Wednesday, February 8, 2017

City lights and politics

On the occasion of Baltimore's 200th anniversary of the first gas street light the good old city street light was attributed yet another role, one rarely mentioned: The role of being a beacon of public-private partnerships. That is what James Smith, Chief of Strategic Alliances for Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, said at Tuesday's bicentennial ceremony near City hall where Baltimore's first gas street lamp still stands.
200th birthday: The streetlight (SUN photo)
Smith was alluding to the complicated relation that Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE) and the City have when it comes to street-lights.  BGE as a company actually goes back to the first streetlight as well as the company charged to provide a network of gas lines to feed the new technology of gas lamps and was called the Baltimore Gas and Light Company. So it is BGE's 200th anniversary as well this year, even though the good old municipal utility is long part of a national conglomerate called Exelon and has advanced from serving a few downtown streetlamps to serving over 650,000 gas customers and a million electric customers in the region.

But back to the streetlight: If a streetlight is out, and many seem to be out especially in Baltimore's poor neighborhoods, it isn't easy to decide whom to call and who is responsible for fixing it. In Baltimore only 10,000 of the 70,000 street lights are owned by the City and the rest is owned by BGE which has occasionally led to bickering instead of partnership, for example when it came to conversion of the lamps from metal halid or high pressure sodium to LED.
Light levels are said to be related to crime levels SUN photo)

To say that the relations are complicated may be an understatement when it comes to parsing out who owns what before a street light emits light: Its not only who owns the post and lamp but also who owns the power supply. In the City the answer is usually, the city owns a duct bank or conduit under the street and BGE owns the cable in it and all the switches, shut-offs and power stations from the power generation to the point of consumption. The electric juice inside could be sold by BGE but also by a number of others electric power suppliers that are competing in an open marketplace. But yes, it is a public-private partnership as the Mayor's strategist says.

That is an important point for the Mayor who has identified additional street lights as a crime fighting tool. This is in alignment with the guidelines provided by "Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design" (CPTED) and international organization devoted to what its name says. Baltimore police has long subscribed to the notion as well by placing mobile generator powered lights in high crime areas, a rather inelegant solution that blasts bright light into windows of the houses along those streets and stigmatizes a crime area in the same way as the blue flashing lights mounted to the tops of streetlights. Catherine Pugh imagines her safety initiative  less conspicuously as additional regular streetlights,
"I know there's been a promise of 6,000 new lights on the streets of Baltimore and I want to strategically decide where they will go on." (Pugh in a press conference on December 14, 2016)
One way to bring more light is the already noted conversion of the lamps to LED which turns in many cases the yellowish old sodium lamps in a much brighter white light that allows better identification of faces, colors and other details on the streets or sidewalks aside from saving electric energy.

The "cobra head" street light with high pressure
sodium lamp and monochrome light (photo: Philipsen)
But light, crime and public private partnerships isn't all there is to streetlights. Increasingly, they are also noted as important elements of the "smart city". As items of innovation just as Baltimore's first street light was in 1817 when it was the first gas light in America's urban streets. A smart light now is a place where data and information are collected, not only with cameras mounted to the poles, but also with sensors that can hear gun-shots (Baltimore police tested this already in some places) or sensors that can feel if someone is around and turn itself off or into a lower state of brightness if not. (The lights already have sensors that turn the lights on and off, depending on ambient daylight levels). Streetlights are also suitable as small cellphone towers or as places to distribute free WiFi. As such they can create more equity in access to information in neighborhoods where some students have to do their homework hanging out near their school walls to catch a WiFi signal since their parents don't have the money to buy Internet service for their home.

But more light isn't always good. At least that is what the Dark Sky advocates say who set out to reduce light pollution resulting in the increasing inability of seeing stars in the night sky, even on a clear night because city land suburban lights cast a bright glow over it. The modern street light is a "cut-off" fixture that casts its light more or less straight down and not into the sky or sideways like Baltimore's first gas light did it; but since the modern light has so much more oomph (lumens and footcandles) the light bounces back from the pavement and up it goes. Anyone who has looked down from an airplane window on a clear night can see how especially gas stations, shopping centers and ball-fields are so brightly lit that one can easily identify them even from 30,000 feet. In fact, night satellite photos from space reveal better than anything how much space sprawl and its twin, the streetlight. have devoured.
The retrofitted LED street light
with with a white light (photo: Philipsen)

Meanwhile, the streetlight as part of the electric grid  is as vulnerable as the entire grid. If the grid goes down, so do the lights and traffic signals. Only Baltimore's first streetlight on Holliday and Baltimore Street will still glow. It is still gas powered, and as such also a symbol of resilience.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA