The case for more humane lighting of city streets

A paper presented to the National Pedestrian Conference, Washington, D.C., September 5, 1997

By Alfred Holden

I'm glad to have been invited here to discuss so pedestrian a topic as street lighting. Thanks for the introduction, which by the way corrects a small error on some of your programs. I'm a reporter, not a professor, actually right now a copy editor, though I also write a column about urban design.

So I don't teach, but I do try to get people to think, and even from time to time try to influence what they think.

I came to city light via journalism, covering city hall, and decided at some point that it was an important issue nobody was much considering. I lived in a city that, by a bit of a fluke, was beautifully lit, and a pleasure to walk around in at night. I eventually figured out that fine light was part of this pleasure, and got involved in efforts to preserve it.

This has been an uphill battle. Though light is all around us, to most people it's only something there in the background, its effects uncertain and abstract, seldom considered consciously. Apathy and ignorance and to some extent fear have led to an appalling situation where ever-larger quantities of light are being called upon to solve every kind of urban and suburban problem imaginable. The resulting light pollution of the night sky, the creation of glaring, unwelcoming, even frightening streetscapes, and the theft of pleasant, attractive neighbourhood and shopping environments has, I believe, contributed to alienation and attitude shifts that have hurt the public realm.