The College of Idaho on Business

Scott Johnson: Downtown plazas, public markets, open space boost commerce

Director of The College of Idaho’s Business and Accounting DepartmentJanuary 15, 2014 

If you haven’t been to The College of Idaho in Caldwell, I recommend it as one of the nicest campuses I’ve ever experienced — even with winter frostings of snow and ice (or, perhaps because of it, depending on your perspective). New visitors and returning alumni consistently marvel at this surprising (re)discovery. It’s more than just a well-connected set of pathways framed by eclectic architecture and anchored by a clock tower sentry in its quadrangle. The campus provides a sense of place, beyond simple utility or function.

Our communities and businesses can play similar roles in helping to create a sense of place. Customers rarely make shopping choices based solely on physical layout or structural qualities of a building. What distinguishes places that you have enjoyed visiting — where you wanted to spend more time, and where you want to visit again?

Your memories likely involve sensory experiences. Does it evoke a smile to think of the lilting music you heard, or the fragrant aromas you breathed in, or the relaxing sight and sound effects of meandering water flowing between parklike riverbanks and capped by quaint bridges? For me, it could be the Thames or the Seine. But it could also be Indian Creek in Caldwell, or along the Boise River, or many other special places.

Now connect these places and memories and feelings with the experiences of shopping and dining, and the enjoyment of various services. That’s what effective use of open space integrated with business space can do: bring it all together with a sense of place.

Well-planned, coordinated spaces can be pathways to encourage and direct customer traffic flow more efficiently, havens to recharge energy for that next round of purchases, and social hubs to connect and reflect on shared experiences. Nature and nurture would take on new meaning in the case of personal care service providers enhanced by serving customers in a parklike setting.

Renowned development expert Roger Brooks, who shared his ideas in Caldwell last year and has helped to revitalize many business areas, extols the benefits of open space. In his view, public plazas and permanent year-round public markets are the top two downtown revitalization projects. He cites two key statistics:

• Property values in the three-block area surrounding public plazas nearly triple as a result of plaza development.

• Plazas have been shown to more than double retail sales in downtown areas.

For more details, search online for Roger Brooks and “Public Plazas: If You Build It, They Will Come.”

Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell commented on the impact of Post Office Park in that city:

“The business district used to be an unfathomable maze of streets and buildings without a center. The park provides that center, and all around it, as if by magic or magnetism, the whole downtown suddenly seems gathered in an orderly array. It’s as if the buildings were pulling up to the park like campers around a bonfire.”

So, how about a resolution for 2014 and beyond: Let’s consider open space as open for business.

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