There is a neighborhood in Burlington that has the most beautiful views of Lake Champlain by day and often equally impressive views at night. Ever since my legs found that particular street with the breathtaking lake views, it has been my favorite part of my run. On a recent evening run, I discovered that I could see so many stars from that street, too, many more than I could see my from house. Actually, the stark contrast in numbers of stars was astonishing. And I enjoyed this neighborhood much more; there was a nicer feeling about it.
Before long I realized that the contrast was due to the types of streetlights. My neighborhood has the standard tall freestanding lights or those attached to a telephone pole, both being the kind that give off an orange-ish flooding light. Any night atmosphere is obscured.
The neighborhood with the star filled sky, on the other hand, has streets lined with shorter, individual street lamps. There are a few styles on the streets, but all are shorter. One looks like a lantern or an old street light, and one sheds light down below a rounded metal hood. (I’m sure there are appropriate technical terms for styles, so if you are an expert, please clue me in.)
This isn’t rocket science. It is amazing how much of a difference lighting plays, indoors or out. Gas street lamps have been in the United States since the early nineteenth century (Baltimore in 1816). Since then street lamps have been powered primarily by electricity, whether in the form of fluorescence, mercury, sodium, or something else. Light fixtures have, of course, varied throughout the last two centuries. Street lighting was given much attention in community plans; just think of the Garden City, City Beautiful, and other planning movements. As I recall, the periodical The American City features many articles from the early twentieth century that discuss street lighting.
I’m grateful for street lights; they allow people to walk or run at night without tripping over the sidewalk or slipping on the black ice and lights make the streets safer. However, the disadvantages of street lights include the orange glow shining through your curtains at night, the obstruction of the night sky, the number of insects they attract, and that buzzing noise of the light itself.
Many rural communities have very few street lights, whereas those who grew up in suburbia know nothing other than orange street lamps. Take me for example: when I moved to Virginia for college and traveled around the state a bit, I was amazed at how many roads didn’t have any lights at all. It was pure darkness. Long Island had street lights everywhere and hardly any rural areas, so the world was always lit with orange street lamps, save for the occasional blackout. During the great blackout of summer 2003, I saw more stars at home than any other time. Since then and living elsewhere, I’m accustom to a world with much fewer street lights and now the variety that exists in the City of Burlington.
Street lights are often required and/or wanted, particularly in cities. It makes sense. But, clearly, there are street lights that are more appropriate in residential districts, historic or not. Why? Street lights are only the beginning. In fact, I started this post with the idea to just talk about street lights, and then realized that there are greater issues to address: beyond the annoying orange glow, the less than pleasing aesthetic, and the buzzing sound of so many, the night time sky is something that many people do not have the opportunity to appreciate. Light pollution is a real issue. Most of us have never seen pure night sky. And we’re losing it fast, faster than the growth of population, according to the International Dark Sky Association.
The International Dark Sky Association is an organization dedicated to calling attention to light pollution, providing solutions, and educating the public. They recognize the great importance of the need for street lighting, but address night sky friendly lights that decrease light pollution.
So, that subtle feeling you get in different neighborhoods may very well be connected to how it is lit at night. Street lights and other outdoor lights (such as spotlights) have an incredible ability to shape and color the feeling of our environment. Granted, light pollution comes from much greater sources such as shopping plazas and highways and roadside signs and cities with constantly lit buildings, but street lights are a tangible beginning that we all see outside our windows. The more thoughtful the lighting style in terms of light pollution, aesthetics, and compatibility with the built and natural environment, the better experience we can all have.
Read more about the importance of the dark sky or Lightscapes at the National Park Service. Read “Who Will Keep the Night” by Angela M. Richman from the Common Ground Summer 2003 issue. That entire issue addresses the importance and vulnerability of the night sky.