Anyone who has wandered around at night can’t help but notice the contrast between an effective, but decoratively lit heritage area and generic suburbs with streetlamps flooding streets in a sickly orange haze.
Some of this is legacy, old lamps not being replaced, but mainly due to a lack of policies that actively improve the appearance of the urban landscape at night.
A report by the think tank, the Centre for London has taken a look at how London’s street lights are planned and calls for there to be more thought given to how street lighting is planned in future.
The advent of modern LED lights and the actions of councils to replace old lights with newer lower energy bulbs offers a unique opportunity to rethink how the city is illuminated at night. Not just to make it safe, but appealing in its own right.
New lighting also offers the opportunity to improve the night sky, by reducing the amount of light needlessly beaming into the sky and hiding nature’s own lighting system, the stars. Not just the bulbs and fittings, but also ensuring that bright downlighters aren’t so bright that they reflect much of their illumination off the pavement and back into the sky.
A lot of this is simple to implement, but requires more work by councils to coordinate plans so that it is implemented.
An example that has often struck me, mainly by not being struck by them when walking around the City of London is how few lampposts there are in the City. Have you ever noticed that they’re almost non-existent? That’s because most of the street lighting is mounted on the buildings. More space for pedestrians, a cleaner pavement space, and downlighting reflecting off walls usually looks more decorative than big bulbs on poles.
Take it one step further and rather than simple wall-mounted lamps, turn the street lighting into decoration as well. Highlight the parts of buildings that can be highlighted, and rather than a street of reasonably uniform lumens lighting up everything.
I live in an estate of old buildings, many of which have decorative lighting mounted on them — and we have street lighting that almost obscures the effect. How much nicer to replace the garish sodium lamps with something more carefully thought out so that there can be better lighting.
Street safety would be improved not diminished by replacing these orange floodlights with, for example, ground-level lamps that illuminate the spaces behind bushes and recesses in doorways.
And it’ll look nicer as well.
One of the best times, I think, to photograph an urban area is twilight, when the lights are coming on, but you can still see the details of the buildings. Once the sun has set, the urban landscape is nothing more than dark shadows framing blocks of glowing windows. All the decoration has gone. How much more wonderful it would be to start looking at the decoration on the walls of buildings as something to be shared at night as much as during the day. Swap a few of the streetlamps outside the building with an equal but so much more enjoyable amount of lighting on the building.
The wonders we could see, as buildings come alive at night with whole new perspectives on their facades, and wandering the streets at night would be a delight of discoveries.
Not just the urban core, but suburbs would be so much more interesting and feel safer if bland floodlighting was replaced with more strategic lights. At the moment, a suburban street often feels like an orange canyon between unwelcoming houses with closed curtains, and yet it could be a space that’s had the lighting used to accentuate the key elements such as bus stops and junctions, destroy the hiding spaces, and make the suburb more welcoming.
Aside from street lights, there’s commercial lighting to deal with. Offices that are clearly not in use with lighting flooding out of the floor to ceiling windows and shops advertising to customers who are tucked up in bed. Obviously, some lighting is needed for internal security, but walking around some shopping areas at night requires sunglasses.
And it’s not decorative, just a shabby security guard.
I used to work in retail stores and we used to be clever with our security lighting We focused just a few spotlights inside the shop on sales signs and key areas to promote, so that it was still secure, functioning as a sales tool, and in its way, quite decorative.
Improving the way streets are lit at night can be done, is usually remarkably cheap to achieve, and with the ongoing swapping of lights for LEDs, this is an exceptional time to improve the whole urban nightscape.
As the Centre for London report notes, London is largely missing out on these opportunities because it lacks a city-wide strategic approach to lighting and good design principles are often ignored. Only two of London’s 33 local authorities even have a lighting strategy.
If councils gave more thought to how lighting is delivered beyond simply siting a pole in the pavement, more people would feel safer walking around at night, and would want to walk around at night.
The full report is here.
Addendum – after I wrote this article, but before it was published, Harringay council announced plans to replace 18,600 streetlights. I wonder if they will read the Centre for London report first.