Light functions as a filter during the night, helping humans to experience the space around them. This filter operates between the individual and the reality of the night, shaping the way we perceive the world around us.
We are often faced with bright situations influenced by technological elements or economic considerations. Sometimes theories such as “the more the better” (often associated with ideas of safety 1 ) dominate the scene, whilst other approaches focus on the ever-increasing problem of light pollution, leading to the illumination of urban areas using distorted lighting solutions and abnormal lighting effects. These often bear little or no relation to how people interact with the urban context and take little account of considerations such as history, character and, perhaps most importantly, the natural night-time condition: darkness. Perhaps it was better when torches lit up the streets and, as buildings sprang up all around, light truly responded to the needs of the city’s inhabitants.
This could certainly still represent a feasible option. However, our perception of spaces (and their liveability) has evolved sufficiently for us to question how this “filter” should really work. We now think much more about just how we experience an environment, taking into account the myriad of factors that coexist and interact with humans in the nocturnal ecosystem – and which vary depending on factors such as geographical position and the level of human settlement.
However, the goal of this article is not to identify a specific methodology for designing light in towns and cities, but rather to evaluate how we can use light as a “filter” to support the key values of wellbeing, human interaction and social identity in urban environments. These kinds of lighting solutions should inevitably shape the transition from day to night, and with it the perception and behaviour of the central figure of this story: the individual.
We naturally have to start with the context in which we find ourselves. Currently more than half the world’s population live in urban areas. By 2050 this percentage is expected to rise to around 75%. The growing demand for living spaces within cities, their renovation and their planning – together with the emergence of various new activities related to the movement of people, innovative transport systems and advanced communications infrastructure – mean that the modern city is truly a 24-hour place. In this way, the five elements of the urban structure defined by Kevin Lynch in “The image of the city” (paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks) assume increasing importance within society, especially at night. This also means that the “imageability” 2 and “way-finding” 3 characteristics of an urban space assume even greater value when darkness falls.
Many of the most prominent architecture and urban planning firms promote new theories on the development of cities and support the latest trends in urban transformation – from the conversion and alternative usage of industrial buildings to the way that new satellite towns are designed. There is also a way of classifying cities within a single global vision (as a kind of “city branding”), depending on the particular economic, social, technological and historical focus.
Today we hear about resilient cities, tactical cities, smart cities, competitive cities, innovative cities, mixed-use cities and local-global cities, to name but a few of the titles given to modern metropolitan areas. The variety of characteristics that a city can assume is essentially linked to the types of activities on offer. These classifications, identifications and trends are therefore closely linked to people and what they do in certain environments. For example, a strong showing in the fields of economic development, tourism, technology and connectivity often shape the identity of certain urban areas.
This now means that more and more of the economic exchanges and social life in a city also take place at night. The idea that a city is awake 24 hours a day softens the transition between day and night. This shift tends to be lost if the activity in some way straddles this transitional process or if a certain action, which used to mostly be seen in the morning, can now be carried out at night.
The general absence of seamless solutions over the course of 24 hours, in terms of human behaviour or activities that take place in an urban space, leads us to analyse night-time in a completely new way. The identification of human actions or specific night periods can help us to intelligently and effectively analyse the current needs of people during the night-time hours.
“We must consider not just the city as a thing in itself, but the city being perceived by its inhabitants,” explains Kevin Lynch in “The image of the city”. He goes on to say that “[…] The urban landscape, among its many roles, is also something to be seen, to be remembered and to delight in.” Plans for urban spaces and urban lighting should not be exclusively focused on human beings. Indeed, the overriding natural ecosystem (that revolves around human beings and yet is quite clearly composed of many other factors, such as animals, plants and climate) should always play a prominent role. Nevertheless, we will now focus on how people perceive the external environment. This will help us to accurately understand the issue of light at night, depending on the psychological perceptions that characterise certain types of urban environment. As Daniel Berlyne argued, people are constantly looking for knowledge from the real world. The additional information a person can get very often depends on the level of uniqueness displayed by the subject that is being observed. Colin Ellard, who once again references Berlyne, explains this theory:
“One of the keys to the theory is that to quantify information, one must be able to estimate the probability of occurrence of individual elements in the message. Elements that don’t occur very often provide more information than those that occur commonly. Adding up all of the elements in the whole message can provide a number in bits that describes in bare formalities the information content of the message. To make this concrete, consider an example. Imagine that you retrieve a message from your voicemail. The message is quite garbled, but you can make out certain words. If you heard a message like “…the…to… and…you…” then you would learn very little that was new. The bit value of the utterance would be close to zero. On the other hand, if you heard “I’m…way…dinner…call…later” you could probably do a pretty good job of disentangling at least a part of the meaning of the message. In terms of information theory, both of the utterances contain the same number of words. The difference is that the first message contains only words that appear with very high frequency in English; they carry very few bits of information. The second message, in contrast, contains words with lower frequencies (and so lower probabilities of occurrence), so there is more information available.” 5 If we imagine that the complete phrase (using the example from above) is the daytime situation at our location, we should now try to understand how important it is to work with light at night to help us highlight the right “bits of information” to improve the way the stage is communicated to its players. This theory can be applied to both façade illumination and the design of a lighting layout for a street or square.
The psychological aspect is only one of several factors that influence human perception of the surrounding environment at night. However, it is important to understand how an accurate reading of the environment itself can affect wellbeing, orientation and the sense of safety, along with the related emotions stimulated by these situations. Jan Gehl, with regard to the relationship between people and the city, often talks about “inviting” individuals to act in a certain way. This way of thinking is gaining increasing acceptance, with cities such as Copenhagen, New York and Melbourne already showing the first results of this approach. Gehl based his theory on the idea that by implementing elements that characterise a particular activity, people are invited to carry out the activity itself. Raising the number of roads is an invitation to use the car, which thereby increases the amount of motorised traffic, whilst building more bike paths should encourage more people to travel by bike. Yet the most interesting result obtained from Gehl’s work concerns pedestrian areas. Improving these areas not only increases pedestrian traffic (which also has positive consequences in terms of health, safety and sustainability), but also strengthens and enhances city life.
This shows therefore how the psychological and emotional aspects, linked to the perception of locations and the qualitative level of wellbeing experienced there, can shape the activities taking place in an urban space. In addition, these factors can also help boost the social identity of specific locations.
3. A NEW ROLE FOR LIGHT OUTDOORS?
Ludovica Scarpa argues that: “[…] economic wellbeing in Europe and North America since World War II has been growing steadily, in contrast to the degree of satisfaction and psycho-physiological wellbeing. If you take the ability to try to “trust in others” as an indicator of individual safety, then safety has decreased. Society is becoming anonymous, in anonymous spaces that make anonymous people, where human contacts are random and occasional, so it is harder to develop trust. It is therefore worth researching the contribution that spaces make towards the current state of depression in society.” 5 As we outlined earlier, the psychological and behavioural characteristics of a man-made space change hand-in-hand with human needs and with the way an area is perceived, even at night. The aforementioned factors, however, are nothing more than components that shape everyday human experience in urban applications. As a result, the purpose of “touching on” the previous aspects could be to engage with and to improve the social value of the spaces themselves. Studies have shown that when people meet up with friends, talk with neighbours or interact confidently with strangers, they also tend to feel a strong sense of belonging to the places that host and stimulate this type of social activity.
A space devoid of human activity is a dead and depressed space that arouses little interest. This is likely to be negative in both economic and social terms. On the other hand, a place where there are different activities and interests can bring many benefits to an urban area. Activities can be varied and can of course take place at different times of day. Jan Gehl defines three macro-activities: necessary activities, optional activities and social activities.6 The information that people derive from the surrounding space depends on the planned scale of the environment and the range of related activities. For example, the context of the space shown in Figure 6 a) is designed primarily for people travelling by car. This means that the information needs to be understood quickly and from a distance whilst travelling at speed and with restricted visual focus. The context was therefore developed around the necessary activity, which in this case is the movement of people by car. The scale of use of this application is linked to the speed of 60 kilometres per hour that a car usually travels in this type of situation. In Figure 6 b) the space has been designed to a more human scale, in view of the fact that the people are only moving at 5 kilometres per hour. At this speed and with a wide field of vision, people have time to get more information at close range. The necessary activity – moving from one point to another (e.g. from home to the office or from home to school) – can of course be supplemented by other optional activities like shopping or relaxing in a café.
Perception of the context is therefore critical to the establishment of human activities in a specific space. It would of course be impossible to drive a car along the street in Figure 6 b) at high speed because we could not cope with the amount of information coming into our field of vision. However, if we extend this concept into the night, some questions begin to arise. Why is the lighting philosophy used for some types of context, like that of Figure 6 a) – with its own functional requirements and business activities – also often applied to Figure 6 b), where both the psychological orientation and the needs of the users are completely different? Why do we not think – through the use of light – about increasing the number of human activities in location Figure 6 b), or about creating a social identity to revitalise urban environments at night and to adjust the lighting of an outdoor space to more accurately reflect the human scale?
As it is generally agreed that the lighting of outdoor spaces no longer needs to simply reflect functional aspects or comply with regulations, it is now possible to consider using the “light filter” as if it were part of the built environment and to utilise this element in the same way as theatrical lighting. If we think about an urban space as a theatrical stage, by changing or replacing the filter (or filters) we can create different lighting scenarios to meet varied human requirements that occur at different times of night. Thanks to these considerations and progressive technological development, we are now able to further develop the hypothesis of a lighting approach for urban areas based on specific levels (or layers) of light. In the same way that CAD programmes enable us to switch different layers of a drawing on or off, depending on the information that we want to find or display, it should be possible to manage light scenes (by activating or deactivating various layers of light) in an urban environment, in line with human activity and the particular time of day or night. Figure 7 shows an example of how the same urban environment can play host to different human activities or be associated with requirements that characterise the various periods of the night. In Figure 7 a), in the early evening, there is a greater need to experience the park in front of the station, which in turn helps define the environment as a point of spatial reference – a guiding landmark. In Figure 7 b), in the middle of the night, the feeling of safety and respect for the ecosystem need to be taken into account. If you consider darkness to be a natural starting point, you may look to combine adaptive functional lighting with an appropriate level of vertical illuminance. In this case both human behaviour and the nocturnal ecosystem are important factors. As several studies have shown, artificial light can influence photo-sensitive animals and affect the procreation of plants by distracting pollinators. Rogier Narboni has for many years talked about “dark infrastructure” as an additional layer for lighting master plans. 7 He firmly believes in darkness as a fundamental element of the night, not only for sustainable purposes but also to help people redefine their perception of urban atmospheres and strengthen the triangular connection between people, nature and city. Introducing specific dark elements and dark areas can also serve to preserve the identity of a particular place. In Figure 7 c), in the early morning, the layer dedicated to guiding commuters is predominant, but having a stimulating scenario may also be important, helping to increase the level of social interaction in “non-places” 8 like train stations.
4. THE ACTIVE “FILTER” OF LIGHT
As we look to the future, active light is needed to take a step forward, especially when we reflect on the gradual change that is shaping cities, society and human behaviour. The challenge is to adapt something that could well be considered an element of the built environment – artificial light – to reflect human dynamics and the morphological characteristics of the space around us.
The activities associated with an urban space play a key role in defining the level of wellbeing. We will be able to illuminate spaces more to a human scale by adapting the light to meet various needs and by using it in a bespoke way in terms of timing and design. The concept of active light can be seen in many ways and can help us clearly understand the strength of the bond between the lighting of the space and the people that actually use the space. We can almost view light like a changing organism that is closely related to man and his emotional sphere, capable of filtering the reality that surrounds us and thereby influencing the way we experience and perceive our immediate environment.
The variation in colour temperature within a defined time span affects the amount of melatonin produced by the human body, which in turn impacts directly on our biological status. The dynamism, intensity and colour of light can combine to stimulate a vast array of emotions. Certain design approaches also involve a psychological aspect.
This is of fundamental importance to facilitate certain activities, behaviours and social interactions.
In addition, active light 9 should not just reflect human activities, but also the interaction with the natural ecosystem, limiting the impact of artificial light on plant and animal species and reducing the consumption of energy resources.
This concept is at the heart of the Zumtobel commitment to develop a dedicated product portfolio for the illumination of outdoor environments. With a constant eye on innovative technologies and material quality, the goal is to provide designers with a toolbox of lighting instruments that lets them devise solutions to a human scale, in all sizes and concepts. This means that public spaces can be turned into places with a specific identity, raising the quality of life in urban environments that have been designed by people – and thereby transforming them into urban environments that are designed for people.
Lighting Application Manager
Zumtobel Lighting GmbH