From the abandoned streets of early lockdown to the attentive contemplation of our neighbourhoods on daily walks, we have experienced our common spaces in a different way during the pandemic. The step change in prioritising pedestrians across London – and the focus on safe outdoor socialising and eating – has led to much rethinking of the role and value of our public realm. And our increased reliance on public spaces for exercising, socialising, commuting and work has shown how much our experience of the city depends upon its lighting.
In one sense, lighting is straightforward – it is what enables activity after dark. But despite this apparently simple function, the impacts of urban lighting are complex and multifaceted. Light influences all aspects of city life. It affects how we move around the city, and it supports economic, cultural and civic activities as well as sport and exercise. Light can create feelings of joy and warmth – or insecurity and danger.
This complexity is reflected in the range of people and institutions involved in lighting the city. Developers, town planners, highways engineers, lighting designers, housing associations, businesses, individual citizens and community groups all play a role. And like all elements of urban design, we all respond differently to it.
Nonetheless, there is relatively little public discussion about this essential element of city life. Perhaps because lighting is such an integral part of our day-to-day activity, we take it for granted. However, the lack of discussion may also be due to the fact that decisions about lighting are generally made with little or no public input. Individuals can report a broken streetlight or excessive glare, but street lighting schemes are generally not consulted on. For the most part, we treat lighting in a utilitarian way – as a service to be provided to a certain standard, much like water and sewage – rather than as an asset that affects the city’s economy, environment, transport and wellbeing.
The relative lack of attention to lighting seems especially surprising in a city that experiences long winter nights and where so much activity happens after dark. 1 It is all the more curious when we consider what we mean by “night”. The dark hours are not a homogeneous time span. The night has different “shifts”, each with different users and needs across the hours of darkness. 2
In winter it is frequently dark from mid-afternoon. To choose but one example: if parks and playgrounds were to prevent children playing at 5pm in the summer, it would be considered arbitrary and possibly even cruel. Yet without proper lighting in winter, this is effectively what happens.
Fortunately, there is a growing recognition among policymakers that activities taking place during the dark hours need as much consideration and nuance as those happening in daylight. Lighting is increasingly recognised as a core pillar of night-time policy, and the Mayor’s Night Time Commission underscored the important role of lighting in helping people feel safe after dark, drawing in visitors, helping them to navigate the city, and supporting the night-time economy. 3 The City of London’s lighting strategy – published in 2018 and the first ever written by a London local authority – commits the City to a strategic and deliberate approach to lighting the Square Mile. 4 At the same time, the Illuminated River – a philanthropic initiative led by The Rothschild Foundation – will light up nine of London’s bridges and transform the way we see the Thames.
It follows that lighting has a central role to play in supporting London’s economic recovery by making high streets attractive and welcoming places. We dedicate much attention to Christmas illuminations that create cheer and drive footfall – yet outside this period, street lighting is not typically used in a creative way. When London’s leisure and cultural venues open again, we must make the experience as joyous, welcoming, and secure as possible so that we are all able to enjoy the city’s nightlife once more. Lighting has a key role to play in doing so.
The last decade has also seen a leap in lighting and electrical technologies. LED technology and Central Management Systems (CMS) allow us to make use of a far wider colour palette and change brightness and intensity in real time across places, all with less intrusive fittings. We now have the ability to control lighting to a much finer degree, and target it to respond to the diversity of London’s places, buildings and communities. But the city is not yet making the most of this potential.
The aim of this report is to stimulate public debate about the ways in which London is currently lit and how it could make better use of lighting. We also offer a “Good Lighting” toolkit of basic principles for communities and decision makers who are working with lighting. The primary focus of this report is on light shining onto public spaces from both public sources (such as streetlamps) and private sources (shop fronts, office buildings or luminous advertising).
This report is based on an extensive literature review including over 60 academic articles, policy documents and development plans. We have also tested its findings in 15 interviews with policymakers and practitioners in London and other cities. These included senior staff in local authorities, BIDs, environmental bodies, community group representatives and lighting designers. We additionally collated and analysed recent investments into lighting upgrades made by London boroughs.