FORTUNE — Southwest Airlines is known for its folksy, quirky, egalitarian ethos, from its cut-rate fares and jokes from the flight attendants to its ticker symbol, (LUV), to its unique corporate culture. In the past year or two, the airline has fallen for a cause that it feels matches its core values: “placemaking,” a movement within the field of urban planning that leverages the people and assets in a community to reimagine its public spaces. In one of Southwest’s more ambitious philanthropic initiatives to date, it has entered a multifaceted partnership with the movement’s leading non-profit, Project for Public Spaces, in a wide-ranging commitment to improve and revitalize the public spaces in a number of American cities.
Under the new initiative — announced today as the Southwest Airlines Heart of the Community program — Southwest and PPS will work together to administer grants to multiple cities to transform their public spaces. They partnered quietly on two pilot projects last year, in Detroit and Providence, R.I.; and earlier this week they launched their third collaboration in San Antonio, the “activation” of the city’s historic Travis Park.
“We were looking for a way to support our communities, but also where we could really provide some leadership,” says Gary Kelly, Southwest’s chairman, president, and CEO — and a San Antonio native whose grandfather went to the Methodist church on the Travis Park square. “There was a void in placemaking, and it’s something we have a passion about,” Kelly tells Fortune.
Unlike other forms of urban planning or urban revitalization, placemaking is a community-based process that links urban design with the needs and desires of its inhabitants. (Think of it as crowdsourcing for the design of public squares and plazas.) It evolved out of the work of urbanists like Jane Jacobs, who preached the benefits of citizen ownership of neighborhood assets, and more notably, from the work of William H. Whyte, the urban sociologist — and legendary Fortune writer before that — who used time-lapse photography to record and observe human behavior in urban settings. Whyte maintained that the design of public spaces should start with an understanding of the way people use them, and his principles paved the way for the modern understanding of the use of public spaces. (It’s worth noting Whyte’s significant contributions to Fortune: His seminal 1956 book The Organization Man, which came to define a generation of workers, emerged out of articles he wrote for Fortune on management; he also coined the phrases ‘groupthink’ and ‘suburban sprawl’ in our pages — all before his second career.) The Project for Public Spaces was founded by one of Whyte’s disciples, Fred Kent.
Placemaking is a niche, somewhat cerebral discipline that might seem at odds with a blue chip airline, and Southwest’s Kelly admits it “took a little time to understand what it is.” But the company saw a grassroots, bottom-up, egalitarian approach—placemaking projects engage members of the community from conception to finish, and solutions are often low-cost and common-sense, like using chalk and and moveable lawn chairs— that Southwest felt blended well with its culture and esprit de corps. (In Travis Park, new amenities include a sandbox, umbrellas, moveable tables and chairs, and public programming including fitness classes, free movies and game tournaments.) Southwest sees a chance to take the movement more mainstream. “We think it could be the new environmentalism,” says Linda Rutherford, the airline’s vice president of communication and outreach, who championed the idea of committing to placemaking.
“Placemaking is about making the shaping of cities more accessible to everybody,” says Ethan Kent, senior vice president of PPS, “Much in the same way [Southwest] made air travel accessible to many more people.” The partnership with Southwest is the biggest the organization has ever done, he says. “We love the personality they bring to it.”
The path from Southwest to placemaking began when Rutherford was searching for a cause the airline could get behind. Canvassing employees and people in their communities, she says, the topic of community revitalization kept coming up. From there, she entered into discussions with PPS and discovered a shared spirit between the two entities. “We really found a kindred spirit,” Rutherford says. As part of the partnership, Southwest also funded a report by MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning about the potential of placemaking in community-building — the movement’s first significant ivory tower affirmation.
Like the Travis Park initiative, which partnered with San Antonio’s Center City Development Office, the earlier Heart of the Community projects also worked in concert with local institutions. In Detroit, PPS and Southwest worked with the Downtown Detroit Partnership to transform an underutilized lawn in Campus Martius Park into a seasonal beach with a deck and seating; in Providence, they worked with the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy to create the Imagination Center, a new facility for family activities in the city’s Burnside Park.
“We’re real excited about it,” says Kelly of the partnership. “It’s tangible. And it’s not so gigantic that you can’t accomplish something. We’re proud of the grant, but it’s not like it takes $100 million to come out and revitalize Travis Park. It’s something that can come to reality very quickly.” The Southwest and PPS team had only been working on the square for 90 days, he points out.
“And it looks pretty darn good.”