BOISE — A new main library in Boise would bring more books and expanded programming to downtown, and city officials also hope it will improve public health.
As part of the contract with renowned architect Moshe Safdie to design the proposed $85 million library, city staff commissioned an extensive study to determine how the new library could be designed to make Boiseans healthier, physically and mentally. The first stage of the study included suggestions on transportation, how to keep visitors and staff active while at the library and how to be as accommodating to those experiencing homelessness. The second phase of the project is beginning, and will focus more on interior spaces and programming.
The study, completed by Boise-based Vitruvian Planning, also looked at the region’s health priorities and which neighborhoods were most in need of services. Several aspects of health reviewed found downtown had some of the highest concentrations of overweight residents, low-income residents without health insurance and residents in need of mental health services. Other neighborhoods identified as in need were the Central Bench, which is served by the Hillcrest Library Branch, and the West Valley Neighborhood in west Boise.
The cost of the study was included with the city’s nearly $12 million contract with Safdie, so city officials could not provide an exact number.
Because of the library’s location near low-income neighborhoods and in the public transportation network, planners said the project “offers an opportunity to help maximize the potential for health improvement on the site.”
Suggestions include ample shaded bike parking near main entrances and covered bus shelters to make the area easily accessible by public transit, as well as including on-site parking for seniors and those with disabilities instead of having them park in the planned garage across the street. The consultants emphasized the importance of having standing desks to reduce long periods of sitting for staff and visitors.
The report identified Boise’s 28% obesity rate as a concern, and pointed out several ways this can be addressed with the library design. The entire project should be built to encourage able-bodied residents to walk, climb stairs or bike to the library. If people feel safe riding their bikes to the library, the report said, they’re more likely to choose that option and get some exercise.
“Streets designed for people without cars is a must,” the report said. “… From a bicyclist perspective, protected bicycle facilities that attract all riders at all times is a must or conflicts will occur from riders choosing to ride on sidewalks instead.”
It also encouraged the designers to build the library’s interior with long, wide-open spaces that encourage residents to explore and take the stairs.
“Placing elevators in more obscure areas and instead making staircases that are exciting and maybe even interactive, would be ideal,” it said.
Physical health is not the only priority identified in the report. It said roughly 16% of Boiseans have experienced at least one week of bad mental health days out of every month, which is above the rate for Idaho as a whole.
To help with this, the consultants suggest the area should be as tied in with the natural surroundings of the Boise River and greenbelt as much as possible, as well as have natural light for offices and meeting rooms. On top of these designs, an important role of the library is to provide internet access and a place for low-income residents to connect with social programs.
The Boise Public Library staff are already taking steps to help residents experiencing homelessness. The study for the new library suggests having areas for visitors to store their belongings, along with an open-floor plan without areas to “dwell out of sight.”
Vitruvian Planning staff spent considerable time observing the current Boise main library, and visiting the Salt Lake City main library designed by Safdie and the Bozeman main library in Montana.
This study is part of a wider effort pushed by Boise City Council to study how large projects can be designed with public health in mind, instead of being added later. A similar study was conducted on a smaller scale when the city built a new branch library at Bown Crossing in 2017.
City Council President Pro Tem Elaine Clegg said the goal was to make any infrastructure investment as helpful to residents in as many ways as possible.
“It’s really important when you build public buildings you’ve got public health in mind and not just the exact use of the building,” she said. “There’s a lot you can do with design that can be used to improve public health if you think about it from the beginning.”