Cities of light

London Essays – Issue 6: Night

Cities of light

We have been slow to understand the importance of lighting to urban design.

By Patricia Brown

I write this in autumn, the time of year that brings shorter days, prompting in some people the pleasurable anticipation of cosy nights and, in others, a sense of constriction, putting a damper on mood and energy levels.

Ever since humans invented fire, we have sought to extend our day. But it was only in 1417 that organised attempts began to light London’s dark, medieval streets. Light was ‘crowdsourced’ from housekeepers across the City of London, who were encouraged, then compelled, to hang lights outside after dark. Despite this, London continued to be a notoriously dark and dangerous place.

The Industrial Revolution meant that, by 1807, the engineer Frederick Winsor was able to illuminate Pall Mall with gas lamps fed from pipes fashioned from musket barrels. The world’s first gas company, London and Westminster Chartered Gas-Light and Coke Company, was born soon after, lighting up Westminster bridge for the first time on New Year’s Eve 1813.

It was only with the adoption of electric light that we started to light building facades and bridges, parks and public squares, signs and billboards. And so began our shift from a world of nocturnal darkness into one infused by light, as much through ‘found light’ – spilling out from interiors – as from direct sources.

Given how all-pervasive artificial lighting now is and how necessary we find it, our understanding and use of it has been pretty poor. Instead of being core to good urban design, light has principally been seen as a utility, blanketing our roadways, public realm and commercial districts. Happily, that’s changing, in tandem with a shifting emphasis in city-making that prioritises liveability and the design and nurture of great places to enhance cities’ competitiveness – since quality of life and economic success are intrinsically linked. The list of ingredients for cooking up good places is extensive, their use dependent on the context and desired result. But quality lighting should always be in the mix, not least because by making the city visible and accessible, light extends our use and enjoyment of its street life and architecture well beyond dusk.

A more nuanced approach to urbanism, combined with the movement of culture onto our streets and advances in technology, has raised lighting’s status: it is increasingly an asset, an aesthetic tool that lifts moods, brings beauty and interest, offers vibrancy or calm, and a sense of welcome and security.

London can lay claim to some fine architectural lighting but, for city-scale application, we need to look to Lyon. France’s second city has combined vision, strategic planning and investment to become the foremost ‘City of Light’, synonymous with the best in urban lighting.

Lyon has built on a religious tradition started in 1852, when citizens lit candles in their windows, leading to the development of the contemporary Fête des Lumières. Held every December, this is now the world’s principal event for creative light displays, a showcase for top artists and a laboratory for emerging talents who use Lyon’s buildings, streets, squares and parks as a canvas.

Fête des Lumières is a celebratory expression of Lyon’s intrinsic relationship to light; a major part of the city’s identity and urban transformation. In 1989, Lyon became the first city to create a lighting plan (a second was produced in 2004), fully integrating the nocturnal dimension into public space planning.

Lighting is so fundamental to the city that its lighting strategy and budget have survived successive political administrations and, in 2014, a further €20m was committed over six years to fund new schemes. Meanwhile, operating costs are dwindling, thanks to advances in energy-efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs), bringing energy consumption close to 1989 levels, despite the lighting of over 250 new sites.

Lyon has used this holistic approach to lighting to shape its international image, as well as to enhance the experience of the city. Treatments create different zones, helping denote what the space is for – a calm zone on a river walk, for example. Landmark buildings change colour to mark an occasion or simply add interest to the cityscape.

One tactic is to correspond light levels to current need, enabled by the shift to LEDs. These offer greater possibilities not just for the quality of light, but for direction and control, so that light levels rise as dusk deepens rather than beaming as soon as the sun starts to sink. ‘Dynamic’ lighting mimics the natural rhythm of night and day, with variable colour temperature and intensity of light, and is more beneficial to wellbeing.

This understanding of the rhythms of the city is catching on in London, too. Local authorities are turning to web-based street lighting management platforms such as CityTouch to orchestrate lighting schedules and levels on demand. A city’s lighting infrastructure can now be connected and controlled remotely, all at the touch of a screen. Faults are flagged instantly and energy consumption monitored, helping to reduce CO2 and energy costs.

Curtailing light levels also helps minimise light pollution and the effect on ecosystems. Residential streets don’t need to be brightly lit throughout the wee small hours – so maintaining a lower, but sufficient, level of light makes environmental and financial sense. It was bat biodiversity that prompted one initiative along a popular section of the Thames-side path linking Richmond and Twickenham. Brightly lit from dusk to dark, light spilled across the tree canopy and river, affecting foraging habitats and flight paths, as well as breeding and species diversity.

To counter this, the Bat Conservancy Trust and Thames Landscape Strategy worked with Philips Lighting to introduce an innovative system. LEDs are capped at 20 per cent of illumination, which rises to 100 per cent only when triggered by human movement; this alerts light columns to “talk” to each other, telling the next two to rise to give a temporary blanket of light. Results look promising, with bat sightings up, including of one particularly light-sensitive species.

Light is also being harnessed to help manage another form of nocturnal activity, the night-time economy. An experiment in Eindhoven, on a pedestrian street lined with bars, is using dynamic light to illuminate trouble spots, helping to de-escalate incidents and to signpost safe exit zones with warmer light.

Investment in light is as much about life enhancement as about managing urban infrastructure. Light can provide an invitation to see a city differently: to inform, engage or play.

Such an invitation arrived on the streets of London in early 2016, when Lumiere London made the capital glow. Inspired by Fête des Lumières and produced by Artichoke, 31 artistic installations enticed thousands of people to explore the chilly London streets from Mayfair to King’s Cross.

In Lima, light has transformed the facade of Peru’s biggest bank into one of the largest interactive art installations in the world, made from 26,000 connected LEDs. Passers-by control the display by playing with a podium of LED panels. Elsewhere, interactive light structures are able to communicate by changing colour and intensity in response to weather conditions, time of day, and even train schedules or traffic flow.

Urban lighting can also support social inclusion, as demonstrated by a project in east London’s historic Boundary Estate. A team from the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design set out to explore the ways in which alternative lighting strategies could revitalise overlooked pockets of the city. They undertook detailed research into how local people used the neighbourhood, considering how urban public spaces could be lit to foster greater equity in light distribution. They proposed “a night-time neighbourhood network” that would encourage social activity around a connected chain of illuminated community facilities. An underused sports pitch was brought into use for local boys – who previously had nowhere to play after dark – by means of two self-illuminating football goalposts fashioned from a simple purpose-designed tubular LED lighting system. The scheme enabled existing public objects, such as bike racks, to become luminaires.

Back in Lyon, the red lighting on the Opera House roof varies depending on the level of human activity inside, reminding passers by of the building’s constant use even outside opening hours. Light also guides people towards vantage points where they can best soak in the atmosphere, with attention paid to lighting particular bridges with the best views of the city, encouraging people to use them.

Two centuries on since the first gas lights flickered on Westminster Bridge, bridges are now at heart of The Illuminated River, a major new public art initiative that will spectacularly transform central London by using its bridges as canvases for light. Soon people will be able to enjoy a permanent outdoor river gallery, taking in a sweep of the Thames from Albert Bridge to Tower Bridge via Westminster, the birthplace of London’s public lighting.

A short stroll away from Westminster Bridge, gas lamps still glow in parks, streets and squares, just some of the 1500 still in use in the capital. They provide an intimate, warm light – enough to feel safe and guide the way. These historic features are perfect for their location and its character, reminding us that lighting for context – for sense of place – is now not only highly achievable, but also highly desirable.