“Darkness has become a luxury good in London”: On the social meaning of street lighting

A British Gas inspector inspects one of London's last remaining gas lights. Image: AFP/Getty.

Light, whether natural or artificial, is a powerful material. It is fundamental to our lives, and it can help create new and interesting spaces in many different ways.

Even though this tends to be unrecognised in most discussions, lighting is currently gaining a new momentum. It was given official status when the UN designated 2015 as the “UN Year of Light”. And, fuelled by new technologies, it has now taken centre stage in all sorts of discussions: on the economic and environmental costs of climate change, on aesthetics and city branding, and on the quality of life in cities.

Bright street lights left to shine on empty streets are an excessive and unnecessary waste of energy that is bad for the planet. Images taken from space show vividly how much light is generated in our cities, and there are many attendant problems: high carbon levels, and light pollution which can result in poor sleep for humans and changes in nocturnal animal behaviours, to name but a few.

But light plays a huge role in creating social spaces, too. It is the backdrop for all social interaction, influencing what we can do after dusk, how safe we feel, and how well we can navigate through nocturnal environments.

Before the introduction of street lighting, it was dangerous to be out on the city streets after sundown. To walk the city at night, you had to hire a servant or “link boy” to walk ahead of you, lighting the path ahead. In electrified places today, we are so used to artificial light at the flick of a switch that we barely register it, except when it fails us. We are most aware of our dependence on electricity and artificial light when there is a power cut.

Western societies, and increasingly those farther afield, now have reliable artificial light technologies. However, not all of us benefit equally from this new status of light and lighting: looking at the lighting in different kinds of urban spaces can actually tell us quite a bit about social inequalities.

In London, for example, social housing estates tend to be brightly and harshly illuminated to allow for better CCTV surveillance, which is assumed to prevent anti-social behaviour. This kind of lighting marks these space as “dangerous” or “problematic”, regardless of whether or not this is actually the case.

In fact, darkness has become some sort of luxury good in London. Neighbourhoods that are well-off are usually not only darker and free from these crude lighting interventions; they also have much softer nightscapes which feel calm and safe and are aesthetically pleasing.

In the context of ever-emerging new technologies and design expertise, it is hard to understand why lighting still heightens social inequalities rather than combatting it. This issue is a concern of the Configuring Light/Staging the Social (CL) research programme, an interdisciplinary research programme currently based at King’s College London and the LSE.

A core concern of the programme is to foster cross-disciplinary dialogue and impact-oriented academic-practitioner collaborations around lighting and social research. One aspect of our work is public education. This week, along with the lighting design firm Speirs+Major, CL is hosting a night talk and walk in London’s Pimlico area as part of the Inside Out festival.

Pimlico is an interesting neighbourhood: some streets were never electrified, and there are still 1,500 gas lamps. Taking a walk down these streets is like taking a step back in time. The quality of the light is so totally different to that we find on most city streets: warm, orange light bathes the pavement, and it is considerably darker than most streets you’d encounter in London or any other major city.

On the night walk, our designers take light readings from the gas lamps using a light meter, to show how low the “lux” level is. This experience of a dark street, illustrates how well our eyes can deal with low levels of illumination, largely because the light in is uniform. What is hard for our eyes to deal with is high contrast: walking from brightly lit streets, our eyes find it hard to adjust if adjacent streets are lit to relatively lower levels, even if those lower levels are perfectly fine.

We hope the event will help create a dialogue about how we might turn the lights down a bit. With new “smart” LED lighting providing unprecedented control over “responsive” and “intelligent” lighting, there’s potential to reduce our light consumption.

Joanne Entwhistle (King's College, London), Don Slater and Mona Sloane (London School of Economics) are running the Configuring Light project.

She is speaking at “Light Walk: Night Talk” as part of the Inside Out Festival, a two part event combining a talk on light as material with a group walk around nocturnal Pimlico, where there are still working gas lights. You can book your free place here.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.