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Southwest’s New Initiative Expands the Airline From Place-Taking to Placemaking

RP Siegel | Friday May 16th, 2014 | 3 Comments

SWA_Spot_4C As our society goes through numerous transitions, many companies find themselves challenged to re-examine their core values and their core business. It takes a certain amount of imagination for a corporation to recognize what it is really all about, some more so than others. Oil companies, for example, don’t have to stretch too far, to re-imagine themselves as energy companies, or carmakers fancying themselves as purveyors of mobility.

Airlines, are about mobility too, of course, but one airline that has always distinguished itself by its imaginative approach to its work, Southwest, saw something else when it looked in the tea leaves. It recognized that it was very much in the business of places. After all, airlines make far-away places accessible that would not otherwise be.

In recognition of this aspect of their mission, Southwest has undertaken to partner with Project for Public Spaces in a new ”placemaking” program called Heart of the Community. The program works with city planners and community members to create places that are special in a way that will invite people to linger and commune, which will, in turn, raise the value of the community and the quality of life for those who live in it. It could also make that location more attractive to visitors.

Linda Rutherford, Southwest’s  VP of communication and outreach, wrote in a recent blog post: “While planners can give a place structure and access, it is the community that gives it heart and vibrancy. Ultimately, Placemaking creates public places for the community with the community.”

I spoke with Rutherford about the launch of this new program.

Triple Pundit: I get the impression that this new initiative is something that you folks at Southwest are really excited about. Why placemaking?

Linda Rutherford: This opportunity that has emerged around placemaking has just been a really fulfilling move for us to think about how we can get involved, at the micro level, not only in the 90+ communities that we serve across the globe, but also through programming and sustainability efforts and volunteerism that our employees could continue to  get involved in. It wouldn’t be just one day of picking up shovels and creating a space, but it would be coming back day after day and participating. That was something that was just super-exciting to us. The journey of learning about placemaking has really been eye-opening too. We think that as this placemaking phenomenon goes mainstream, it really has the opportunity to become the new environmentalism.

3p: Tell us about the journey. How did you get there?

LR: We’ve been looking for a worthy cause with merit that would help us to articulate what we stand for as an organization. We recognized that we needed to get focused on this in terms of how we are going to spend our time, our talent and our treasure. We still support a number of causes like the Ronald McDonald House that helps families with very sick children and our medical transportation grant program that helps people get where they need to go for special treatment. We are also active in disaster response and have partnered with the American Red Cross providing both financial support and airlift services. We’ve had a number of all-animal flights in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, flying these pets out to San Diego where new homes had been found. We also have an adopt-a-pilot program where pilots go into inner city classrooms and teach kids geography, science and math.

3p: So how did you get from there to placemaking?

LR: We worked with Edelman to help envision this new project. We reached out, polled our employees, looked within. We did research. We asked people, “When you think of SW Airlines, what do you think of?” How can we martial our resources in an authentic and meaningful way? What came through is that people think of us as their hometown airline.

So we saw this as an opportunity to develop a platform to allow us to get involved in the many communities where we operate. So that was the path. It started with something called Community Revitalization. From there we did more research and found Project for Public Spaces and their brilliant leader Fred Kent, and that’s when we really glommed onto this idea of placemaking and thought, wow. We’ve been saying all along that our purpose as an airline is to connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable and low-cost air travel. From there we thought, if we create places that people in the community want to connect to, these could turn into places that people might want to come visit. So that’s how placemaking became an area of focus for us.

3p: What’s nice is that, unlike some of the previous initiatives that were largely reactive, this one is proactive and very positive. You spoke earlier about employees getting involved.

LR: PPS has something they call “power of 10.” It means you don’t just set up picnic tables and umbrellas and call it done. There has to be a number of different things that are happening in that place in any given time. It could be a zumba class. It could be archery. It could be a reading room. Food is important. All of these different things that can come alive in that space also provide volunteer opportunities for our employees: scheduling, maintaining, cleaning, managing. These are all ways that we can get our own folks involved on an ongoing basis.

3p: How do you select the cities?

LR: PPS has been around for 30+ years, and they are experts at bringing these disparate stakeholders together when there is an opportunity to create a place.  I call it, “urban planning meets crowdsourcing,” but the main thing is that there has to be a motivated grassroots constituency within the community. Government entities, community leaders are on the same page; funding is available; there is momentum, goodwill; all those elements are there. PPS has a project plan and they know when a project is ready to pop. Ideally, it’s when all that is in place, and all they need is just a little more funding to put them over the top.

3p: Is there an application process?

LR: Those relationships are managed by PPS. So any city that is interested in this should get in touch with PPS directly and let them know where they stand. PPS will come onboard and help walk them through that process. Then they would get us involved at the point I described earlier.

3p: So you’re really looking for a city that’s already in the ninth inning and just needs someone to get those last three outs. What kind of resources are we talking about?

LR: I can’t tell you the exact amount, but I can tell you it’s significant.

3p: How many cities are you targeting?

LR: We don’t necessarily have control of who is ready and when, but ideally we’d like to do three or four projects a year.

3p: Can you talk about some of the projects you’ve already done?

LR: The project in Travis Park (San Antonio) is a city block. It has some historic significance related to the Alamo. It also has some green space and a giant Confederate statue. It did not have a great deal of foot traffic. A lot of people would cut through the park, but few ever spent any time there. Part of the problem was that there was really no place to sit and nothing to do there. So we went in and added experiences. Now there is a dog park, regular programming around yoga, zumba, and even P90x classes. There is also a reading room with a bistro, a giant lawn chess set, and food trucks have started coming. The place is really bustling now.

3p: So how do you measure success? Are you tracking results?

LR: Well, for one thing, we consider it a success when things start to wear out, because that tells us they’re getting used. In Providence, [R.I.], the Park Conservancy there, is taking a look at what their visitorship is like. We have an Imagination Center for children set up there inside of the city’s Burnside Park.

3p: You mentioned one other project.

LR: The third project was in Detroit. They wanted a place where people would congregate, asked residents what they wanted, and they said they wanted a beach.  They trucked in sand, Adirondack chairs and picnic tables, and people love it, even if there is no water. Put their toes in the sand and build sand castles. We really enjoyed watching the transformation from a place where no one spent any time, to a place that was so crowded you couldn’t move.

Southwest funded an MIT white paper called Places in the Making which found that: “The canon of placemaking’s past taught us valuable lessons about how to design great public places while planting the seeds for a robust understanding of how everyday places foster civic connections and build social capital. The placemakers of tomorrow will build on this legacy by teaching us valuable lessons about how the making process builds and nurtures community.”

Another notable quote in that paper is by urban sociologist William Whyte who said, “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”

Image courtesy of Southwest Airlines

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He writes for numerous publications including Justmeans, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, and Energy Viewpoints. He wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp that is currently being adapted for the big screen. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • NameTK

    Echoes of Pepsi’s Transform Your Patch: http://www.transformyourpatch.com/

  • TedKidd

    Hey – Success defined by things wearing out. Really Interesting! I like that thinking!

  • Sherwood Moore

    “urban planning meets crowdsourcing” – there’s an app for that ;) thrdPlace – https://vimeo.com/51585339