Bright Idea: fighting light pollution
Lighting is probably one of the most important aspects of urban design that everyone over looks. While it might not be as tangible or easy to recognize as other aspects, it’s has no less of an impact. Light can make an area safer, more appealing. It can accentuate the features of a building. And proper light can make an area seem more vibrant and lived in.
So light is a good thing. But, just like chocolate eggs at Easter, you can have too much of a good thing. So when things get too bright, it’s called light pollution.
It’s more than just annoying. Light pollution can dominate an area at night, washing out all of the interesting uses of design lighting. It also leads to a ton of wasted energy keeping the lights burning when there is no need to. And some studies have even found that being flooded with too much light can have serious health concerns.
Given all this, cities all over the world are working on ways to fight light pollution, and save money and energy in the process. At least seven states in the US – like Arizona and Vermont – have enacted dark-sky legislation to fight light pollution. As reader Andy Grabia points out, the town of Vicuna in Chile fought to control the wasted light from their streetlights. (It was a big problem for the town, as it’s known as one of the darkest skies in the world, perfect for observatories and telescopes.) And some places, like Germany, have looked in to streetlights that stay off until they are turned on with motion sensors or cellphones.
A lot of places have tackled this issue, but not much has been done in Edmonton. There have been a few steps in the right directions – a committee meeting in 2009 discussed pilot projects on dimming streelights, using LED lights and more consultation with people when it comes to city lights.
But there hasn’t been a lot of movement since then – at least, that I’ve seen. And it’s a shame, because light pollution is a major problem in some parts of our city.
A couple weeks ago, I asked readers to point out some of the spots in the city where they saw light pollution. We got a lot of responses to places all along the city. The Charrette’s vehicle budget (which stands at $4.38 and a fistful of Canadian Tire money) wouldn’t cover the gas money to find all of them. So, we picked the highest concentration of suggestions and took some photos.
We were on the lookout for the worst offenders when it came to light pollution, so we set a few ground rules. Since a lot of businesses use light to attract customers, we did our photo drive at 1:00 am on a weekday – at a time when very few things would be open. Those few businesses that were open at that time – mostly gas stations and fast food places – we didn’t count. Nor did we count places like police stations or hospitals. Finally, we didn’t count intersections. Some of them are very brightly-lit, but that’s more of a safety feature.
Without further adieu:
A lot of light is used in advertising, and those video billboards are some of the worst. And the worst of the worst is this one outside of NAIT’s south campus. It’s big, it’s bright and it floods out on to Gateway Boulevard. Many of the ads make liberal use of white background. It’s not just an annoyance – it’s pretty close to being a small star.
This is not my best photographic work, as I took it while cruising down
23rd 34th Avenue between 91st and Gateway. The whole place is lit up like a Christmas tree. Even after 1am. A lot of the problem are the car lots that line this strip. Car lots are a major culprit when it comes to light pollution. The entire avenue glows when you approach it, washing out everything else around it and giving the whole place a sterilized, creepy glow.
And now we head north, to this strip mall parking lot on 75th street and Roper Road. Standing in the empty parking lot, it almost feels as bright as full daylight shining down on you. Now, one might argue that the lights work as a security device, making people less likely to try and rob a place. But even if that’s the goal, things could be done much more efficiently. As you can see in the photo, there are already separate lights illuminating the front of the store. It’s not like someone is going to park their getaway vehicle way on the other side of the parking lot and cart their ill-gotten goods across the parking lot. There’s no need to throw this much light on the whole property.
Now those were bad. But our award for Most Ridiculous Light Pollution goes to Freedom Ford on 75th street.
No big surprise that it’s a car lot – they’re some of the worst offenders we’ve come across. But this lot is worst than most: there’s absolutely no attempt to
try and prevent the light from spilling out in to the other properties. Even putting barriers around the lights to point them inwards, or not putting them up so high, would help somewhat. But as it stands now, the white glow of this car lot can be seen against the night sky from blocks away. This photo doesn’t give an accurate picture of how much wattage this thing has going for it.
But what I considered the worst part was the location: right across the street from this car lot is a row of houses, all facing the dealerships. That light is getting tossed across the street and lighting up those houses as well, And every one of them I drove by had big, thick shades and blinds pulled down over their windows. Without them, their living rooms would be lit up like an operating room.
These are just a few examples of light pollution that we found in one area of the city: they are countless more examples out there all over Edmonton. It’s time that we started taking this problem seriously. This is still a city, and it never be completely dark, nor should it be. But a good urban design says that brightest isn’t always best. So safe the light for when it has a purpose: aesthetics, security, safety, whatever. And not waste it when there isn’t a need for it.
It’s better looking. It’s better for the environment. And it’s better for the city’s pocketbook. Sometimes we need to go dark.