Seeing clearly: How lighting can make London a better city



As Night Czar, I work to ensure London thrives when the lights go on. London is a 24-hour city and lighting makes that possible. Without it, our city would grind to a halt. London’s 1.6 million night workers could not travel safely and confidently to their jobs. Our supermarket shelves would soon empty, hospitals would shut down after dark and global trade, culture and creativity would wither. Lighting is essential. But are we using the right kind of light in the right places?

Lighting can create welcoming, relaxing, thrilling or beautiful public spaces. It can help local communities and economies to thrive, making the difference between a high street feeling festive – or frightening – at night. Modern, affordable lighting allows us to reimagine our city at night. We can use it to celebrate the art, nature and architecture that we pass by without noticing in the day. The Mayor’s new Night Time Strategy guidance includes dozens of inspiring examples of good lighting.

Lighting is a powerful tool but it is often overlooked or misunderstood. This report poses the vital questions: What is happening in our city after dark? Who is out and about, and why? Does our lighting help or hinder those people and London’s economy? The report also reveals the ad-hoc way in which much lighting has developed, with competing sources of private and public light, and little coordination.

Across London tens of thousands of people make decisions about lighting every day. The manager who turns the shop lights on, the developer creating a neighbourhood lighting scheme, the local authority lighting engineer purchasing new lampposts for the high street: these are the people who create London’s nightscape.

My challenge to everyone who lights London is to join forces and work in partnership. Lighting gives us a unique opportunity to create places where we all feel welcome and included after dark. Let’s harness that force and put us – the users of light – at the heart of night-time planning. And as this report shows, the benefits for the environment, the wellbeing of Londoners, and the recovery of London’s businesses from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic are waiting to be seized.

Amy Lamé, Night Czar


The aim of this report is to stimulate public debate about how London is currently lit. Our capital has the potential to be one of the best-lit cities in the world, yet for a mix of reasons, it hasn’t treated lighting as a priority. This is despite growing evidence of the benefits that good lighting can bring to cities – and the costs if it is ignored.

In what follows, we explore the benefits of better lighting for London, as well as the reasons that the city hasn’t given lighting more attention. We also outline some recommendations showing how improvements in London’s lighting could be achieved.

The primary focus of this report is on light shining onto public spaces from both public sources (like streetlamps) and private sources (such as shop fronts, office buildings or luminous advertising).

Good lighting can help London solve some of its pressing challenges:

  • Supporting town centres: Good lighting makes economic sense, since it enables us to spend more time enjoying the city’s culture, hospitality, retail and nightlife.
  • Encouraging walking and cycling: Good lighting makes active journeys easier, safer and more enjoyable, thereby benefiting health, inclusion and decarbonisation. Good lighting also enables us to participate in outdoor sports after dark.
  • Creating opportunities for social interaction: Good lighting lets people stop outside for relaxation or a chat. This not only has social benefits but also makes local areas feel friendlier and more secure.
  • Broadening access to culture: Lighting can also be used as public art, to make the city more beautiful, playful and interesting – and to help us to appreciate our heritage after dark.
  • Climate emergency: Well-planned and adaptable lighting schemes can achieve large cuts in energy use. For example, the City of London’s lighting strategy has halved energy consumption from lighting.
  • Reducing light pollution: Good design can reduce the amount of light that spills into natural environments or the sky.

But London is largely missing out on these opportunities…

  • More people are walking or cycling, but our street lighting is intended to light the carriageway first, with footway and pedestrians second.
  • Poor lighting creates too much contrast and glare, which can make it hard to feel comfortable in a space or see people’s expressions.
  • Private sources of lighting are not usually built into town centre lighting schemes, resulting in unnecessary light pollution and wasted energy. In particular, London has recently built many brightly lit skyscrapers which contribute to light pollution.

…although energy use has been taken more seriously:

  • To save money and energy, all London local authorities have either begun or completed upgrades to LED streetlamps.

London misses out because it lacks a strategic approach to lighting…

  • London does not yet have a citywide strategy on how it will use or regulate lighting, and London Plan policies on lighting are non-specific.
  • Only two of 33 London local authorities – the City of London and the City of Westminster – have adopted a comprehensive lighting strategy to guide the use of public and private lighting.
  • National government sets street design standards in its Manual for Streets, but this was last updated in 2007 before the widespread adoption of LED lighting.
  • Instead of leading the way, London has fallen behind other cities on lighting. Glasgow has had an adopted lighting strategy since 2002, Paris has had a citywide lighting strategy since 2000 and Seoul since 2005.

…and good design practice is often ignored or not resourced:

  • Lighting is often installed based on simplistic assumptions and without input from people using the space. It is generally assumed that brighter lighting creates safer streets, but the evidence is mixed, and people’s experiences vary.
  • Lighting design is frequently carried out by people who are not designers – or who don’t have the right tools, knowledge and understanding of the place they are designing lighting for.
  • Where lighting designers are engaged, they are often brought in late in the process.
  • Local authorities’ planning departments lack the resources to ensure that new buildings and retrofits meet recommended lighting levels.


Relatively modest changes in policy and practice would hugely improve the quality of London’s lighting, as well as supporting economic, civic and cultural activity that will help London recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

Vision, guidance and standards

  • London boroughs should develop lighting strategies. Having an overarching framework for lighting in each borough would guide public streetlighting, as well as coordinating and regulating lighting from public and private sources. 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 planning applications.

Design process

  • 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.
    • Engage lighting designers as early as possible in the design process.
  • Design Review Panels should ensure they consider lighting plans when assessing development projects.


  • 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.
  • Educational programmes for built environment professionals should upskill on lighting.
  • 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.

Lighting management

  • Existing town centre partnerships or Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) should act as lighting “owners” and take responsibility for coordinating lighting across public and private sectors.
  • 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

  • Heritage Action Zone projects should include sensitive lighting schemes as part of high street regeneration.
  • Local authorities and housing associations considering upgrades to the lighting in their housing estates should engage specialist lighting designers at an early stage.

“Good lighting” toolkit

Based on our review of the evidence around lighting scheme design, we here offer a brief guide for communities and decision makers who are working with lighting.

Purpose The starting point for planning a lighting intervention should be a clear definition of who the users are and what they will be using the light for.
Sustainability Well-designed lighting reduces impacts on the environment by using energy-efficient lamps, dimming lights when they are not needed, and avoiding light spills into green spaces and the sky.
Evidence Lighting interventions should be based on quantitative and qualitative evidence. Getting the right evidence first time is more efficient in the long run, as it means failed schemes do not have to be redesigned or reworked.
Participation Current and potential users of lighting should participate in its design to ensure that the scheme works for all. The process of participation is also a benefit in itself.
Expertise Lighting is not just a technical exercise, and there needs to be greater recognition that involving lighting designers can transform a scheme without necessarily escalating costs. Routinely involving lighting designers will improve practice in the city.
Flexibility Good lighting is more than a simple on/off switch – it responds to the complexity of spaces in London, and is flexible enough to change over time as people use space in new ways.
Restraint Brighter is not necessarily better when lighting a building or helping people see at night. Often a good result can be achieved by dimming lights.
Context Good lighting should integrate well with its neighbours.
Ownership Lighting high streets, routes or buildings requires a consistent approach. This improves wayfinding, avoids contrasting light levels or colours, and provides a sense of place. Well-lit places have an organisation playing that coordinating role.