Feature, Outdoor

LEDs help Melbourne show it still means business

Lighting has been an essential part of Melbourne’s attempts to bring its central business district back to life

Twenty years ago, the central business district in Melbourne was in crisis. At one point, there were only 100 people living in the area, everyone else commuted in from elsewhere. Out-of-town shopping centres were opening up and corporates were deserting the city. Outside the 9-5 working hours, the place was becoming a ghost town. Residents found the district gloomy and dark – and unsafe.

“We should’ve been a 24/7 city like New York or Barcelona… this is when the lighting kicked in.”

Ian Dryden

Something had to be done to reverse the decline. ‘We were going down the Detroit path,’ says Ian Dryden, industrial designer for the city.

City councillors recognised the seriousness of the situation and decided to fund the regeneration of the area.

‘My job was to get the paving, furniture and details right,’ says Dryden. ‘Working block by block we looked at many things – parking, pedestrians and their use of space. We wanted to calm down the traffic and get people to live in the city.’

Ironically, it was the recession in 1992 that brought people back into the city. As more companies shut up shop, commercial properties became vacant, and planners could consider converting commercial buildings into homes.

The district’s grade D art deco buildings were brought up to current regulations and soon the transformed properties were full, often with overseas students.

People started coming back to Melbourne’s CBD after the city invested in LED lighting outdoors. 770,000 people were visiting the city in the day and 450,000 would come out at night.

But although the residents were back, the city was still dead at night. ‘We should’ve been a 24/7 city like New York or Barcelona… this is when the lighting kicked in,’ says Dryden.

Many things contributed to the transformation of the district at night, but lighting played a vital part. When choosing lighting products, Dryden weighed up the costs.

Fixtures from a range of manufacturers, including Versalux, Sylvania, General Electric, were fitted. ‘We also used bespoke lights that we designed and in Swansea Street we used high-access lights,’ he says.

The project started in King Street, where there had been some incidents late at night outside the clubs, and the lighting was improved in two ways. First, the same poles light up the roadways and the footpaths. ‘The poles were designed using a new material – aluminium,’ says Philippe Lesage, national product manager of Versalux. ‘The main shaft of the poles is made from extruded, seamless, tapered aluminium from Europe.’ These were finished locally with elements designed by Dryden.

Second, the revitalisation programme made use of white light. ‘Metal halide lamps give a much better atmosphere and render colours well,’ says Lesage.

​The previous fittings emitted a dim orange light that made the streets look dirty and shadowed. Dryden said they couldn’t work out why until they looked at colour rendition. ‘The eye uses its rod photoreceptors to see at night, but rods see only in blues and purples,’ Dryden says.

When the artificial lighting is white, the eye starts using its cone cells, which see colour. The white light brought the colour rendering index up to 88. ‘This means you can now see trees in the same way you’d see them in daylight,’ according to Dryden.

Converting the central business district to white light made the city an inviting place to live, and to visit. After the changeover, 770,000 people were visiting the city in the day and 450,000 would come out at night.

 “I’ve never seen such aggressive development – it’s big steps every time”

Ian Dryden

The idea of using the same poles to light the roads and the footpaths has been extended to the streets and pedestrian alleys of the city’s docklands. Here, individual poles and luminaires have been designed, locally manufactured and installed. There are metal halide lamps reflecting onto fibreglass panels fitted on six-metre-high aluminium poles. ‘Some people call them seagulls,’ says Lesage, adding that not only do they improve the ambience, they can be seen all over the precinct.

The lighting upgrade project is not just about aesthetics. By upgrading 40 per cent of the light fittings with LED sources, the annual electricity bill has been cut from $1.6 million to $450,000. And there is less maintenance. ‘LED has the head backwards so it doesn’t heat the glass – you don’t get the static for the dirt to stick to,’ says Dryden. ‘They only have to be cleaned once a year.’

Furthermore the life of the LEDs is longer than that of conventional light sources, so they don’t have to be replaced as frequently. ‘We expect our lights to last between 12 and 15 years,’ says Dryden, ‘our trials are eight years old and we’ve only had one failure in 30 or 40 fittings.’

Melbourne is considering a zero emissions target for 2030, and lighting will play a big part in helping the city hit that target. ‘Getting the lighting right is a big priority. We’re now looking at replacing more luminaires with LED, plasma and other fittings,’ says Dryden.

Further efficiencies should be possible by introducing smart lighting to the city, and Dryden there will be other benefits such as improved communications and control of lighting.

Lighting technology is changing so quickly that Dryden says it’s difficult to know when it’s the right time to do the work. ‘I’ve never seen such aggressive development – it’s big steps every time,’ he says. ‘When you look at our first trial lights, they are so outdated by today’s standards. Ten years ago the lighting was very different.’