Good Night

A dazzling new era of metropolitan light.

Manhattan, ca. 1930, from a vintage postcard.

Great White Way

The lights of New York dazzled Vladimir Mayakovski when he came to visit in 1925. The revolutionary poet of modernism felt “a constant electrical breeze” in the great city, powering trains to the horizon and elevators to the stars, igniting the metropolitan elements; “the buildings are glowing with electricity,” he wrote. Bewitched, he stared hard into the dizzying views, his vision racing down the vanishing streets netted with wires and lights. 1 For Mayakovski, New York in the early 20th century was the frenzied heart of modernity, the new world metropolis where the self-conscious avant-garde aesthetic experiment of the old world was eclipsed by the unblinking gaze of blazing lamps, as if the white-hot heart of human consciousness itself were on display.

The invention of the infrastructures of artificial light, first gas, then electric, was as fundamental to modernization as was any system of transportation, communication or energy, and as momentous as urbanization itself. But for Mayakovski electric light was more than a technology of modernization; it pointed toward a certain kind of modernism, an emerging way of understanding and expressing the world. Mayakovski, along with such contemporary artists as Marcel Duchamp and Sergei Eisenstein, saw in electric lighting the end of one way of life and the advent of another. Self-mandated to see beyond the horizon, the poet, he wrote, was indebted to the harbingers of new life and, as result, always “paying out exorbitant fines and interest.” “I am in debt to Broadway’s dazzling streetlamps,” he declared, as he traveled in his eager search for emotional insolvency. Urban street lighting was, for Mayakovski, nothing less than a locus of modernism.

Modernism, of course, is notoriously difficult to define. It is at the least a confluence of countless experiments in art and in life, with roots that have spread across all the continents, propelling and inspiring diverse groups and a penchant for movement and fluidity, for questions that have only contingent answers. And so we might agree that electric light, in its motility and lability, was as homeless as any character from Joyce; as international as an émigré; as searching and disinterested as Ulrich in Musil’s unfinished novel; as visually splintered as a Cubist canvas; and often as optically dissonant as Schoenberg was atonal. For Vladimir Mayakovski, whose poetry was first published in a Futurist journal, it was not that electric light was itself a form of art. Rather, seen through the poet’s eyes, electric light decisively manifested what other arts could only evoke — a new vision calibrated to the technology and turbulence of modern society. If the modernity that artists sought to understand was characterized by incessant change, then electric light — acting at a distance, instantaneous, ubiquitous, evanescent — was modernity’s very medium.

Top: Times Square, New York, ca. 1920s. [Photograph via Skyscraper City] Bottom: Broadway, Los Angeles, ca. 1940s. [Photograph via Glamamor]

As such electric light could be understood as having the power to liberate the individual. Its glare colonized attention and through sheer concentration ripped through the fabric of ordinary perception to reveal something genuinely new. Just as a lens can focus the otherwise benevolent rays of the sun to set something aflame, so might the lights of an entire city overload vision to the point where it burst into new insights. At the same time, in pulling back nighttime’s mantle of darkness, artificial lighting doubled the duration of industrial production and enabled the instrumentalization of the other half of the diurnal cycle. Indeed, much of the motivation for improving urban lighting sprang from electric utilities that needed higher nighttime loads to use the capacity they had built up to meet skyrocketing daytime demand. In its redemptive potential as well as in its productive rationalization of the night, artificial lighting, city lighting in particular, rehearsed modernity’s essential tension between liberation and anomie.

But as the 20th century wore on, even electric modernism, with its corollary collapse of the celestial cycle of day and night, quickly became old news. Summoned at the flip of a switch for aims both noble and foul, and everything in between, electric light was all but banal by the time Mayakovski stared into its glare. Intense urban lighting might have been new to the visiting Russian, but by the 1920s the Illuminating Engineering Society was already two decades old, the U.S. grid was nearly complete and a bold plan to electrify the countryside was soon to begin. Indeed, many observers were already calling upon lighting engineers to turn down the dazzle that had transfixed the poet. Advocates of City Beautiful, for instance, were recommending that light be graded across the city, with the bright lights of downtown giving way to dimmer and warmer effects in residential neighborhoods. Where such ideas were put in place, the city as a whole exhibited diverse lighting that underscored its distinct parts. Had Mayakovski visited New York’s outer boroughs and suburbs, he might have witnessed clarifying contrasts with Broadway’s feverish glow, and a city with many districts operating at different visual intensities.

But if he had returned a quarter century later, around 1950, the poet would have seen an urban lighting landscape much altered — and not necessarily for the better. Overall he would have found the cityscape much brighter, and more evenly illuminated from edge to edge. The early 20th century had witnessed astonishing technological developments in electric lighting, including the commercial transition from arc to incandescent to gas discharge lamps; it had witnessed also the eclipse of private lighting schemes by municipal systems, and the gradual completion of national power grids. But by mid-century the pace of technological change had slowed. Developments such as gas discharge lamps, like mercury vapor, which were introduced commercially in the late 1930s, and metal halide lamps, from the 1960s, improved efficiencies over older lamps. Yet efficiency had its price: the new lamps, with their distinct color temperatures, also altered color perception. More important, the novelty and variation — even the dazzle — began to give way to an approach informed more by traffic engineering than by any aesthetic ideals of harmonious distinction.

Just as it altered every other element of urban form, the automobile came to dominate the relationship of lighting and the city. Increasingly, street lighting was configured to enhance the visual field of a driver; this meant less variation between diverse sources so that drivers’ eyes would not be taxed. More and more, light was used to brighten the road surface, rather than sidewalks, and all design factors that bear on street lighting — brightness and color, pole intervals and mounting height — were calibrated to the needs of vehicular traffic. As roads and cars snaked into the countryside and residential communities sprang up around them, the suburbs were similarly lit, since the driver’s needs had more to do with speed and safety than with environmental character. Soon the conceptual lens of the lighting engineer was informed mainly by traffic volume and speed; the city was perceived as a graded schema of traffic flows. The result was what we might describe as a new national luminous order. As the historian John Jakle described it: “In the nighttime city, functionality hinged on one dimension — automobility. Street lighting soon brought a profound sameness to nighttime seeing.” 2

Left: Edison lightbulb. [Photograph via Edison Muckers] Right: LED. [Image via Wikimedia]

New Urban Night

If the mid 20th century was, so to speak, a dark age for city lighting, the past two decades have seen staggering innovations in lighting design and technology — and entirely new ways of thinking about cities at night. The Edison bulb remained nearly unchanged for more than a century; today new sources and new controls appear one after another, the result of far-reaching experiments in materials science and photometry, and digitization more generally. Solid-state LEDs, the best-known new source of light, were little more than winking indicators when introduced in the 1960s. Today they are available on a large scale and in inventive formats, from large panels to flexible sheets. 3 New materials are extending the uses of LEDs even further; optical films, for example, once used mostly in flat-screen computer displays, are now appearing in LED fixtures that can direct light with greater precision than metallic reflectors ever could. Photometry, the science of measuring brightness, has made similar leaps. In fact, until the 1960s, it was difficult to establish international standards. This was partly because light sources themselves — which decay and throw out different color temperatures as they age — are volatile; and partly because human biology is complicated — the perceived brightness of a source entails the responsiveness of the entire visual cortex as much as it depends upon the amount of light entering the eye. But today technicians can pinpoint light nearly down to the photon and, equally important, they can measure responses to light at a neural level. 4 Taken together, these changes are enabling designers to investigate in ever-greater detail what is known as mesopic vision, that is, vision under mixed lighting conditions, in contrast to the even photopic lighting of broad daylight and the scotopic vision of near darkness. With the urban nightscape increasingly an amalgam of lower ambient lighting punctuated by glowing screens and episodic point sources, it is mesopic vision that characterizes the contemporary city.

Nowadays lighting controls are improving, too. The first fully electronic control system, which was developed for the Broadway show A Chorus Line, and which drew from advances in the U.S. space program, dates only to 1975. 5 And even then, most designers used controls only for interiors. Today, numerous municipalities, not to mention Broadway productions, employ sophisticated computer controls and remote sensors to operate their lighting systems. Leading-edge sensors allow streetlights to respond to ambient conditions such as changes in adjacent surfaces, or the accumulation of highly reflective snow, or the presence, even the gestures, of passersby — who in turn might soon be able to control lighting from smartphone applications. In another advance, differential controls can operate individual units even within vast arrays of lighting, allowing for practically infinite variation. Governments and large institutions have been developing these adaptive controls to enhance nighttime operations and conserve energy; now they are discovering other functional and aesthetic possibilities. The M65 in Lancashire, England, for example, was one of the first roadways to employ dynamic lighting, with illumination levels dropping as much as 50 percent when traffic decreased. In this instance, engineers measured not only light levels but also “ocular stress” in motorists, i.e., shifting degrees of electrical activity in the orbicularis, the large muscle surrounding the eye; adjustments to roadway lighting reduced such stresses nearly 25 percent. 6

On college campuses, too, recent installations have served to lower energy costs, enhance architectural features, and increase campus safety. The University of California, Davis, for instance, has become a leader in adaptive technologies, with lights that can vary in intensity in response to occupancy, time of day, weather conditions, and even the direction of pedestrians’ travel. Individual fixtures within the system can remotely report their energy usage and variation over time, and can then be reprogrammed wirelessly. In some cases lights can even respond to emergencies. The California Lighting Technology Center, established at Davis in 2003, now routinely consults with other colleges. Whole cities as well deploy sophisticated controls. Birmingham, England, has installed thousands of broad-spectrum LED lamps; with an even distribution of visible-light wavelengths, these lights use less energy, reduce light pollution and improve visual acuity, all at lowered brightness levels. Residents are pleased with the new system and report feeling safer at night. 7

Given the impressive new tools and technologies, the fast-evolving array of design elements, and rising awareness of the role of urban lighting, it’s not surprising that the lighting design profession is gaining new recognition. Some would argue this is long overdue: back in the 1930s, theatrical lighting designers — an incubator for the field — often went unnamed in program announcements. By the ’40s, in publications like Playbill, lighting designers were credited about 10 percent of the time, and it was not until the early 1960s that they would be admitted to the United Scenic Artists Union. In those years some of the most prominent architectural lighting designers — such as Abe Feder, Howard Brandston, and Basset Jones — started their careers in the theater. Today the field has expanded well beyond the stage; it is no exaggeration to claim that it is in the midst of a genuine renaissance. Leading designers and firms — including Light Collective, Light Cibles, Agence Concepto, ACT Lighting Design, Philips Lighting, Arup Lighting — now conceive entire cities as luminous canvases for creating effects that are simultaneously evocative, urbanistically sensible and environmentally responsible.

Lyons, France, during the Festival of Lights, December 2013. Lyons was the first city to implement a master lighting plan. [Photograph by Myrabella via Wikimedia]

The emerging smart city, a conurbation threaded by digital infrastructure, becomes more malleable and responsive when light is used as a component of making form and place. For instance, as cities seek to reposition themselves in the wake of suburbanization, deindustrialization and globalization, lighting has become a versatile means of adding amenity and meaning — for instance, improving orientation and developing visual motifs — to the nighttime environment. Since 1989, when Lyon, France, implemented the first urban lighting master plan, hundreds of cities have sought to create a varied yet coherent nightscape that encompasses streets, monuments, parks and playgrounds, as well as lighted advertising, and all within a responsible and sustainable framework. 8 Since 2004 Liège, Belgium, for example, has been following a lighting plan, prepared by Jean-Pierre Majot and Isabelle Corten, that aims to harmonize its location and topography — along the Meuse River and surrounded by hills — with its layers of religious and industrial history and with more recent development. Glasgow, Leipzig, Eindhoven, Chartes, and Gothenburg, to name only a few others, have likewise commissioned plans emphasizing cultural identity, art and sustainability.

The range of issues that designers now address is varied and inspiring. Security remains one of longstanding values of urban light. Since at least the 16th century — when ordinances were first issued in London and Paris requiring shops and homes to hang lanterns along street frontages to assure safe passage of pedestrians and vehicles and to keep them free of hazard and misconduct — it has been the most common and arguably most important rationale for city lighting. But today safety means more than mere brightness. Considerable experience and empirical study have established that security is as much a psychological condition as an actual deterrent to crime, and that bright light, if used incorrectly, can create stark shadows that mask multiple menaces. Providing pedestrians the opportunity to have an overview of a site, and thus to make long-range facial identification, has been shown to enhance their sense of security at night — which suggests that variations in lighting intensity should be gradual. Likewise, street lamps that are activated by the motions of passersby can also make us feel safer when walking alone at night. 9

Orientation and wayfinding — having a sense of where you are, knowing where you are going and how long it will take to get there — are also critical, and today go well beyond the provision of illuminated directional signs. As transit networks become increasingly complex — as they integrate bicycles, shuttles, trams, automobiles, railcars and pedestrians — lighting can help both to differentiate modes and to visually unify the systems. Total Lighting Solutions, in Vancouver, B.C., for example, developed the lighting for Canada Rail, a light-rail system with 16 stations designed by half as many architects and encompassing numerous settings. The lighting plan responds to diverse situations — from spacious to cramped, neoclassical to modern — with an elegant economy of equipment and a limited set of patterns for platforms, connectors, waiting areas, etc.

In the case of mobile and ephemeral urban elements, such as pop-up shops or temporary shelters, lights can establish counterpoints to surrounding fabric or set up transitory boundaries. Architects Neiheiser & Valle and Focus Lighting created endless vistas for the eyeglass designer Linda Farrow’s 2013 Christmas holiday pop-up shop in New York City, located inside a shipping container at West 15th Street near the Hudson River waterfront. In Madrid, soccer fans can summon a bus outfitted with lasers to temporarily project a playing field on to a plaza or empty lot. Although the scheme is a marketing ploy sponsored by Nike, the concept has potential for wider uses, including large-scale multi-player board games.

Top: Pont de l’Atlas, Liege, Belgium, lighting design by Jean-Pierre Majot and Isabelle Corten. [Photograph: Phillips] Bottom: Street with laser-generated playing field, part of the #MiPista campaign created by Nike, Madrid, Spain.

Neighborhood character and urban identity are profoundly shaped by light. Early in the 20th century, cities and towns from Aberdeen, South Dakota, to Mobile, Alabama, to Youngstown, Ohio, competed to become “the best lighted city in America” on the basis of bright lights downtown and, inevitably, a “Great White Way” modeled on Broadway in Manhattan. 10 A well-lit main street was as foundational to civic identity as a central green ringed by town hall and church, library and bank. Back then the goal was to compete with New York on its own terms; boosters in Los Angeles, for example, even argued that the wattage on their Broadway was the greatest if the calculation were made on a per capita basis. 11 The white way, in other words, was not only a specific place but also an urban type, a signifier of contemporary urbanity.

Today the goal of lighting design is often to differentiate one city from another, and not simply in terms of brightness. Just as an architectural landmark can become iconic — Sydney’s Opera House or Bilbao’s Guggenheim come to mind — so might illumination come to symbolize a city. The fulgent pulses that are now coiling the cables of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, for instance, have reconfigured the city’s nocturnal geography, giving the bridge a strong new presence — a counterpoint to the daytime fame of the Golden Gate. Leo Villareal’s Bay Lights, which went live in March 2103, and will be operational for only two years, reintroduce a structure that all but disappeared at dusk; and because its duration is limited, the project will also mark a moment in the city’s history. Similarly, the Tribute in Light to the fallen World Trade Center towers also marked a place, a time, a memory and an outlook that remain unique to New York.

Beyond highlighting individual structures, designers have developed schemes that accentuate the distinctive features of entire districts. Helsinki, for instance, enjoys (if that’s the word for it) an hour of sunlight during the dead of winter, and the Finns are fierce in deriving pleasure from the season. In the 1990s Ross De Alessi Lighting Design and Erkki Rousku created a master lighting plan for the downtown commercial district and several of its busiest streets. The plan replaced a mélange of lamps, brackets and poles with a flexible pole and luminaire that could throw light downward, to reflect off wide sidewalks, often glossy from melted snow, and also sideways, to brighten the continuous surface of neoclassical façades, and even upward, to illuminate trees. In this way diverse urban elements — sidewalk, roadway, architecture, landscape, decorative lighting — all cohere visually. The lamps resemble glowing snow cones and radiate a warm, almost friendly light; their inverted tear-drop profile looks almost provisional, liable any second to thaw. With street walls subtly washed by light, some lamps can be directed to highlight important or historic facades, with the result that major buildings punctuate the nighttime streetscape, and the street corridor is differentiated yet still unified. And, once seen, the overall urban effect is instantly recognizable; the lighting tells you that you are in Helsinki. 12

Top: Tribute in Light, New York, September 2011, 10th anniversary of 9/11. [Photograph: David Shankbone, via Wikimedia] Bottom: The Bay Lights, San Francisco, project by Leo Villareal for the Bay Bridge, test run, January 2013. [Photograph: Leo Villareal, via Wikimedia]

Other cities are similarly advancing plans to reconceive their nocturnal appearance. After seeing the benefits of its first lighting master plan, from 1997, Brussels is now implementing a new scheme. The Plan Lumière de la Région de Bruxelles-Capitale calls for a limited set of luminaires suitable for streets of varying historic character; greater visibility for river and parks — a “blue frame” and a “green frame” — and for major elevated rail lines; special lighting for landmark buildings and plazas; graduated illumination on high-rise towers, from soft pedestrian-friendly lights at the base to brighter lights where structures define the skyline; a “green corona” connecting diverse parks; and lighting for major events, such as the city’s periodic SOLTIS art festival. The lighting planners also recommend a four-part temporal cartography that recognizes the different activities of early evening, late evening, late night and pre-dawn hours.

Rietberg, Germany, a small city between Dusseldorf and Hanover, was recently recognized for its lighting master plan with a city.people.light award, an international competition sponsored by Philips and the Lighting Urban Community International. Developed by Jochen Meyer-Brandis and SMB Aachen, the plan identifies key urban features, including two main roads and their intersection, characteristic buildings and significant bridges, and a ring formed by the Ems River and its embankments. Each receives distinct types of LED lighting, which provide flexibility, color and energy savings. Residents were asked to offer input in the design process; as a result the designers embedded optical fibers in main roads and inserted special pavers between important destinations, with the goal of aiding the elderly and disabled and encouraging them to venture out in the evening. The entire project is coordinated with a Philips product (CityTouch) that facilitates remote control and management of equipment, allowing lights to gradually dim as traffic dies down, or altering patterns for special events.

In addition to creating, refining or emphasizing urban character and identity, lighting can have powerful material and economic effects. Just as the installation of streetlights in the 19th century routinely attracted greater investment to the newly lit area, so too has lighting become a means to revitalize distressed or underused areas. 13 In London, for example, the Southwark Council and the Cross River Partnership together launched the Light at the End of the Tunnel project more than a decade ago, with the goals of making the area’s viaducts and underpasses less forbidding and thus luring more residents and tourists across the Thames, while at the same time respecting the historic character of the infrastructure. Today the Clink Street tunnel, once a grim passageway, has become a minor destination, with nightly displays that respond to pedestrian density with animated geometric, biomorphic and fireworks shapes splayed across what is in effect a giant curving LED screen. Similarly, in 2006, the city of Rotterdam began an effort, involving direct public investment and arts-related projects, to revitalize Katendrecht, a run-down and often dangerous district near the port. For the Atjehstraat, designer Rudolf Teunissen of the firm Daglicht en Vorm produced Broken Light, an innovative scheme of 18 light poles that throw staccato patterns onto both the sidewalk and building facades. The engineering is adroit: the lamps illuminate the buildings but avoid shining directly into windows, and they dapple the sidewalks, while uniformly bathing the roadways. The proposal was so unusual that local residents watched closely over the design throughout its development and eagerly participated in the opening festivities.

Top: Rietberg, Germany, lighting design by Jochen Mayer-Brandis, winner of 2013 award. [Photograph via Phillips] Second: Clink Street tunnel, London, with lighting design by Halo Lighting. [Photograph via Urban Lightscapes] Third: Broken Light, night lighting in Rotterdam by Daglicht en Vorm. [Photograph by Hans Wilschut, Lightarchitecture, Rudolf Teunissen] Bottom: Open Air, project by Rafael Lozano-Hammer, commissioned for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway by the Philadelphia Association for Public Art. [Photograph:]

Social Light

Through their formal character and emphasis on public process, such projects influence what might be called the social character of a city, and lighting designers are now raising questions of social justice. In April 2011 a Social Light Movement was formally organized, complete with a manifesto; today SLM comprises an international confederation of designers — the founders include Sharon Stammers and Martin Lupton, partners in Light Collective; Erik Olsson and Jöran Linder of Olsson and Linder; Isabelle Corten, principal of Radiance 35; and Elettra Bordonaro, an architect and independent lighting designer — who argue that intelligent and creative lighting is a fundamental right rather than a privilege of wealth or status. The group seeks to use lighting not simply for security but also to spur improvements in disadvantaged areas or to integrate them more closely with economically vibrant ones. Current projects include training and lighting planning in Bamako and Timbuktu, in Mali; a nightwalk in the Mouraria district, in Lisbon; and workshops in the United Kingdom, Sweden and Belgium.

In these progressive projects, light becomes performative and participatory, convening residents or visitors around a compelling scene, making them aware of overlooked aspects of their neighborhood or newly awake to familiar places. Able to create form without scale, multifarious and indifferent to gravity, light can support dramas both intimate and spectacular. Open Air, an interactive light show held in Fall 2012 along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, duplicated the long vistas of the Parkway by extending beams of light into the night sky. But unlike the Parkway itself — the stately and static legacy of City Beautiful planning — the lights were controlled by viewers’ cellphones and responded to variables in their voices and GPS locations. Residents inured to the boulevard’s horizontal grandeur saw it reimagined as so many seams of light sweeping across the night sky. An SLM workshop in greater Stockholm sponsored a “Guerrilla Night,” during which residents of a dreary housing project re-acquainted themselves with their surroundings through projected light and glowing handheld hearts. A whole new field of guerrilla lighting has emerged, too, with flash-mobs wielding light grenades or sudden light graffiti attacks on a skyscraper executed from innocuous vans parked blocks away. With information and D.I.Y. tutorials on everything from LED-Throwies to Light Bombing events to L.A.S.E.R. tag, the art collective Graffiti Research Lab has become a clearinghouse for guerilla lighting tactics, and various politically motivated groups are deploying light projections to broadcast their messages at large scales, seemingly in violation of property rights yet with no outright vandalism. (Their techniques can be understood as democratizations of the public projects created by artist Krystof Wodiczko in the 1980s.) Occupy Wall Street, for instance, has spawned “The Illuminator,” a light projection van financed partly through Kickstarter.

Although ephemeral, such interventions can extend the tactics of participatory planning and community organizing. Local residents might be invited to test real-time full-scale lighting options and to suggest improvements, discerning subtle moods that might have escaped designers unfamiliar with routine patterns in a particular place. What might seem appropriate to a design team could look foreign to locals and vice versa since lighting — and urban experience — are not simply visual matters.

The synaesthetic city, once more theoretical conjecture than lived reality, is now a distinct possibility. Designers are discovering how to create what might be called neural short circuits that conjoin sensations traveling along distinct sensory channels into cohesive impressions of the surrounding environment. Sensitive controls allow lights to respond to minor changes in air pressure, for instance, so that ambient sounds can emerge in visual form. This technology is used in Silent Lights, a pathway beneath the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in Fort Greene, composed of a set of gates fitted with thousands of LEDs and microphones. Circuits within the gates transform ambient traffic noise into light patterns so that pedestrians can “see” the sounds that surround them. A dismal walk is thereby transformed into a pleasant passage — and in the process suggests new potential for countless places. 14

One can further imagine projects that use tiny cameras to track the movements of passersby and to render them in light rhythms along a wall or to project them in front of pedestrians, who would then see just one step ahead their own animated shadows. Water Light Graffiti, a panel developed by the French artist Antonin Fourneau while in residence at Digitalarti, lights up when sprayed, splashed or wiped with water. Installed in Poitiers in 2012, and now on tour, it conjures visions of entire networks of urban surfaces that illuminate when activated. Experiments with “visual music” in the 1920s, by figures such as Mary Hallock-Greenewalt and Thomas Wilfred, hinted at such synaesthetic and somatic experience; only now are these possibilities poised to enrich urban life. The city may well become a laboratory for sensory experimentation.

Top: Silent Lights, Fort Greene, Brooklyn. [Photograph via Urban Matter ]. Bottom: Water Light Graffiti, by Antonin Fourneau, installation in Poitiers, France. [Photograph via Water Light Graffiti]

Across all these projects there runs an abiding concern for sustainability, which is central to the enthusiasm for low-energy LEDs and adaptive controls on the part of everyone from Al Gore to Walmart. Lighting costs approach 50 percent of some municipal energy budgets — so the savings can be significant. By now hundreds of cities have installed LED lighting and seen energy costs drop significantly. New York City was a leader: in 2001 it became the first big city to replace incandescent traffic signals with LEDs, and since then it has cut energy costs by 81 percent. 15 In a study of more than 100 European cities, the average energy savings was 59 percent, with a range of 10 to 90 percent reductions. 16 The trend of switching to LED urban lighting will only increase, since efficiencies are increasing even as costs decrease. And the benefits go much further: lowered energy usage translates directly into lowered emissions of greenhouse gases. 17

As the world grows more wired for the widest range of human purposes, urban light has become nothing less than a powerfully visible dimension of a global technological infrastructure. Traveling along the same wires as other media, artificial light is poised to make the no-place of digital technology into the right-here-right-now of lived urban space. Today urban lighting is the flower of the power grid but it is also, or at least it can be, a specific node in that grid and a vibrant manifestation of otherwise hidden technologies. Light has the potential, more than ever, to write long and eloquent passages of the urban narrative. In this sense, recent advances recover what was lost during the decades when lighting design was dominated by automobility — that is, a sense of urban distinctiveness in the night. But this recovery is not nostalgic; the new urban night would not recreate a vanished visual sensibility so much as it would make possible sensory experiences utterly unique to the night and, at the same time, embedded in a particular place. Urban lighting asserts the possibilities of the collective, just as Vitruvius, in another time, imagined the simultaneous emergence of architecture and society as a circle of savages stepping into the light of a fire. In this context, urban lighting is a reminder of how unmistakably vital, nearly animate, the material world has become since the introduction of digital technologies. Light, the most immaterial of effects, makes the digital visible and in doing so confers the possibility that it can also become substantial.

Immersed in the media of our own time, we struggle to understand our world much as Mayakovski grappled with his. It is tempting to imagine what the poet would make of the new urban lighting — of scenes ranging from the boisterous media facades of Pudong, Shanghai, to the softly pulsing washes at Treasure Hill, Taipei. Light is still a metaphor for consciousness, but no longer the modernist consciousness Mayakovski discerned on Broadway. As a revolutionary, would he see in urban lighting today a liberatory political vista, or a particularly radiant yet nonetheless false consciousness? Would he view a technology geared to the subtleties of human perception as overly accommodating and thereby conducive to political complacency, or as a new kind of freedom from the stifling effects of global capital? Would he see, if not a new consciousness, then perhaps a new conscience, especially in efforts to make urban light inclusive, egalitarian, responsive, disruptive, environmentally responsible, community building and simply joyful? At the very least, he would surely acknowledge it to be a fresh means of understanding and expressing a rapidly changing world, a modernism of sorts. If dazzle and glare no longer suffice, to which streetlamps are we now in psychic debt?

  1. Excerpts from “Broadway,” [1925] Selected Poems (Northwestern University Press, 2013), 111-114.
  2. John Jakle, City Lights. Illuminating the American Night (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 256-257.
  3. LED’s merits are many, being more efficient than most other light sources and vastly more controllable. They are compact, durable and resistant to shock and temperature change. They are available in an exceptionally wide range of colors yet emit no ultraviolet or infrared light. With no toxic components, they are wholly recyclable and they fail only by gradually dimming rather than burning out all at once. To be sure, with most LEDs produced overseas, often under lax labor and environmental regulations, their full impact and embodied energy is hard to determine. Yet they are only the best-positioned light source for large-scale commercial uses currently and could themselves be replaced in coming years by OLED, PLED or plasma technologies.
  4. To cite one example of the difficulty of developing standards: the bluish light of mercury vapor lamps, with its relatively high frequency, was tricky to measure; as a result it was generally rated less bright than it appeared to the eye — which meant that lamp wattages were ratcheted higher so that the brightness would satisfy the means of measurement and, in turn, often seem brighter than necessary for the task at hand. See Duco Schreuder, “Visual Photometry,” Outdoor Lighting: Physics, Vision and Perception (Springer Science, 2008), 149-163.
  5. Marilyn Hoffman, “Lighting up Broadway,” The Christian Science Monitor, 75 (Dec. 7, 1982): 16
  6. Andy Collins,, “Dynamic Dimming: The Future of Motorway Lighting?” The Lighting Journal (Sept./Oct., 2002): 25-33.
  7. See also, European Commission, Lighting the Cities. Accelerating the Deployment of Innovative Lighting in European Cities, June 2013, Directorate-General Communications Networks, Contents & Technology, Photonics p.13
  8. LUCI (Lighting Urban Community International), a consortium of cities, corporations and design professionals founded a mere twelve years ago, also in Lyon, aims to enhance communication between lighting partners and to develop principles of best practices in urban lighting. There are dozens of similar organizations by now that likewise encourage discussion and intellectual exchange through advocacy, drafting guidelines, conducting competitions and administering awards programs.
  9. See, just as a start, K. Painter and D.P. Farrington, “Street Lighting and Crime: Diffusion of Benefits in the Stoke-on-Trent Project,” in K. Painter and N. Tilley, eds., Crime Prevention Studies (Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press, 1999), 47-76; Brandon Welsh and David Farrington, Making Public Places Safer: Surveillance and Crime Prevention (Oxford University Press, 2009); and Bonnie Grohe, “Measuring residents’ perceptions of defensible space compared to incidence of crime,” Risk Management 13 (February/April 2011): 43-61.
  10. S.G. Hibben, “The Growth of Ornamental Street Lighting,” Good Lighting 7:2 (April, 1912): 82-84.
  11. “Our ‘White Way,’” Los Angeles Times (Nov. 24, 1910): II4.
  12. Susan Tracey Stearns, “Helsinki’s Valley Of Light,” LD+A 30:9 (Sept., 2000): 44-49. Subsequent development proposals for the city similarly attend closely to lighting. A recent proposal to light a new residential district of Helsinki, along former oil docks, entailed a competition to assure the most innovative or appropriate plans. One of the winning schemes takes special advantage of the marine location by proposing lanterns along the waterside to multiply reflections. As elsewhere, LEDs will be used so that the color and brightness can change with the seasons and in relation to particular activities or events.
  13. Local businesses were nearly always in the forefront of lighting efforts before municipalities assumed a responsibility for public lighting. In Los Angeles, for example, the Broadway Boulevard Improvement Association, a consortium of merchants and property owners, was a primary advocate of downtown lighting. Discussed in Eddy Feldman, The Art of Street Lighting in Los Angeles (Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1972), 29-32.
  14. Silent Lights was designed and installed by Urban Matter, with support from a number of local groups and the Department of Transportation Urban Arts Program.
  15. Although initial costs are higher for LEDs, savings also accrue due to lowered maintenance since LEDs last two to three times longer than incandescent or discharge lamp technologies. See New York City Department of Transportation, “Green Light. Sustainable Street Lighting for NYC,” (2009). Future plans for New York are described in “Sustainable Streets: 2013 and Beyond,” (2013).
  16. Institute for Energy and Transport, Joint Research Centre, European Commission, “Led Projects And Economic Test Cases In Europe,” EUR Report # 25352EN (2012). The study also looked at lighting for commercial interiors.
  17. The Climate Group, “Lighting the Clean Revolution. The Rise of LEDs and What it Means for Cities,” (June, 2012). The Climate Group is a non-profit consortium of industry and academia that works with numerous governments to help guide environmentally sound practices. “Lighting the Clean Revolution” was sponsored by Philips. Designers, likewise, are voluntarily adopting certification programs, like LEED, and specifying “Dark Sky Complaint” luminaires that aim to reduce light pollution.
Sandy Isenstadt, “Good Night,” Places Journal, April 2014. Accessed 05 Jun 2023.

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