Who cares? It’s just lighting

Lance Stewart, managing director Creative Lighting

One of the lesser-known casualties of the Brisbane floods of 2011 was the lighting at a local park. But only lighting professionals can explain what’s wrong with the replacement scheme.

Get the lighting right and, sadly, it often goes unnoticed: positive comments are made instead about the architecture, the decor or something intangible such as the atmosphere. But get the lighting wrong and everyone seems to have something to say about it.

Take, for instance, a park just up the river from my home.

The park was smashed by the 2011 floods in Brisbane, during which water levels were 26 metres above their normal height in our area. ‘Major’ does not seem an adequate adjective to describe a flood that killed 35 people, destroyed homes and infrastructure to the tune of a billion dollars and made me really handy with a chainsaw.

I remember watching bits of the park’s infrastructure bobbing along just past my back door and out to sea. And finding other bits of the park that the flood left behind so I would have something useful to do with my leisure time for the next year or so.

The park (and to a lesser extent my backyard) was eventually fixed. For AUS$10 million (£5 million) they could even afford to add lighting to the list of things that I might one day find littering my backyard after the next major flood. Gee, I can’t wait.

Now, I have heard the park’s new lighting described by members of the public as a ‘forest of poles’, ‘too bright’, ‘ugly’, ‘highly distracting for motorists’ and ‘too much glare’. Apparently the new lighting has been a hot topic among locals ever since it was switched on.

An experienced lighting professional might add to the conversation by questioning the choice of a high colour temperature for the light sources throughout. Then there’s the aiming, the lack of cut-off shielding to the luminaires, the predominance of pole-top luminaires and the inadequate contrast between the illuminance of the designated paths and the open spaces.

In fact, to my mind, the park looks to be lit like a sports field. Except, of course, that there are no sports. Or fields. But apart from the lack of sports, fields or spectators, you would have to say that it sure is lit. Like a sports field.

My tip for the day is always hide the light sources unless the light is the thing that you want to direct people to look at

I imagine that greenies would be rightly upset too, by the unnecessary energy consumption. There does not appear to be any intelligent control of the lighting. It is on, and at high intensity, even when only a small part of the park is occupied. And an astronomer would no doubt lament the upward component of the light that adds to light pollution in the form of city skyglow, making stargazing more difficult.

My handy tip for the day is that you should always hide the light sources unless the light is the thing that you want to direct people to look at. If your client has some terrific-looking lights they would like to use as part of the decor, fine. Unless the lights happen to be one of that rare breed that are both aesthetically attractive and great illuminators, put the lowest intensity sources you can find into them instead, so they appear to be the source of light but aren’t, and leave the real work to those (presumably ugly) lights that you have carefully hidden.

As for this particular park with its preponderance of pole-top glare emitters, the solution seems blindingly obvious: retrofit cut-off shields to the lights or replace them if shielding is not an option. Add intelligent control with dimming and presence detection so lights in vacant areas dim, lights in occupied areas are on, and lights in adjacent areas, amenities – installed for aesthetic reasons – are dimmed to save energy.

Although this does nothing to address the uniformly high colour temperature, it would at least be a vast improvement on the current visual composition, and would also be more sensitive to the environment and less distracting for motorists. It could even, perhaps, turn a zero into a hero.

Does it meet code? It probably does, but don’t ask me, I was dumbly staring into lights, not looking at a lux meter. As to who let this happen and what, if anything, will now be done about it… who knows?

Perhaps more importantly, who, apart from me, cares?

After all, it’s just lighting, isn’t it?