“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.


Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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