Dark City: Light and Information in the 21st Century

August 01 2010 — by Mark Major
Only a decade into the 21st century the city has perhaps become an even greater source of attention and fascination than at any time since the industrial revolution when we experienced urbanisation on an unprecedented level.

Everywhere you turn politicians, planners, architects, designers and technologists are focusing on the future development of the urban realm. This is largely in response to social, economic and political factors - and especially the rapid rate of population growth. Such change however is also seen as a commercial opportunity by many big corporations who are seeking to exploit the increasingly complex social and economic needs of burgeoning populations.

Copyright: Colin Ball / Speirs + Major

As a result two clear systems of exploration are developing: The first is one in which we are looking for solutions to real problems – food supplies, air quality, the availability of water, mobility, energy use, waste management, pressure on space, etc. The second is a form of ‘gold rush’ that is taking place where commercial enterprise jostles for position to own as a big a slice of the action as possible – the will to not only address the daily needs of a captive and ever expanding market but to create a demand for things that people didn’t even know they want!

Public light and public information are two of the many ‘systems’ that contribute to the infrastructure of the modern city. As a result of the paradigm described above they too have been subject to rapid change in terms of approach, technique and technology. They too are informed by a level of debate. We need light and information to enable our cities to function. We want light and information to inform our aspirations and lifestyle choices.

In the past the provision of public lighting systems was generally quite simple. Limitations on technology often resulted in the basic deployment of a limited range of available light sources being strategically positioned to optimise their function – lanterns on poles or hanging on brackets was the basic response. Similarly the provision of information systems was largely down to simple graphical devices such as painted signs that would convey everything we needed from directions to advertising.

The second half of the twentieth century saw considerable change – developments in technology and a growth in the interest in the creative use of light and graphics has seen both areas move from being a simple ‘overlay’ to a fully integrated part of urban design. This paradigm shift has been further informed by the revolution in information technology and the rapid growth of almost universal access to the internet. Lighting is moving towards digitally controlled systems which can be tuned to provide varying amounts of light at different times of the day. Public information will be largely screen based in which everything from transport updates to adverts for cosmetic surgery will be delivered by building sized billboards or hand held devices (and anything in between). Networking the two together is the inevitable next step.

In response to such change we are seeing the emergence of designers dedicated to providing creative solutions for both urban lighting and universal information systems both independently and in collaboration with each other. Such designers are addressing the blurring of the edges between many different disciplines. The emergence of common technologies such as LEDs, OLEDs and digital control systems will offer limitless invention. This means that light and information are gradually merging as combined systems such that we are now able to create cities that are made of moving image and light.

With this comes both a wealth of creative opportunities and a series of dangers. The opportunities are perhaps obvious in the manner in which both functional and lifestyle based solutions might come together to make urban living even more exciting, convenient and vital than it is today. The dangers however include more visual chaos leading to unintelligible space, an even greater contribution to light pollution than we have experienced to date and a potential increase in energy use thereby further depleting vital natural resources. These factors and others dictate that the application of light and information must be carefully handled to create the right balance not only between opportunity and risk but also to ensure that future development of such systems is sustainable.

With respect to light we know from experience that quantity is not the issue. It is quality and distribution. In respect to information we know that too little is pointless and too much can confuse. In that sense the provision of light and information can benefit from the maxim that ‘less is more’.

In the 21st century city we must address a myriad of different sources of light and information including street lighting, security lighting, architectural lighting and landscape lighting, illuminated and kinetic signage and advertising, traffic signals and media screens. Indeed every single intervention whether it is a major floodlighting scheme to a public building, the reflected colour of a changing LED billboard or the accidental light spill through a private bedroom window directly contributes to the pattern of light and information in the city. The public realm experience of an urban area after dark is often provided through the combination of all of these interventions and not related to one specific element. Such is the plethora of lit interventions, planned or otherwise, that we now have to begin to think of cities as places which are inevitably ‘made of light’ and that our role as designers is as much to determine and carve out the darkness as it is to help add light and visual delineation.

As has been argued elsewhere, darkness has its own unique qualities. Whilst it is often associated with the fear of crime and lack of security it can also bring visual quietness, privacy and a sense of calm. Importantly it also provides the means by which bio-diversity might be properly maintained within the urban environment – birds, insects, flora and fauna all benefit from less light. Darkness also provides a background against which any lighting intervention may be better seen and is therefore a key component in providing intelligible space.

Of course such darkness already exists in many major urban environments anyway. We only need to fly in over London or Paris to witness the ‘black holes’ created in the otherwise relentless grid of lights by major parks, rivers, railway lines, etc. But this may no longer be enough. Light is even encroaching into those domains and we seek to further extend the day and eliminate the night. Given our eyes are naturally well adapted to the dark the idea that we necessarily need very large quantities of light to function is anathema. You only have to spend a small amount of time living or working in a rural environment with no street lighting to understand that life goes on regardless. Of course the speed of traffic, the presence of crime and the need to quickly navigate the public realm all mean that inevitably the streets of any city benefit from being lit, but how much light we actually need and whether darkness has any place remains open to question.

Deliberately creating or leaving areas of darkness in the city might be crudely paralleled to the manner in which introduction of public parks and gardens of the 17th and 18th century and the evolution of the garden city movement of the 19th and 20th centuries helped to change the attitude towards our cities by suggesting that nature had a role to play within the developing urban environment. These days the retention and introduction of natural and man-made landscape now seems not only sensible but almost vital to creating a sense of well-being within the urban environment. Such places provide the ‘lungs’ of the city and the means for recreation. The legacy of parks and green spaces very much carries on today through the ongoing introduction of ‘green space’ in favour of simply occupying every available square millimetre with built form. Indeed it is the contrast between landscape and built form that makes our cities exciting and vital by day.

Perhaps we can learn from this precedent and handle light and information display in a similar manner by thinking of light as being the equivalent to ‘built form’ and darkness as being a metaphor for ‘natural landscape’. The former makes a desirable functional and economic impact. The latter perhaps mitigates and contrasts in kind.

By creating ‘dark cities’ we will not only create a more sustainable response but also enable the way you experience them even better – safer, more navigable, more intelligible and visually more exciting, leading to a richer and more diverse environment in which the benefits of light and display might be better appreciated against the qualities of privacy, silence and visual calmness that darkness brings.

Mark Major
Stockholm Lighting Days, February 2010