Why Southwest Airlines Is Building Parks in Each of Its 90 Cities

Over the last 47 years, Southwest Airlines has built a vibrant—if a little goofy—airborne community. Now some of that culture is fueling urban improvements on the ground. Southwest's new initiative called the Heart of the Community is working to build public spaces in all of the 90 cities the airline serves.

"Southwest has always been a very people-centric airline," says Marilee McInnis, Southwest's senior manager of culture and communications. "We've always been associated with community and taking people from place to place."

A few years ago, the company was looking for a more sustained way to make a difference in those communities and stumbled upon the work of the Project for Public Spaces. Southwest realized that the organization's concept of placemaking—working closely with nonprofits and community groups to improve public and civic spaces—fit perfectly into their mission, says McInnis: "We loved the idea that the process of placemaking was all about creating places around the ideas and wants of people who live and work there."

Why Southwest Airlines Is Building Parks in Each of Its 90 Cities

Since 2013, three parks have been built or renovated in Detroit, Providence, Rhode Island, and San Antonio as part of a pilot program, and grants have also helped fund the research and publication of a white paper at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. In addition, the pilot projects have become case studies, shared on PPS's website.

Why Southwest Airlines Is Building Parks in Each of Its 90 Cities

Earlier this month the partnership unveiled its latest project, a revitalized Travis Park in San Antonio, where Southwest's grant helped fund new furniture, amenities, and programming, and complemented electrical infrastructure, landscaping, and maintenance updates. The 2.6-acre park was selected for both its central location and its history—it's one of the oldest municipal parks in the country, and was in desperate need of a refresh.

But Southwest also has emotional ties to the park: It's located right across the street from the hotel where co-founders Herb Kelleher and Rollin King first scrawled the business plan for Southwest on a cocktail napkin.

Why Southwest Airlines Is Building Parks in Each of Its 90 Cities

Here's the important difference between Southwest's engagement—which doesn't have a specific dollar amount attached—and simply feeding charitable gifts to a nonprofit partner: Southwest isn't planning to toss some trees into a town square and split.

Part of the grant funds for each space are going towards programming to make sure the parks are maintained, well-used, and loved. That means classes, events, festivals, and even community clean-up days will all be spearheaded by the airline.

This is also where Southwest is able to offer another key component: The volunteer power of its almost 45,000 enthusiastic employees, who are always looking for ways to give back, says McInnis.

Why Southwest Airlines Is Building Parks in Each of Its 90 Cities

Two things seem especially promising about Southwest's approach. First, partnering with a group like Project for Public Spaces, which is so established and well-respected in this area, is very smart. PPS will work with the airline to outline more opportunities in its 90 cities and also vet local groups like San Antonio's Center City Development Office, which can represent the needs of stakeholders and act as stewards of the spaces. The plan is to accelerate existing ideas and programs, not to start from scratch.

Second, placemaking is a very smart way for a company—and specifically an airline—to invest their money. Instead of say, sending money off to a vague-sounding charity, they are actually impacting the physical appearance and quality of life in the cities they are working in, which in turn are making them better destinations for customers.

McInnis had an even better take on why this was important when I asked her about it. "These cities are where our customers visit," she said. "But also where our employees live and work." [Project for Public Spaces]