thoughts on our urban future

Night life

Kayla, my fellow writer here, wrote a post recently about Christmas Lights in London, basically comparing them to the lighting display you find in New York, and possibly in other places in the States. I didn’t think much of it at the time, having never been to the Big Apple (or anywhere else in the US, in fact) for the festive period, I don’t think I really appreciate what she is talking about.

However, I have been paying some extra attention to lighting on public spaces lately. Firstly I should say I do find there are some good examples of Christmas lights in London, as Scott rightly points out in his commentso on the above mentioned post. But moving beyond the seasonal, how does artificial lighting shape our perception of the city? Clearly adequate lighting has a big impact on how safe we feel in a place, it allows us to use the city at all hours. Lighting at night does a lot to the character of a place; it directly reflects the amount of activity taking place in public spaces, whilst also reflecting the habits of the users of buildings in an area. We could make informed readings of the character of an area based on the amount of artificial light found in the public realm.

So, artificial lighting in the public realm is made of street lighting combined with a series of ‘private’ sources of light coming from buildings, whether from windows facing the street, entrances and doors. Window displays and shop lighting, seem to me, lie somewhere in between, as they are indeed private, but are there to invite the public to look at their products and enter their spaces. In most cases, except in high end shopping areas for instance, all these three types of lighting occupy streets, squares and other public spaces without anyone having planned an ‘overall’ lighting design strategy.

Feature lighting I find sits on a category of its own and includes of course Christmas lighting. Lately I get the impression there is a growing trend to use lighting to enhance a good design and even to highlight existing features of a place or building which are otherwise left forgotten. It’s great to see many designers are being able to convince those with the decision power to integrate lighting design features into their public realm and landscape schemes. The lighting of trees along busy routes or in squares has become common place and I personally like it. I find it is a simple but effective way to make a place feel more special. More sophisticated lighting can be found in important destinations, and there are some examples of public art that are specifically focused on experiencing the city at night.

I think nigh time as a dimension of the cities and towns remains secondary in our minds. Most of the time daytime is what designers and all those involved in the procurement of buildings and the spaces in between them have in mind when foreseeing what places will be like in the future. But actually the after dark makes a significant part in urban life, even more because large amounts of people live in parts of the globe where in wintertime daylight is scarce – these are the times of the year when good public space lighting offers most benefits. A good lighting scheme can completely change a place, yet most places have not been designed that way, and many of them are very satisfactory still. Imagine if we paid more attention to night light, what we could achieve!

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1 Comment

  1. Lighting in the public realm has massive potential. Sometimes it is done so well, and it is so much part of the building or space, you don’t notice it specifically. This is probably the case with Regent Street. Although it does have some inconsistencies in lighting colour and approach, generally the uplighting on the rather similar, repeated facades create a comfortable and pleasing experience. Well done Crown Estate!

    Other times, the added lighting is an additional element, aiming to provide another layer in the urban context. Some obvious examples include building projections (think of specialist lighting displays on the Royal Festival Hall or Battersea Power Station) or innovative lighting schemes (such as the public squares in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen where coloured LEDs in stone paving define cycle lanes or filters project leaf patterns on the ground).

    Interestingly, I haven’t thought about controls on shopfront displays – or the idea that this is part of the public realm. Often people talk about live or dead frontage, but not the details of what constitutes live frontage. This would be an interesting area to explore…

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