Placemaking: 5 Easy Ways to Build the Human Connection

By: Megan Lee | October 31, 2014

In today’s world, we are more “connected” than ever before. I often feel ruled by the technology in my life. Whether it is the constant barrage of text messages coming in or the endless flow of emails on my iPad, there are times when so much “connection” leaves me feeling distant from those around me. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology; but there is also something that is so gratifying about meeting a friend for coffee in a park or going with my daughter to an outdoor craft fair and running into our neighbors. These experiences remind me to focus on a different kind of “connection” — the human connection.

Active public spaces are crucial to forming this connection. After all, society began in public spaces, and these places still play an essential and unique role in cities, providing opportunities for community building, artistic expression, local commerce, play, learning, relaxation, and recreation. Ideally, our public spaces are activated through Placemaking, a transformative approach that inspires people to create and improve the places they share.

Realizing the importance of connection to places, we at Southwest Airlines decided to take our participation in the communities we serve in a new direction. Specifically, we wanted to be more than just a means to arrive at a destination — we wanted to become part of the destination itself. In 2014, we made a three-year commitment to Project for Public Spaces to do this very thing ... help reinvent the human connection in cities and bring Placemaking all around the country.

We want you to be a part of this too.

I once heard a local partner say, “The usual suspects hinder progress. Give me a small group of passionate people, and I can do anything.” Fred Kent, founder and President of Project for Public Spaces, often calls for the need for more impassioned citizens whose dedication to Placemaking brings vast community improvements. He calls these people “zealous nuts” – zealous because they have tons of energy and passion, and nuts because they are crazy enough to try new things and overturn old assumptions.

Cultivating a strong sense of place does not always need to involve large amounts of capital, endless bureaucratic red tape, and heavy infrastructure development. The beauty of Placemaking is that all you need to get started are a few people with vision (zealous nuts) and an understanding of what your community needs.

So, I challenge each of you to begin thinking about Placemaking and find an opportunity where you can make a real difference. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Start a community yoga class

Grab a few like-minded friends and begin finding your center in a public park. Pick a consistent time and place, and get the word out on social media; you’ll be bringing people together in no time and starting conversations about the importance of connection and promoting a healthy lifestyle.

In San Antonio’s Travis Park, one of our Heart of the Community cities, fitness classes have become extremely popular. Because of this increase in programing, the community is growing stronger and more resilient in many ways.

2. Organize a ‘place’ party

Whether you live in an apartment complex, a downtown loft, or in a neighborhood, you have neighbors and you might not know all of them. Use this as an opportunity to celebrate a space nearby. Alleyways, vacant lots, parking lots, cul-de-sacs, neighborhood parks, or the street you live on are perfect places to build community and promote equity in your area. Get a group of people and take over the space for a day.

While you have your block party in full swing and are building relationships with new people, consider playing The Place Game, an activity created by PPS to spark conversation about how to reimagine a space. Who knows, the vacant lot in your neighborhood could become a space for kids’ performances or the spot for a neighborhood grill-off.

3. Make your streets safer

Streets can be one of our most important public spaces, but they are often dangerous. Make a commitment to drive more slowly and walk and bike more frequently. Open up a dialogue with your neighbors and encourage them to slow down. Streets are for everyone.

It’s time to take back the streets. Events like CycLOUvia in Louisville, Ky., close down major roadways for a day so that they can be used by everyone. Thousands of people participate in the event each year, and the adjacent shops and residents see increased business and foot traffic as a result.  

4. Embrace the concept of Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper activation   

LQC is a philosophy we have embraced that relies on the talent and expertise of locals to implement low-cost experiments and available resources for Placemaking. By trying out a variety of solutions, you can find out what works best for your space and community without spending unnecessarily.

You can do this one easily! At Southwest Airlines, we participated in Dallas Park(ing) Day a couple of weeks ago and transformed a 9x12 parking space into a live music venue with just a few airport lounge seats and a microphone and some talented local artists.  Our Employees provided water and peanuts to pedestrians that day and helped changed the mood of a street normally clogged with traffic.

5. Align yourself with local organizations

Placemaking is more than just the space around you. It’s about strengthening community and building connections. Keep your community resilient and intact by joining coalitions to support public art, expansion of public transit, and preservation of public parks. After all, passionate people can make all of the difference.

Consider joining the board of directors of one of your favorite organizations or committing yourself as a long term volunteer for something you care a lot about. Meet with your local elected officials to stay updated on the issues of the day. By bolstering your connections and participating in the process, you can work to ensure that your voice is heard.

Get started

Sometimes just the simple act of gathering people together can spark the conversation or generate more ideas of what is possible. The idea is just to get the conversation started and see where it leads. For more tips and inspiration, take a look at some of our previous Heart of the Community projects and the many great resources prepared by our friends at PPS. Or share your own ideas or experiences with others below.

Get moving and good luck rediscovering the human connection in your own community!

About Megan

Megan Lee is Senior Manager for Community Outreach at Southwest Airlines, where she is responsible for strategic direction and implementation of Southwest’s citizenship and community relations programs, such as Adopt a Pilot, Medical Transportation Grant Program, and most notably the launch of Southwest’s new nationwide signature program, Heart of the Community. In this role, she provides oversight and support for Southwest’s charitable donations, local giving boards, and volunteer events. Megan oversees a team of nine who facilitate all of Southwest’s philanthropic distribution, which totaled $20.2 million in combined cash and in-kind donations during 2013. She is speaking at this year's confernece at Placemaking: Reimagining Public Spaces through Public Private Partnerships in the Corporate Impact track and What Makes a Community Inclusive? in the Community Development track.

The conference is over, but you can watch video highlights, including many of our keynote speeches

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