Light at Night and the Inequality Gap: Integrating Equity into Public ProjectsMar 09, 2023
In December 2021, the DLC hosted a webinar that explored issues related to “Bridging the Inequality Gap” in outdoor nighttime lighting. The conversation introduced research on how lighting contributes to discrimination and inequity in underrepresented communities, and generated heightened interest among attendees. To follow up on the research and work presented, the DLC sat down over Zoom with two of the 2021 webinar’s participants for an update. Below is the second of a two-part blog series based on our conversation with Lauren Dandridge, principal of the lighting design firm Chromatic and University of Southern California architectural lighting design professor, and Don Slater, Associate Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Read Part 1 here.
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) signed into law by President Biden in August 2022 authorizes $370 billion for clean energy and efficiency projects. The act focuses on communities that have historically been underserved economically and over-burdened by environmental issues and pollution. Because lighting will factor into many public infrastructure projects funded through the Act, it offers a once in a generation opportunity to install equitable and responsible outdoor lighting.
Bringing equity into the illumination of public spaces will require cities to take a new approach to public lighting projects. According to Lauren Dandridge and Don Slater, moderator and panelist, respectively, in the DLC’s “Responsible Lighting at Night: Bridging the Inequity Gap” webinar in late 2021, we need new models of community engagement and a bigger role for manufacturers.
For community engagement to yield true benefits for residents, municipalities should treat it as an educational process that informs residents of the pros and cons of various types of lighting and design, rather than relying on simplistic consultations and opinion surveys, Slater said. Otherwise, community engagement is easily “hijacked by a few vocal people” – and typically not those who spend the most time in the public spaces in question.
Dandridge agreed, adding that for lighting designers to be involved in public projects early enough to make a difference, municipalities must place value on lighting and those with expertise in it. Instead, public entities typically view lighting as something that’s important in terms of energy and cost and proceed with little regard for community impacts.
“Wherever there is a possibility of rethinking a public space with light, it’s very difficult for designers to get a voice, to get in there,” Slater said, noting that, when it does occur, it’s often a matter of luck to “find the right person to link arms with”.
Despite research to the contrary, municipal lighting decisionmakers are still guided by a prevailing belief that more light means more safety and less crime. This same mindset drives the design of other public infrastructure, from highway projects that slice up disadvantaged neighborhoods to surveillance cameras concentrated in places lacking economic and political influence.
As lighting decision makers, it is critical that we create policies and make equitable lighting choices that prioritize a community’s need for quality illumination without disregarding the importance of darkness. Looking to make a change in your community?
“The biggest issue with lighting is it ties into all of those same infrastructural inequalities and inequities,” Dandridge said, noting that if a municipality decides to put up security cameras, decisionmakers will likely attach them to existing light poles, not stopping to consider that the original asset was placed there because the area was labeled a “high crime” neighborhood.
“And all of the reasons and all of the behaviors, all of the biases and all of the issues that led to those decisions for those things to be there in the first place…will get reused in another community because it’s been proven that it ‘works’. And we’ll find ourselves repeating these cycles over and over again,” Dandridge said, until community leaders recognize the sociological- and anthropological-based reasons that extra light poles were put in particular communities in the first place.
To combat this, Dandridge said she is trying to make inroads in cities where she already has access to decisionmakers, including New York, Philadelphia, and especially Los Angeles, which will be adding infrastructure to support the 2026 World Cup and 2028 Olympics.
Since it’s hard to focus cities’ attention on equitable nighttime lighting with other more visible policy issues such as housing and homelessness in the spotlight, finding the right audience is key.
“As soon as you start making the points to the people who are interested, the people who have the best practices in mind, as soon as you talk about infrastructure being weaponized, they get it,” said Dandridge.
“Sometimes I’m talking about lighting design to a city and sometimes I’m talking about nighttime design or urban design… In many ways it’s a very tactical thing,” Slater said. “Which is going to allow me to make the case to a city that their lighting is increasing inequalities by zoning a particular district as a trouble spot? I find that all design, including lighting design, is being dominated by public order issues and crime control, surveillance. By changing the lighting, you can make an intervention and try to change that characterization of the place.”
Both Dandridge and Slater said more interest on the part of lighting manufacturers would be a game-changer. Because lighting is typically viewed as a commodity, not an agent of environmental quality, municipalities often leave designers out of the equation and go directly to manufacturers to make a deal for large quantities of fixtures. Change would happen faster, Dandridge said, “if manufacturers took this under their wing.”
“There is a real role for manufacturers to say it’s not just about providing 50,000 or 100,000 of light points at mass production levels, but to actually push the technology and try something new,” said Slater.
Added Dandridge, “If the manufacturers were to say ‘let’s engage the community and find out what they want so that we are making sure their needs are being met,’ that would change the whole conversation.”