Chapter 3: Recommendations: What needs to change?

Seeing clearly: How lighting can make London a better city

Chapter 3: Recommendations: What needs to change?

In the foregoing we have explored the wide range of benefits that come with taking a more considered approach to lighting – and the opportunities that the city has missed out on. In this chapter we set out recommendations to make London one of the best-lit cities in the world. To recover from the COVID-19 crisis, we will need to encourage Londoners to make use of their city at night again – so we must use every possible measure to improve their experiences of the city in the darker hours.

The good news is that the needs of the city at night-time are being taken more seriously. The Night Czar, the Night Time Commission of 2019 and the Women’s Night Safety Charter have all played a role in developing policy that improves the night-time experience, including lighting. The Night Time Commission also encouraged local authorities to think more about these issues in its Think Night report, which called for all boroughs to put Night Time Plans in place.

Guidance and standards

The Mayor has recently published detailed guidance for boroughs on both how to develop night time strategies and how to encourage the recovery of nightlife after the COVID-19 crisis. In both documents, the role of understanding the public realm and making it more welcoming, safe and navigable after dark is central. Lighting has a key role to play in achieving this.

Developing a comprehensive lighting strategy to sit alongside broader night-time strategies makes sense, as there is significant overlap between these processes. Understanding the current and potential users of an area at night is necessary to develop a good lighting strategy, and there is an opportunity to align both concerns. Once a borough has a lighting strategy in place, it should shape the direct provision of municipal lighting – but crucially, a strategy can also become the basis of supplementary planning documents that shape how private illumination works.

Local authority budgets have been severely reduced by austerity and the recent recession. But aside from the benefits highlighted in Chapter 1, a strategic approach to lighting is an investment that could deliver savings in the long term. For example, in creating its lighting strategy, the City of London identified that up to 20 per cent of its lighting fixtures were redundant, and halved its energy costs for street lighting. 53

Developing a lighting strategy does not need to be a costly exercise. Boroughs could also choose to develop a strategy jointly with others, or with support from existing partnerships, such as Cross River Partnership. When doing so, boroughs should appoint a Lighting Board to bring stakeholders around the table and foster the multidisciplinary approach that lighting requires.

London boroughs should:

  • Develop lighting strategies, with the Mayor providing guidance on how to do so. The City of London’s lighting strategy is very much an exemplar here, as is the recently released lighting strategy for the Royal Docks.

The strategic approach to lighting in the city would be improved by amending a number of complementary guidance and standards documents that practitioners currently use in their work. Embedding good lighting principles in highways design is key.

Similarly, the “Environmental Zones” set out in guidance from the Institution of Lighting Professionals could offer practitioners more detail on how to adapt lighting to local environments – which currently aren’t covered by the broad typologies.

The Mayor of London should provide:

  • A framework that boroughs can build on to develop their lighting strategies (including who they should be engaging, and desirable outcomes).
  • Supplementary Planning Guidance setting out how light should be treated in new developments and public realm improvements.

The Department for Transport should:

  • Incorporate good lighting principles based on urban legibility for pedestrians in its new Manual for Streets.

The Institution of Lighting Professionals should:

  • Create guidelines for a more nuanced typology of places, based on evidence that includes collaborative design workshops with members of the public.

The design process

Making changes to lighting practice is not just a matter of guidance documents and official standards, however. Improving practice on the ground will require giving greater attention to lighting in urban development throughout the whole design process – from definition and briefing through to use. This should include evaluating the actual use of a space before designing lighting for it. Centring lighting as a key part of design and development also means treating lighting designers as key members of multidisciplinary design teams.

Developers should:

  • Base their lighting interventions on evidence of existing lighting and social conditions. Place audit tools for night-time design can be a useful aid, but public participation should also be incorporated into qualitative research using proven methods such as night walks.

Developers and architects should:

  • Engage lighting designers as early as possible in the design process.

Design Review Panels should:

  • Ensure they consider lighting plans when assessing development projects.


Achieving widespread recognition of the importance of lighting will require a step change in professional and public opinion. Training should be offered to non-specialists to enable this.

Learning about lighting should not be limited to professionals, however. Community groups and civil society should be involved in the public debate, with pilot events and projects used as a forum for participation and knowledge exchange. This could be via individual schemes, or at a larger scale, through one-off events used to stimulate a public discussion through a shared experience.

Educational programmes for built environment professionals should:

  • Upskill on lighting. This should occur in collaboration with bodies like Urban Design London or New London Architecture, or specialist professional societies like the Institution of Lighting Professionals and the London Lighting Engineers Group.

The Mayor of London should:

  • Create a hub for lighting resources. A publicly accessible library with examples of good (and poor) lighting would help bring knowledge of the field into the mainstream.

Boroughs should:

  • Pilot events where lights are dimmed or switched off as a way to create a public conversation about light – possibly aligned with Earth Day or Car Free Day.

Managing light

Good lighting across a complex urban environment requires coordination. Ensuring that there are groups or individuals who can mediate between different sources of lighting is crucial.

As we have set out previously, there are currently limited ways for residents to have a say in how their area is lit. Offering community groups the chance to define and plan for schemes locally would address this issue in a way that complements local authority duties. But empowering residents to make a meaningful impact on their local area often means providing resources for their projects.

Existing town centre partnerships or BIDs should:

  • Act as lighting “owners” and take responsibility for coordinating lighting across public and private sectors. In areas with a less diverse mix of light sources – typically residential areas – this role could be played by community or residents’ groups.
  • In residential settings, resources should be made available for residents’ or community groups to bid for funding to carry out lighting improvements, with professional support offered as part of the package.

Site-specific ideas

Some current programmes and schemes represent an opportunity to improve lighting practice across the city. Heritage Action Zones are a programme aimed at high street regeneration with dedicated funding for public realm improvement works. This is an opportunity to capitalise on.

Government and Historic England should:

  • Include sensitive lighting schemes as part of high street regeneration funds, such as Heritage Action Zones.

In recent years local authorities have upgraded many of their lighting assets to LEDs, and are unlikely to invest again until the current infrastructure is nearing the end of its life cycle. However, some local authorities are now looking at another substantial presence of municipal lighting – that on housing estates. This represents an opportunity to upskill local authorities on lighting practice while also improving the quality of lighting in historically poorly lit areas. Ensuring this is well executed will require specialist input.

Local authorities and housing associations should:

  • Engage specialist lighting designers at an early stage when considering upgrades to the lighting in their housing estates.

This report has shown how important lighting is to our experience of the city after dark. It can alter our mood, change our feelings towards a neighbourhood or a building, influence where we choose to spend time, and even determine whether we can participate in city life equally. We have also shown how lighting can have a profound and fundamental impact on the natural world and the environment. Yet curiously, it is an issue that has been overlooked for many years.

In response, we have identified relatively modest changes in policy and practice that would hugely improve the quality of London’s lighting. These would also support economic, civic and cultural activity that will help London recover from the COVID-19 crisis. Now is the right time to begin making London a more sustainable, equitable and liveable place after dark.

Case Study: Rotherhithe Illuminated!

A group of Rotherhithe residents have worked to highlight the maritime history of the neighbourhood. The group felt that despite the area’s rich heritage, it was invisible after dark, particularly from the river, and they worked up a project to address this. Their plans include illuminating specific details of five heritage buildings, including the church spire and clocks, the Thames Tunnel Mills chimney and the figurines on the Old School House, as well as soft lighting in the trees in a nearby public riverside space.

The group has been working with a team of conservation architects and lighting designers. The night-time audit of the existing public lighting in the area found that it was often provided in excess and not always in the right places. This audit was used to inform the lighting design for the participating buildings. The group organised public meetings to demonstrate the proposals and two trials of the proposed lighting scheme. A small minority of people had concerns that the lighting would be intrusive, but according to project leaders the public lighting trials changed the minds of those residents who were sceptical:

“It was magical to reveal architectural details you wouldn’t see otherwise on the church spire and clocks and the Thames Tunnel Mills chimney. If you highlight something of interest, it creates more interest in the locality and more people want to be involved in local heritage.”

“A couple of people in the community thought that we would be turning Rotherhithe into Disneyland. Some people still think of lighting as floodlights. But modern technology allows you to install subtle lighting which consumes very little energy and which complements the local surroundings.”

The feasibility study was made possible thanks to crowdfunding via Spacehive and a £20,000 contribution from the Mayor of London. The group is fundraising for the installation of the lighting scheme, and several major river-based corporate stakeholders have donated generously. As part of the installation process agreements on maintenance and associated costs will be negotiated with the building owners.

Further discussions with the London Borough of Southwark are under way to adjust the public lighting in the area, so that it can be tailored to complement the aesthetic lighting on the participating buildings. Project leaders believe that this will reinforce the local heritage and make the public realm more pleasurable and inviting, and that it will promote wellbeing and pride of place.


  • 53 Interview with City of London Corporation.