Naperville Unwrapped (Part 1): The Downtown Naperville Experience

Note:  While focusing on the notions of “community” and “experience” in general, the first part of Naperville Unwrapped places a primary focus on Downtown Naperville.  On one hand, Downtown Naperville is the heart of our community and serves as the centerpiece.  On the other hand, the concert of elements which makes Downtown Naperville special serve as a strong example to leaders, business owners and residents of what can be and, in many cases, is being replicated throughout other areas of Naperville.  Looking toward Naperville’s future, I dream that the magic of downtown will continue to flow throughout the many other neighborhoods and townships which comprise our community in creating unique business/economic opportunities and living experiences which bring our senses alive with inspiration, creativity and imagination.   

What makes Downtown Naperville so special?

As Napervillians, we are asked this question often by family, friends and typically anyone  who discovers you live in Naperville.  We certainly have statistics and awards which can be quickly pointed to as well as a host of top notch community amenities.  However, at the end of the day these are surface “features” and do not reveal the depth and psychology behind what makes Naperville special.  To better understand The Naperville Experience, let’s start by deconstructing the pscyhology.

The Pscyhology of “Community”

Naperville is a great city because it embodies the notion of community on many levels.  The root word of “community” is commune.  To “commune” together with other human beings and with the surrounding environment, whether it be natural or constructed, is “to be in a state of intimate, heightened sensitivity and receptivity” (American Heritage Dictionary).  The act of communing with people, nature and/or physical places/things has the power to create feelings which can reach beyond the mind directly into the heart.  

When we commune, both our hearts and minds are highly attuned to the everything that is happening in that moment.  These momentary states of intimate, heightened sensitivity and receptivity serve as opportutnites to generate/reinforce positive feelings or negative feelings in an exponential way.  In the marketing world, we simply refer to this scenario as a moment of truth  because one’s perception of “truth” during this heightened state of awareness typically creates a strong and lasting positive, indifferent or negative impression.    

Within any communal environment, the individual engages the five senses in evaluating the experience.  The sum total of these combined sensory experiences determines how the individual is affected or, put another way, establishes the magnitude of affective association between the individual and the communal environment.  This process of sensory engagement generates what is more commonly referred to as the “experience” in which we measure the degree to which we feel connected to or comfortable with the people and environment around us.  Feelings and impressions created by any given experience can range from disgust (not good) to adrenaline-infused affection or inspiration (good).  In achieving the latter, there is a high potential for developing a strong bond or association between the individual and the overall communal environment which may yield a relationship.  Any relationship is built upon the individual’s ability to “relate” or “connect” with something on an internal and/or external level, whether it be a relationship with people, nature or a particular place/thing.

Examining the “Experience” 

So what creates the difference between an adrenaline-infused inspirational experience and a bad experience?  To better understand, let’s examine how the above factors culminate in either a good or bad experience. 

First, the overall experience is formed by the sum total of encounters, observations and interactions with the communal environment subjectively filtered through individual preferences registered by the five senses and, finally, measured by the heart and mind.  The ideal end product of a good experience is a positive and lasting impression leading to future engagement and loyalty. 

Depending on the subjective or personal preferences of the individual, each of the five senses are weighted depending upon which single or combination of sensory orientations are most important to an individual.  For instance, some people are “visual” or have a strong visual orientation.  To these individuals, particular shapes and forms featured in art or architecture appeal to their senses.  Here is a breakdown and examples of the five senses:

Hearing:  Audible sounds ranging from tone of voice, noise levels within a crowded space or genres of music to the tranquility of a rushing stream or quiet place.   

Sight:  Visual artifacts ranging from architecture and street textures to landscaping and natural space.

Smell:  Aromas ranging from flowers and fresh cut grass to freshly ground coffee and restaurants.

Taste:  Flavors stemming from particular types of foods, confections and beverages.

Touch:  Textures ranging to the feel of rushing water and soft grass to particular building materials and surfaces.  

Positive or negative impressions can arise from one or more of the subjective sensory experiences above based upon individual sensory orientation.  For instance, the elements of a great restaurant experience depends largely on the sensory orientation or preferences of the restaurant’s desired clientele.  Factors include cuisine (taste), space design and food presentation (visual), acoustics and noise levels (hearing), proximity of kitchen to dining area (smell) and table linens, glassware, flatware and seats (touch).  You might be wondering “what about customer service?”.  Positive service experiences involve multiple senses, from the tone of the waiter’s voice (hearing) to the embrace of a restaurant owner’s hug with a regular (touch).

When sensory experiences engage one or more of the five senses in appealing to the sensory orientation and preferences of the individual, the “experience” is born.  Moreover, when a particular communal environment offers a constant stream of positive sensory experiences, one after the other, the individual reaches a level of immersion which can yield feelings which reach toward euphoria.      

The Downtown Naperville Experience

By now you may have already begun applying the above psychological examination of “community”  and “experience” specifically to your own perceptions of Naperville.  Simply put, the Naperville experience immerses residents and visitors alike in a strong communal environment which engages and connects individuals of all sensory orientations.  Sensory experiences abound in Naperville.  To better understand, let’s examine a couple of examples:


As you explore Naperville, you quickly realize that you can easily immerse yourself in many types of sounds which appeal to the senses.  For instance, you can hear the lively activity of downtown Naperville including the sounds of Centennial Beach, the Carrilon, music at night, motorcycles, people laughing and communing with one another. 

At the same time, within moments you can retreat into the peaceful tranquility of the Riverwalk where the noise of downtown quickly fades into the sounds of nature including the rushing river waters, wildlife and seclusion. 


Naperville provides a highly interesting blend of architectural and natural settings as well as artistic form which are highly appealing to the eye. 

Architectural features include the historical authenticity of still functional structures as well as uniquely modern structures. 

In addition to the charm of Naperville’s covered bridges, downtown historical architectural examples include Jefferson Avenue which features the old city hall with it’s beautiful arch windows, presently occupied by La Sorella.  Other great examples include Centennial Beach which still carries its 1920s feel, the old mansion which occupies Meson Sabika and the grounds of Naper Settlement which creates perhaps the most unique visual experience of all, the ability to walk back in time through Naperville’s history amongst original structures and interiors.  , let’s not forget the historic home district just east of downtown as well.  The history and story of a community or business is often the strongest element in creating a unique and memorable experience which engages visitors, residents and customers alike.  For those that might disagree, I encourage to take a trip to France and explore the city of Paris.    

Perhaps the greatest challenge for any downtown is introducing modern architecture which blends and compliments existing architecture so as not to create unsettling contrast.  In my mind, examples which carry visual appeal in blending old with new is the Riverwalk, Main Street Promenade and Van Buren Place.  Beyond downtown, I would point to the 95th Street Library, Jefferson Estates and the English Rows development in South Naperville. 

Despite the fact there has been much controversy regarding new home construction, especially in the downtown area, over the past years, I must commend the vision and creativity of Naperville’s home developers in creating home designs which are both interesting and visually appealing.  Personally, as often as possible I try to make a point of driving into downtown via Jefferson Avenue from Ogden to enjoy the many examples of architecturally pleasing new home construction.  Change is often difficult and sometimes painful in any situation, especially for growing cities and towns; however, the yield , in most cases, ultimately produces good results.  At the same time, I will concede there are, unfortunately, some examples of new architecture which I wish could be erased and sent back to the drawing board.  To be kind, I will not state any examples.

Perhaps the biggest reason a city the size of Naperville can capture that small town feel is the abundance and variety of natural settings.  From a visual standpoint, natural settings provide a balanced contrast point in the sensory experience to keep the individual from becoming overwhlemed by any single visual element.  Equal amounts of sensory unrest can be experienced in either the congestion of a large urban city, such as Chicago, or the remote isolation of rural settings throughout other areas of Illinois.  Downtown Naperville provides a solid complimentary balance of visual orientation.  One can progress from the crowded streets of downtown to the Riverwalk, strolling along the moving river all the way to the western end of the Riverwalk which disappears into a dense wooded area.  It is this variety of visual stimulation which adds to the intense sensory experience.

Finally, artistic elements feed into the asthetic qualities of it all.  Downtown’s many sculptures, fountains and pieces of outdoor art stimulates and inspires the visual senses.  Such would explain the success of downtown summer arts exhibits, such as Chicago’s “Cows on Parade” and Naperville’s annual collection of painted animals and objects. 

In many ways, Downtown Naperville is like a large art canvass filled with a symmetical variety of textures and styles working under the overarching theme of “community” sprinkled with layers of authenticity.       


As soon as you arrive downtown, it doesn’t take long enliven your senses with a concert of aromas which meander freely through the air. 

The natural suspects are Naperville’s many downtown restaurants and food establishments which makes it difficult to isolate the precise origin of any of the many delicious aromas you encounter.  From grilling steaks and seafood to indulgent ice cream and fresh caramel corn, there is a sensory experience for everyone.  These aromas are an important cue in not only inducing hunger but also creating a satisfying level of the sensory experience. 

Beyond food, there are other cues which appeal to the sense of smell in the sensory experience.  Isn’t it interesting how a sense of history in original architecture is not only seen, but can also experienced in the distinctive smell of the building which can only be achieved over time.  

Given the contrast between architectural and natural settings in downtown, it’s great to experience the authentic fresh smell of grass, trees, floral landscaping and even the subtle fishy aroma of the river.

The Concentrated Experience

The intensity of the sensory experience of being in Downtown Naperville is largely achieved because the abudance of sensory elements which come together in a relatively concentrated area.  In other words, the individual need not venture far to capture the full range of inspiration which encompasses the Naperville Experience.  

Even more, these concentrated sensory experiences cater to all segments and age groups of residents and visitors alike.  Simply put, there is are special sensory experiences for everyone in Naperville, which is vital because in marketing the sense of “community”, you cannot ignore a single target audience.  With that said, even in Naperville, there is still room for improvement which will be addressed in an upcoming installment in my Naperville Unwrapped series.

The Economic Engine Behind the Naperville Experience

Clearly, it takes allot of money to build and maintain what Downtown Naperville is today.  Our community is truly endebted to the many visionary community and business leaders who have cultivated and continue to maintain modern-day Naperville.  In the oft referenced line from the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come“.  Naperville is no exception.  Not only have visitors and residents arrived in mass to embrace the Naperville Experience, they have been willing to pay the growing premium of embracing this community.  The reason we pay the premium is to remain close to the intense sensory experience we receive in return, which translates into a positive state of contentment.  As result, attraction and affluence continues to grow.

At the same time, Naperville must remain keenly aware and sensitive to the rapidly growing price tag so that the community and experience don’t become so overpriced that accessibility to the experience becomes cost prohibitive.  While the business world has often drawn a myriad of comparisons to the Disney World experience over the years, I think one comparison to Naperville holds true.  It’s no mystery that the intense sensory experience of Disney World comes at a premium, at times to the detriment of Disney’s theme park business.  At the same time, over the years, Disney has been smart enough to create appealing options for all household income ranges.  From resort levels and dining options to vacation packages.  As a result, Disney has been able to maintain its universal appeal while at the same time commanding a reasonable premium for all household income levels.

The comparative implications for the Naperville Experience, which also carries universal appeal, is the fear that we might price ourselves out the market which Naperville depends upon.  From an appropriate mix of restaurant and retail offerings to commercial and residential property value and taxes, we need to keep the universal and unique appeal of the Naperville Experience alive by ensuring affordable options for all income levels, whether it be visitors, residents or business investment.  

While times of prosperity give rise to elevated economic opportunity, we must be careful to not raise the bar so high that we lose the authentic universal appeal with the masses which could disapper leaving us in a position of struggling to sustain the overhead when the natural ebb and flow cycles of our economy start to fluctuate.

What Businesses Can Learn from the Naperville Experience   

Simply put, any type of business can apply the principles of the Naperville Experience to build its own unique sensory experience which not only appeals to a target customer base but also contributes to the overall the experience of “community”, which is a win-win. 

I will be addressing this subject at greater depth in the coming weeks; however, for now I challenge business owners, entreprenuers and dreamers out there to think in terms of their business or business concept in exploring the potential for connecting with customers via their five senses in creating your own uniquely memorable experience.  Perhaps as a starting point you might begin exploring the following question:


What is the ideal <<insert your business name or concept here>> experience I would like to create for my customer and my community?

Stay tuned for future installments of Naperville Unwrapped  The series will be archived under the Naperville Unwrapped category, which can be found on the righ-hand toolbar.  In the meantime, I strongly encourage comments and interactive participation in this series.  To comment, click below or feel free to send me an email at


2 responses to “Naperville Unwrapped (Part 1): The Downtown Naperville Experience

  1. I can only say that my experience with disney world has been more than satisfactory. Their customer servie is 1st class and the disney park is one place that once you enter, you simply do not want to leave !

    My husband and I will be visiting disney world again later this year, together with our 2 boys. We all agree that it is the best place to spend our well deserved holidays.

    Here come disneyland…

  2. Thanks for your comment June. As you may have deduced from my postings, I heartily agree. Given the world we live in these days, the mental escape and inspiration offered by Disney, to me, is far more beneficial than spending an entire vacation on the beach. Even more, to experiene WDW through my children’s eyes is priceless.

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