and recently announced new projects in Houston and Baltimore.

“Our goal is to get placemaking happening in every Southwest market,” says Megan Lee, senior manager of Community Programs for Southwest. “Every city is sort of on their own journey with placemaking. If a community isn’t ready for one of the traditional grants, maybe we can do smaller activities.”

Southwest is following the dictum of PPS to create projects that are “ lighter, quicker, cheaper .” Essentially, the idea is to work on projects that can get a lot of bang for not a lot of buck and can therefore be rolled out on an accelerated time frame.

“We wanted to get something out there, so we could start observing and testing it and really participate with it,” Lee says.

One of the pilot projects was the creation of a beach in downtown Detroit . Yes, a beach. Using repurposed sand from the downtown’s winter skating rink as a base layer, Southwest and PPS helped create a summertime gathering place, transforming the skating rink into a year-round attraction. They also created a deck that can be used year round in a variety of ways.

It’s been a great attraction for Detroit’s Campus Martius area. Utilized by workers during their lunchtime as well as residents on the weekends, the beach project has been another piece of the overall revitalization of downtown Detroit. Demonstration projects are important and lead to greater policy changes, furthering the idea of placemaking in communities large and small. Southwest has already seen that with its pilot projects leading to more programs, donations and support in the community for the organizations it partners with in the communities.

For 2015, the program is focusing on revitalizing public plazas in Baltimore and Houston . The plans are still in the public discussion phases, and Southwest is helping enable the discussion and eventually the chosen plans.

“Once a community has a vision and energetic people behind it, we’re just helping support it and giving them the tools they need to do more,” Lee says.

In the end, all of these projects are sandboxes, mostly metaphorical, but in Detroit’s case literal. Southwest and the communities and organizations they support are taking part in an ongoing experiment. They’re trying to answer the question of how we can create better public places – spaces that actually engage the public – in our cities and towns, and what roles nonprofits, for-profits and the public themselves can have in the conversation.

Matt Carmichael is a contributing editor and former editor-in-chief of He is a recognized authority on demographics, consumer trends, economic development and best places to live.

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