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Public Lighting and the Urban Wealth Gap

Light plays an essential role in public life. It is an enabler of all social interaction. It shapes the cityscape. Yet, this important aspect of a city’s built environment has gone widely underinvestigated for years. However, the UN General Assembly’s declaration that 2015 would be the “International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies” has brought a novel and important focus to light’s effects on human existence. Under the “Light in the Built Environment,” section of the International Year of Light website the UN wrote, “[l]ighting provides safety and security, provides access to education, enhances architecture, and improves quality of life.” And although this may be true in some circumstances, the UN’s statement ignores the myriad ways in which public lighting can negatively impact those living under its omnipotent glow.

A report issued by scientists at the London School of Economics found that the over-illumination of public housing singles out these spaces as less valuable and sometimes dangerous, therefore discouraging people living there from using and appreciating the outdoors. More affluent neighborhoods and designer housing developments use light as a design apparatus to make the spaces more visually appealing and to highlight their value. Picture a beautiful, new, designer building along the water in New York City. Now visualize that same building drowned in LED lighting, with the community spaces lit in a way that permits 24-hour surveillance from omnipotent security cameras. Bright lights pour into the bottom two floors of the perfectly-windowed structure. Undoubtedly, the building seems less appealing.

Of course, not all neighborhoods or apartment buildings need highly trained lighting designers, but city residents deserve to live in places that are seen as socially successful and engaging. Public lighting has become an obvious indicator of inequality.

In wealthy neighborhoods, streets are properly dark after sunset with warm light coming from the streetlights and the windows of the houses. Public housing tends to be lit like a hospital. The oppressively bright lights allow for constant surveillance: These high lux levels promise enough light for the CCTV cameras — whose footage is used for security purposes — to produce quality footage. Some even say that this footage is high quality only so that it can hold up in court.

The quality of public lighting indicates which neighborhoods the city values more. In other words, the built environment reflects perceptions of quality. Light’s ability to characterize space as either appealing or unappealing furthers divisions that already exist between rich and poor. It perpetuates the stigma attached to public housing and other impoverished places. It offers a visual representation of what is the “other.”

There is data to suggest that abrasive lighting decreases crime, an important issue that negatively shapes people’s perceptions of public housing and residents’ perceptions of their own space. In May 2016, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a study to examine the impact of different lighting technology on crime reduction. The City collaborated with residents of the housing developments to determine where the lighting was necessary and installed 400 units of additional temporary lighting. Elizabeth Glazer, the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, commented on the study, saying “A well-lit street deters crime better than a dark alley, just as opportunities for work and play promote safety better than disadvantage and disconnection.” This statement is true, as lighting has the potential to open space to nocturnal use, and therefore connection.

The perception of safety is also essential to the unencumbered use of public space. However, the misuse of light has the potential to compound the issues that make public housing unappealing. This misuse — or careless use — of light is rarely considered when building public spaces. Glazer’s words are unintentionally contradictory, as she fails to see how light itself has the potential to portray “disadvantage and disconnection,” but could also promote “opportunities for work and play” if used appropriately. The portable lighting being used by NYPD is oppressively bright, with LED bulbs that drown public spaces in light. Residents have complained of being unable to sleep, and these units are so bright they can be seen from many streets away. Having a bright floodlight in a dark alley is one thing, but having all public space in a public housing project drowned by the NYPD’s portable LED lights is alienating to everyone.

Mayor de Blasio put this plan in place after a 31% increase in shootings at NYC Housing Authority developments in 2014, but these temporary floodlights have not been popular. Ever since their installation, residents have taken to social media to complain about disruptions to their daily lives. Some have criticized this plan as a response to the scandal surrounding NYPD’s “stop and frisk program.” Now, instead of intervening in the lives of young black and latino residents via police stops, the city makes these residents feel like they are constantly under surveillance. This kind of architectural policing is unique to New York City’s low-income residents, alienating them from their neighbors and making them uncomfortable in their own homes.

The idea that these lights deter crime also takes responsibility away from the police or the city. These agencies use the lights as a stand-in — making it obvious that these residents are always being watched, while the person doing the watching is not immediately clear. There are also psychological impacts to such a use of lighting: The residents’ feeling that they are constantly being watched limits their use of their space. The lights pouring into the bottom two floors of the buildings are so bright they have been reported to impede sleep for the people living in those apartments. The community spaces in public housing empty out at night when the floodlights turn on. Having a well-lit housing project does not have to come at the cost of residents’ mental health and feeling of physical safety. And these strategies to increase nocturnal use of public space are not achieving their intended goal.

City governments need to understand that public lighting is an important aspect of building the cityscape, instead of a means of controlling behavior. Projects should be designed with the user and usage in mind; only then will the disparity between the lighting of different neighborhoods be decreased. Poorer neighborhoods should not be aesthetically — and therefore socially — alienated from the rest of the city. Lighting needs to be recognized as a tool of social integration, not an aesthetic right reserved only for the wealthy.


About the Author

Isabella Creatura '18 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.