Southwest Airlines has set its philanthropic sights on urban design, launching a grant program with the New York-based nonprofit Project for Public Spaces. After the completion of three pilot projects in San Antonio, Providence, R.I., and Detroit–where a local nonprofit turned a city park into a beach for the summer–Southwest has inked a three-year deal to help a handful of cities spruce up their urban design. First on the list is Baltimore, where Southwest’s Heart of the Community grant program will help the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore transform the barren concrete of the city’s Pratt and Light Plaza into a vibrant community gathering place.
“We’re in the business of taking people from place to place,” says Marilee McInnis, Southwest’s senior manager of communications, “so we want to support and create and revitalize these places.” The money can go toward construction, materials, startup costs for a new program, or funding for ongoing activities The only catch is that the organization and project receiving the grant has to be located in one of the 95 urban regions served by Southwest flights.
Downtown Partnership of Baltimore isn’t quite sure what to do with its grant money yet. The organization is still busy collecting ideas from members of the surrounding community. “The plaza is actually kind of a glorified, huge sidewalk,” describes Michael Evitts, a vice president of communications with the organization. The site in question, only a block from the city’s inner harbor, is well-connected by transit and located in a fast-growing section of downtown that serves 122,000 daytime employees and 41,000 residents in a one-mile radius.
In the ’60s, urban planners built the Pratt Street corridor to connect two interstate highways through Baltimore, creating a busy thoroughfare. Wide sidewalks separated from the street by berms made the area seem desolate to pedestrians. The Downtown Partnership has been working for years to redesign Pratt Street “so our community can accommodate people as well as it accommodates cars,” Evitts says.
With the Heart of the Community grant, the organization will launch a charette to revitalize Pratt and Light Plaza, right now a largely empty concrete space that plays host to a local farmer’s market. “We’ve always felt this plaza could be a public asset,” Evitts says, but right now, “there’s no reason to linger there.” Part of the design process will include staging community workshops to find out what, exactly, would make people linger. The group hopes to launch a new program for the plaza by the early fall.
Southwest plans to award grants to two to three other communities by the end of this year, and applications for 2015 grants are being accepted now. The company has not yet disclosed how much total funding the three-year initiative will receive, though Southwest representatives call it a “significant investment.” The funding associated with individual grants varies depending on the project, but representatives declined to say how much the initial projects received. As a corporate philanthropic endeavor, the benefits of this method of grassroots charity seem bountiful: Cities where Southwest employees and potential customers live get brand-new public spaces tailored specifically to their needs, and Southwest gets the charitable publicity boost. And hopefully, communities will get some good urban design initiatives out of it.
“A lot of what downtown Baltimore is trying to do is undo the best thinking of the previous generation,” Evitts says. “Urban planning in the ’60s was very dictatorial. There was a lot of concrete; people were an afterthought.” Now, he says, it’s about “encouraging those human moments within urban design.”