News, Outdoor

Public lighting reinforces class division, say scientists

The over-illumination of social housing estates – such as at Churchill Gardens in London – is designed to allow for better CCTV surveillance and the prevention of anti-social behaviour and crime, but it also marks out some spaces out as less valuable and even dangerous

The way that urban spaces, such as social housing estates, are lit reinforce the increasing levels of inequality faced by cities says a new report by scientists based at the London School of Economics.

According to the research, the over-illumination of social housing estates –  to allow for better CCTV surveillance and the prevention of anti-social behaviour and crime –  mark some spaces out as less valuable and even threatening or risky, deterring people from using and enjoying these spaces. In contrast, in more affluent neighbourhoods or expensive designer developments, light is used as a design tool to create an aesthetically pleasurable nightscape which appears valuable, safer and more inviting.

This public housing housing tower in Southend, UK, was recently relit with LED, resulting in an energy saving of 75 per cent. But has the stark, bright lighting reinforced stereotypes about council estates?

This leads to a sense of segregation between urban areas, as well as preventable high energy and maintenance costs for social housing lighting.

Dr Don Slater, associate professor of Sociology at LSE and co-founder of the Configuring Light project, told Lux Review: ‘While not all urban spaces need highly aestheticized lighting schemes, good lighting design can help build social inclusion and civic life across urban spaces and create places that are engaging, accessible and comfortable for everyone who shares them.’

The report, Tackling Social Inequalities in Public Lighting, maps out new strategies to tackle lighting inequalities by drawing on a series of expert roundtable meetings, hosted by the Configuring Light programme. These explored how social research and cross-disciplinary collaboration could help address lighting issues using three London estates and developments owned by the Peabody housing association as case studies: the Whitecross Estate in Islington; the Thamesmead Estate in Greenwich/Bexley; and the St Johns Development in Wandsworth.

The lighting can often cause housing estates to look disconnected from the urban areas around them, says LSE researcher Mona Sloane

The report recommends that lighting needs should be fully recognised as a strategic part of urban policy and planning and designed with all users and uses of spaces in mind – including those that may be marginalised or excluded.

Public lighting strategies should also be responsive to changes in use, such as throughout the seasons, and tap into the potential of cheaper more responsive lighting technologies.

The report also recommends that lighting should be explicitly recognised as the responsibility of housing and planning organisations, with relevant experts involved throughout the design and implementation process.

Mona Sloane, LSE researcher and co-founder of Configuring Light, said: ‘Lighting can label a nocturnal space as ‘private’ or ‘public’, with housing estates often looking disconnected from the urban areas around them, which can give an impression of danger. Improved lighting could help create news ways of living in these spaces, such as allowing and encouraging children to play after dusk.’