Monday, April 16, 2018

Light as an equity issue

What better time  to think about light than the week of Light City Baltimore? Like much that is taken for granted, upon further inspection, the matter of light is complex whether one looks at it as a basic urban amenity in the streets, or as an accessory to highlight or brand buildings or as a tool of interior design for homes. Much is counter-intuitive, for example that one may see better with less light or that the brighter and whiter lamps of the latest generation use less energy than their dimmer but warmer predecessors. Light is frequently still considered a sign of affluence, certainly of consumerism (Times Square is ground zero for both) but in reality better off neighborhoods tend to be dimmer than those suspected of high crime. Few think of light in terms of equity, and those who do consider the number of broken street lights or the brightness in the street, not the quality of light and how comfortable and inviting it makes a neighborhood at night.
New York City Street at night (Guardian)

Simplistic thinking postulates that crime thrives in darkness and that bright lights are therefore a solution to combat it. Baltimore, deep in the trenches of crime fighting, has long deployed light as a weapon against crime and has flooded crime hot spots with mobile lights bathing whole blocks as if they were movie sets or as if the block had been pulled over and the squad car was now blasting all available lights.

The mayor has determined that certain streets in disinvested communities were too dark and campaigned on thousands additional street lights equipped with bright LED instead of the yellow high pressure sodium "cobra head" street lights that were common for at least 50 years. It has never been easier, cheaper and more enticing to install bright lights. Like with all new technology, there is a tendency to overdo it. Just as wider streets are not necessarily safer, nor a brighter streets. Unintended consequences lurk at every junction: Is it really progress to make the vulnerable neighborhoods as bright as an operating room while the posher neighborhoods savor their darkness with cozy gas lantern replicas? Is it progress when people can't sleep in their street facing bedrooms because misdirected bluish white light messes with their circadian cycle?
The depressing dark hulls of vacant rowhouses

The more technology advances, the more complicated becomes the task of lighting a street, a plaza, a building or a room because of all the choices. Smart lights are programmed to adjust to ambient light and conditions or to how much light is needed depending on activity levels. One of the beaties of natural light (daylight) is its natural variation even in areas where there is hardly a cloud. Morning light is different than light at noon or at sunset. Clouds, of course modify light even further. So far electric light is nowhere near to produce such variation or range of "moods".

 Since lighting can be so much more than it used to be, it is time to consider light as an important design tool and not only as a basic matter of functionality with a binary setting of on and off. Nor is more lighting always better lighting. As anybody flying over the east coast on a clear night can attest, lights have become so bright that it is no problem at all to see them from six miles up. Too much light can be blinding, can make a place feel uncomfortable, can mess with the sleep of people and animals, can distract birds and block the view of the universe. The beauty of a starry night with millions of stars visible with the naked eye has become the privilege of ever fewer people simply because over illuminated gas stations cast their glare for miles.

Different people have amazingly different views of what light makes them feel comfortable. While most people used to having electricity around prefer warmer tones, folks in developing countries where electricity is still novel prefer bright fluorescents. Many Baltimoreans miss the warmer glow of the holiday decorations at the Washington Monument after they were replaced by bright LEDs which can change their colors, but limited to early LED technology, remain in the "cold" range of colors.

The correlation between crime and light is tenuous, correlation doesn't prove causation. Bad lighting can have the opposite effect if it creates glare. Everybody knows the movie cliche when the bright light is directed at the defendant in an interrogation. Savy negotiators know not to place themselves facing the window because they can't see their counterpart's face.
Art installation: Lights inside of vacants (Upstate New York)

Just as too much light can blind, less light can enhance night vision, a somewhat counter-intuitive effect. The natural ability of humans to see in the dark through the gradual dilation of the pupils is blocked by bright light sources, even if they are in the periphery of the field of vision. Bad basket ball court lighting or poorly positioned lights on ski slopes can make exercising the respective sport nearly impossible. Car headlights have become brighter and brighter over time, a vicious cycle, because those blinding lights of  oncoming cars require your own headlights to be bright as day for you to see once the oncoming car has passed.

Far beyond those practical matters, because light can also change emotion and well being it is worh exploring the direct but puzzling relation between emotion, light and the eye's pupil.
For more than a century scientists have known that our eyes' pupils  respond to more than changes in light. They also betray mental and emotional commotion. In fact, pupil dilation correlates with arousal so consistently that researchers use pupil size, or pupillometry, to investigate a wide range of psychological phenomena. (Scientific American)
Even though the scientific correlation between emotion and light remains largely unknown, retailers have long used light to make their stores look "just right". The discounters bright fluorescent ceiling lights are replaced by properly installed specialty lighting in more expensive stores which make the goods look attractive and give the consumer the sense that the goods (and by extensions, they the customers) are precious.
From a psychological point of view, talking about the light is like plunging into the depths of the psyche, but also dealing with the limits and possibilities of the perceptive skills, natural equipment of the human psychophysical apparatus, influencing our health and wellness throughout the life (The Psychology of Light)
the warm glow of historic districts is more convincing
than brightness would be
Even though people generally yearn for the brighter days after long winter nights, and even though humans have a long history of expelling darkness through light, illumination needs to be much more than making the night an extension of the day. Nature doesn't work that way and neither do humans. Architects, lighting designers and the consumers themselves need to take some advice from the book: Dark Matters, a Manifesto for the Nocturnal City

So before unplugging all those dimmer lights in the streets and homes and unscrewing every bulb in every room to be replaced with light emitting diodes (LED), its worth considering truly desirable outcomes to avoid the bad results of thoughtless lighting.

As for safety in neighborhoods, it should be less about brightness and more about community pride and identification. The best contribution to safety comes from residents who identify with their community.

A committee of Senator Shirley Nathan Pulliam's Social Determinants of Health Task Force which is now officially legislated through bill SB 444 is looking to improve health in vulnerable communities through lighting. This seemed really far fetched even to the committee members themselves until they looked at an initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation tested in Washington State in which not the street lights but the private ones at the front doors of houses were the target. With a few funds neighbors were enabled to fix broken bulbs and lights to brighten up the side-walks leading to a marked uptick on how residents rated their own security and community.  In that program those individual front lights would still be missing on vacant buildings, though, a major problem for Baltimore.

The dark hulls of those vacants depress the minds (and health) of their neighbors in many ways, lighting or the lack of it is only one concern. But there is a model program for this problem as well. An artists' campaign of putting lights into the windows of vacant buildings in upstate New York not only shed a light on the problem of abandonment but also let the affected neighborhoods shine in a new light.  Even though temporary, through feeling valued, it did a lot more for the residents than those mobile lights Baltimore employs for crime prevention. Or as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation discovered, by donating money to give people the resources to install front door lights: To heal a community, build capacity. As for creative ways of using light as a way to make better places, Light City Baltimore can provide ideas.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Let there be night! Metropolis Magazine, 4/2018
Breathing Lights, NY

Related on this blog:

What are the light innovations in Baltimore?

Celebrating light in dark times - "Light City Baltimore"

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