From 2013 to 2019, the Southwest Airlines Heart of the Community program partnered with Project for Public Spaces (PPS) to award more than $4.4 million in grants and placemaking technical assistance to 20 organizations across the U.S. and Mexico City. Each grant sought to transform a neglected or underutilized public space into a thriving community gathering place—in order to encourage civic participation and bolster community pride.
To wrap up our six-year community-building program, we were delighted to complete final placemaking projects with grantees in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Buffalo, New York.
Through the Southwest Airlines Foundation, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, each grantee received $100,000 in initial project funding, as well as an opportunity for a $25,000 dollar-for-dollar fundraising match. Grant recipients also received placemaking technical assistance from PPS in community engagement, design, and public space management, with special focus on areas that were identified as persisting challenges, opportunities, or needs. The projects have resulted in livelier public spaces, an increased sense of belonging, and a ripple effect of positive experiences.
Kerr Park is located in the center of Oklahoma City’s Central Business District. Work in Kerr Park was completed in August 2018, and the refreshed park is now a new focal point for the downtown area. Jill Brown DeLozier, former Vice President of the Downtown Oklahoma City Partnership, notes that the space is now enjoyed by more people than ever: “We’ve seen everyone from business executives to kids and families using the park as if it were their own backyard.”
Since placemaking improvements to the park, 92 percent1212) Shepherd, L., Marrs, S., Hansan, L., Guilfoile, B., & Smith, B. (2018). 2017 Post-Grant Assessment: Kerr Park. Chirp Research, Plano, TX. of residents reported that it is an inclusive space for all Oklahomans.
September 2018, saw the completion of grant work in New Orleans’s Duncan Plaza, a high-traffic downtown park nestled between the New Orleans city hall and the public library. Since 2017, when the project began, Duncan Plaza has seen an increase in name recognition from 17 to 63 percent1313) Shepherd, L., Marrs, S., Hansan, L., Guilfoile, B., & Smith, B. (2018). 2017 Post-Grant Assessment: Duncan Plaza. Chirp Research, Plano, TX. , likely due to the physical improvements and enhanced programming.
Prior to grant work, the space had been the site of rallies, events, and even temporary housing during and after Hurricane Katrina, but Duncan Plaza was not seen as a space for all to enjoy. Working in collaboration, Project for Public Spaces, the Downtown Development District, and the Arts Council New Orleans, laid the groundwork for transforming Duncan Plaza into a lively community destination.
“We did a mask-making workshop in the park getting ready for Carnival,” says Heidi Schmalbach, Executive Director of the Arts Council New Orleans. “There were people who live in the park, work downtown, and artists all working side-by-side to create something individually, but together, which is a really beautiful way to connect.”
Lastly, we celebrated the completion of Buffalo’s Reading Park in July 2019. Programmed and cared for by the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, the park now is designed to encourage lifelong learning through accessible educational activities and to provide the community with meaningful cultural experiences. In evaluating the work, 81 percent1414) Marrs, S., Hansan, L., Duba, M., & Duplessis, C. (2019). 2017 Post-Grant Assessment: Buffalo’s Reading Park. Chirp Research, Plano, TX. of local Buffalo residents reported that they felt the improvements had positively impacted the downtown community.
The collective efforts of the Southwest Airlines Heart of the Community program, Project for Public Spaces, and local partners and contributors leave a legacy of best practices, new discoveries, and an increased appreciation for the value of public space that make us incredibly proud. Next time you’re flying to one of these cities, we encourage you to check out these community places and learn more about the great work Project for Public Spaces is doing! Your involvement and active use will aid in the continued transformation and vibrancy of these public spaces for years to come.