Encouraging citizens to come together & map the constellations above Oxford

An artist’s impression of Star Light Star Bright. Image: Hellion Trace.

The founder of Hellion Trace, a company specialising in augmented dance, on her latest project, Star Light, Star Bright – winner of the Smart Oxford Playable City Commission 2017, which launched across Oxford last Friday.

In 2016 I read a fascinating (though now disputed article) about a Canadian boy discovering the location of a potential ‘lost’ Mayan city. He’d correlated the known Mayan cities against their known star constellations and reached a potentially groundbreaking conclusion.

Despite being disputed, the publicity crystalised a thought that had been burgeoning across all our international collaborations: that despite our cities’ light pollution, the night sky constellations we see over head offer us a constant familiarity –until you are in a new city, in a new part of the world.

The call for the Smart Oxford Playable City Commission spoke about creating connectivity, and using the Internet of Things and smart infrastructure. A project for Oxford, a city that has huge flood-plains, and anticipates flooding each year. An outdoor, public installation in a UK winter city where it is dark from 4.30pm and sunrise isn’t until after 8am, at the time of year when our streets are at their most deserted.

I love a challenge like this: Hellion Trace have collaborated on projects in cities all over the world for years, each time looking for unique elements of the local, cultural identity and rhythm of a city.

For Oxford, responding to their theme of ‘Shared City’, I wanted to make a piece that was about the connections between us as individuals achieving something together, strangers meeting in the winter darkness to create light and connection. I wanted to celebrate the history of scientific and academic discovery, of the European Space Agency on the Harwell Campus, and yet reach beyond the quads and the city centre.

Today we can pre-map our journeys in great detail, walk around the city we are planning to visit in advance, plot travel times, find quiet routes, and cycle routes and even routes that smell nice. All of this digital (and paper!) infrastructure is almost omnipresent, but it still relies on us having access to a device. 

Often when we are abroad, we take the time to look up and are unsettled by a lack of familiarity overhead. The stars that we see in the night sky are so specific to each location. They are part of a city’s uniqueness that hides in plain sight, above our heads.

So just as looking up is an important act in helping citizens re-imagine their relationship with a city, we also know working with strangers creates a feeling of camaraderie and shared memory, and using light in a beautiful and engaging ways can help to reduce anti-social behaviour and change wayfinding in cities. Even whilst city lighting often masks the night sky, we all seek those moments when we suddenly see the starlight, shining bright.

Star Light, Star Bright spreads out across seven diverse sites in Oxford, both in and outside of the tourist and university areas.

Encouraging citizens to come together and map star constellations from the night sky above Oxford, this is a project designed to reach the edges of a city and all its’ demographics. With an intuitive and accessible entry point (stand on a light: it turns on) Star Light, Star Bright creates an immediate opportunity for serendipity, collaboration and spontaneity: each constellation needs more than one person to activate it to create the ultimate beam of light.

We have designed Star Light, Star Bright to be democratic and city-wide, demonstrating a shared city. It is a rapidly shareable activity that fits our visual world, easily captured for social media. Continued curiosity is encouraged; follow the map, hunt them all. Find all the constellations in Oxford. Look how the stars shine for you.

Laura Kriefman is founder of Hellion Trace.

Star Light Star Bright, winner of the Smart Oxford Playable City Commission, launched across Oxford on 19 January 2018 and will run for six weeks. You can find more information on the Playable City website here.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.