How Southwest Airlines Supports Placemaking in LA and Beyond

At the heart of downtown Los Angeles is Pershing Square, a natural gathering-place since the city’s foundation. After a century of use, Pershing Square settled into local infamy when a 1994 redesign stripped away its green space, making the park inaccessible and unwelcoming to passers-by. These days, downtown L.A. is booming once again and an eclectic mix of business owners and residents want to remake the space. And who better to help make it all work than, oddly enough, Southwest Airlines?

On May 12, the public-private partnership Pershing Square Renew announced the winning entry in an international design competition to determine how the new Pershing Square will look. Agence Ter, a French landscape design firm, took top honors with its vision of an open, accessible lawn with shade-bearing trees on one end and a futuristic canopy on the other. Now comes the hard part: actually funding and completing the project on time.

Luckily for Pershing Square Renew, placemaking has become a hot topic for funders, even some corporate ones like Southwest Airlines. But what is placemaking? According to the Project for Public Spaces (PPS),the nonprofit that’s overseeing Southwest’s Heart of the Community grantmaking program, placemaking is “a collaborative process by which we can shape our public realm in order to maximize shared value.” PPS discusses its work in terms of community-sensitive people-focused design, stakeholder engagement, and the “activation” of urban spaces around commerce and walkability.

In 2016, Pershing Square Renew received a $200,000 catalytic grant from Southwest Airlines, part of the company’s Heart of the Community placemaking program. With an infusion of cash and technical support, the grant helps Pershing Square Renew draw in community partners to plan and activate the new space. Southwest is a relative newcomer to a funding area that is itself in its early stages, but its reach has been impressive so far. Since its inception in April 2014, the Heart of the Community program has funded 17 urban spaces throughout the U.S. and one in Mexico City.

For the past several years, a growing range of funders have backed creative placemaking, many of them from the arts world. We’ve discussed how placemaking cuts across traditional nonprofit and funding silos, bringing together environment, city planning, social justice, and the arts in city-center projects where many different types of people and interests interact.

One active player in the area is ArtPlace America, which has gathered a coalition of foundations to support placemaking projects throughout the country. The Kresge Foundation heavily backs ArtPlace with funds for projects that deliver community development through the arts. ArtPlace’s supporters also include Surdna, the Bloomberg Philanthropies, Ford, James Irvine, the Knight Foundation,and Andrew C. Mellon. In other words, many of the nation’s top arts funders are now willing to put their dollars behind placemaking.

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Southwest Airlines is something of an outlier in the placemaking universe. While placemaking often involves collaboration between the sectors, those relationships are local and place-specific. One big example is billionaire Dan Gilbert’s deep involvement in Detroit’s placemaking (interestingly, one of the first Southwest grants went to downtown Detroit, which has become something of a petri dish for this sort of thing). But Southwest's Heart of the Community has been national, even international, in scope.

Whether the Heart of the Community program represents, as PPS puts it, a “breakout moment” for placemaking, or whether it reflects the eccentricities of a notably eccentric airline (NYSE ticker symbol: LUV), rising support for placemaking means more funds for urban projects, especially those where diverse stakeholders interact. That's good news for landscape architects, but it also bodes well for the many nonprofits serving distressed urban areas.

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