Social Light for Urban Revitalization

by May 12, 2014Smart Cities

Susanne Seitinger

Susanne Seitinger is responsible for leading the research and strategy around the impact of programmable LED lighting elements to create safe, inviting and responsive urban environments. Her combined background in architecture, urban planning and human-computer interaction is comprised of research and design projects like the Digital Mile in Zaragoza, Spain and Urban Pixels, wireless LED pixels for ad-hoc media façades.


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This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

Light is an ephemeral infrastructure that we often take for granted, but lighting consumes more than 20 percent of all electricity in the United States amounting to more than $60 billion per year in energy costs. Technologies such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are expanding the possibilities for new applications that are more energy efficient than previous systems and digitally programmable. As an obvious first step, many cities are in the midst of studying the potential benefits of introducing LED street lights. Groups like the Department of Energy’s Municipal Street Lighting Consortium are documenting this process and supporting knowledge sharing across communities.

As municipal officials deliberate over whether to move forward with new lighting solutions, they are not only weighing the benefits of cost-cutting and energy savings. They are also committed to building neighborhoods that support vibrant urban life and attract new economic activity. On the most basic level, these considerations are linked with the nature of lighting which impacts human beings on a deeply personal and individual level. More generally, shared values across a community influence how citizens approach questions of safety and thus access the resources of the city, especially public space at night.

In April 2011, an international group of lighting designers formed the Social Light Movement to bring the techniques of architectural lighting design to all communities. The founders include Sharon Stammers and Martin Lupton, partners in Light Collective, Erik Olsson and Jöran Linder of Olsson and Linder, Isabelle Corten, principal of Radiance 35, and Elettra Bordonaro, an architect and independent lighting designer. These creative practitioners – really in the tradition of Don Schön’s reflective practitioner – take on challenging social issues  byenacting new uses of public space facilitated through light. Coupled with community organizing activities or other participatory planning processes, the group addresses questions on topics ranging from public transportation routes at night and safe playgrounds, to general accessibility of public space in public housing developments.

During this last particularly harsh winter in the Northeast of the United States, for example, Elettra Bordonaro worked with a group of architecture students from the Rhode Island School of Design and the Providence Office of Planning and Development, and SWAP (Stop Wasting Abandoned Properties). The group selected  Grace Cemetery, a historic site that had fallen into disrepair. Within only a few weeks, the students, most of whom had no lighting background, created a lighting master plan. Probably on one of the coldest and iciest evenings in February, throngs of people came to the “SouthLight” event. The team had installed audiovisual equipment, LED lighting and architectural follies throughout the site. In the abandoned keeper’s lodge, films and other archival materials about the site and those buried there were on display. The temporary project was such a success that the team initiated a further grant application for future, more permanent installations.

Though lighting alone cannot revitalize a city or neighborhood, it is a vehicle that reconnects people with places to emphasize the true strengths of a community. In 1989, the city of Lyon, France, introduced one of the earliest holistic lighting master plans to revitalize the dense historic core of the city. Today, Lyon is known as the “capital of light,” hosting the largest festival dedicated solely to illumination, the Fête des lumières. Urban design for the 24-hour city is a challenging proposition, but is increasingly important with work schedules and other commitments keeping cities buzzing at all times. Planners and communities have to partner to facilitate access to safe and comfortable public spaces that work day and night.

This article is also available at Futureoflight.Philips.com

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  1. Great article. Here, in Memphis, we say “Previtalization is the new calculus.”

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