20 January 2022

How public lighting shapes health and wellbeing in cities

Public lighting design makes a difference in safety, happiness, health, and sustainability in cities. But what makes a public lighting system ‘good’? And what knowledge do designers need to create these systems? An event in December 2021 on “Shaping Light for Health and Wellbeing in Cities” brought together biologists, social scientists, urbanists, and neuroscientists to discuss these questions.

One of the central threads of the conference was a call for a more multi-disciplinary approach to understanding the complexity of designing public lighting – an approach that puts people at its centre.

Lucy Kimbell (Professor of Contemporary Design Practices, University of the Arts, London) expanded upon how the field can effectively combine policy, research and design, while Russell Foster (Professor of Circadian Neuroscience, Oxford University) explained how lighting design can affect circadian rhythms and enable people to sleep better.

Persisting challenges related to justice and safety in public spaces implicate public lighting design. For example, lighting design in many cities doesn’t take into account differences in visual ability. As a result, many public spaces are disproportionately riskier for people with visual impairments. Furthermore, there is a certain amount of subjectivity of lighting: different people may have different perceptions of what is ‘dark’ and what is ‘light’.

Despite this subjectivity, there are certain qualities of public lighting that research has demonstrated contributes to healthier and better public lighting. The conference highlighted the importance of good public lighting especially in the context of a (post-)pandemic society. As more people work from home, public spaces may see more foot traffic in the evenings as places to meet up after work (when it is dark out); this may give public lighting an even larger role in social interactions.

If done well, lighting could generate and enhance a sense of community. This requires a better understanding of how public lighting can make cities (feel) safer at night, especially for vulnerable groups like the elderly, women and girls. At the same time, understanding which lighting design works best to make cities safer and healthier could unintentionally lead to monotonous lighting design across cities, making diverse city spaces look similar. Losing the qualities that make these spaces unique and interesting could decrease foot traffic on streets, creating potential for unsafe situations. In other words: this topic is crucial but complex.

The event and its insights were brought about by the ENLIGHTENme project, in which ICLEI Europe is a partner. The questions that arose throughout the event highlight the complexity of public lighting design and the need for ENLIGHTENme’s mulitidisciplinary approach. In the coming five years, the project will conduct experiments in three European cities, Amsterdam (the Netherlands), Bologna (Italy) and Tartu (Estonia), aiming to generate valuable insights for a wide range of public lighting stakeholders.

Progress on their social lighting experiments can be followed here.