“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.


What does the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan mean for the region’s housing supply and green belt?

Manchester. Image: Getty.

We’re not even halfway through January and we’ve already seen one of the biggest urban stories of the year – the release of Greater Manchester’s new spatial plan for the city-region. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) sets an ambitious target to build more than 200,000 homes over the next 18 years.

Despite previous statements indicating greenbelt development was off the table, the plan allows for some moderate easing of greenbelt, combined with denser city centre development. This is sensible, pragmatic and to be welcomed but a question remains: will it be enough to keep Manchester affordable over the long-term?

First, some history on Manchester’s housing strategy: This is not the first iteration of the controversial GMSF. The first draft was released by Greater Manchester’s council leaders back in October 2016 (before Andy Burnham was in post), and aimed to build 227,000 houses by 2037. Originally, it proposed releasing 8.2 per cent of the green belt to provide land for housing. Many campaigners opposed this, and the newly elected mayor, Andy Burnham, sent the plan back to the drawing board in 2017.

The latest draft published this week contains two important changes. First, it releases slightly less greenbelt land than the original plan, 4.1 per cent of the total, but more than Andy Burnham previously indicated he would. Second, while the latest document is still ambitious, it plans for 26,000 fewer homes over the same period than the original.

To build up or to build out?

In many cities, the housing supply challenge is often painted as a battle-ground between building high-density homes in the city centre or encroaching on the green belt. Greater Manchester is fortunate in that it lacks the density of cities such as London – suggesting less of a confrontation between people who what to build up and people who want to build out.

Prioritising building on Greater Manchester’s plentiful high-density city centre brownfield land first is right and will further incentivise investment in public transport to reduce the dependence of the city on cars. It makes the goal in the mayor’s new transport plan of 50 per cent of all journeys in Greater Manchester be made on foot, bikes or public transport by 2040 easier to realise.

However, unlike Greater London’s greenbelt which surrounds the capital, Greater Manchester’s green belt extends deep into the city-region, making development on large amounts of land between already urbanised parts of the city-region more difficult. This limits the options to build more housing in parts of Greater Manchester close to the city centre and transport nodes. The worry is that without medium-term reform to the shape of Manchester’s green belt, it may tighten housing supply in Manchester even more than the green belt already does in places such as London and York. In the future, when looking to undertake moderate development on greenbelt land, the mayor should look to develop in these areas of ‘interior greenbelt’ first.

Greater Manchester’s Green Belt and Local Authority Boundaries, 2019.

Despite the scale of its ambition, the GMSF cannot avoid the sheer size of the green belt forever: it covers 47 per cent of the total metropolitan area). In all likelihood, plans to reduce the size of the green belt by 2 per cent will need to be looked at again once the existing supply of brownfield land runs low – particularly if housing demand over the next 18 years is higher than the GMSF expects, which should be the case if the city region’s economy continues to grow.

An example of a successful political collaboration

The GMSF was a politically pragmatic compromise achieved through the cooperation of the metropolitan councils and the mayoral authority to boost the supply of homes. It happened because Greater Manchester’s mayor has an elected mandate to implement and integrate the GMSF and the new transport plan.

Other cities and the government should learn from this. The other metro mayors currently lacking spatial planning powers, in Tees Valley and the West Midlands, should be gifted Greater Manchester-style planning powers by the government so they too can plan and deliver the housing and transport their city-regions need.

Long-term housing strategies that are both sustainable and achievable need to build both up and out. In the short-term Greater Manchester has achieved this, but in the future, if its economic success is maintained, it will need to be bolder on the green belt than the proposals in the current plan. By 2037 Manchester will not face a trade-off between high-density flats in the city centre or green belt reform – it will need to do both.  If the city region is to avoid the housing problems that bedevil London and other successful cities, policy makers need to be ready for this.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.