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Too Much Light, or Not Enough?

A friend allowed me to borrow a book he thought would interest me. The 99% City (Mars & Kohlstedt) is described as “a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design” whereby it explores the important, but overlooked elements that make a city function. He knows my passion for better lighting and called my attention to sections on street lighting.

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Not Enough Light

“City of Light – Dissuasive Illumination,” explains that street light was an early way to make streets safer at night. They raised visibility and invited community. Street lights are certainly not new. Ancient Roman, Chinese and 15th century Europe all found value in better nighttime illumination and levels of use continued to increase, until, the book points out, there was pushback. Dark nights were good places for French Revolutionists. On the opposite side of the equation, people engaging in unseemly activities also preferred the dark.

Too Much Light

Another chapter, “Moonlight Towers” talks about the multi-story, arc-light towers that were constructed in Austin, Texas, among other US municipalities in the 1890s. Along with the required daily replacement of the electrodes, the noise, waste and intense glare caused push-back from residents. They were eventually removed in every city, except for the cash-strapped, Austin. The un-electrified towers remain as an indicator of the city’s historic past. Welder’s helmets, no longer required.

Like Austin, at that time, most of our cities are over-lit. Every alleyway has lighting, car lots are blasted with light all night and downtowns are bombarded with excess light that often does nothing but erase our ability to see the sky. Plants and animals are subsequently impact by excess nighttime lighting, effecting migratory patterns, nocturnal predators, adjoining aquatic life and a fairly large swath of conifer varietals, among other plants.

Just the Right Amount of Light

We are nearing a similar “good/bad, more/less light” position today. New research has been published recently that shows lower levels of light, but with better color properties is better for the user, pedestrian and worker in nighttime situations. Most of these measurements are substantially below government mandated levels. We all know that changing government regulations is akin to a “U” turn in an aircraft carrier, but the enticement of lower electric costs should make change inevitable.

Many people still believe more light is better and even higher levels of light are even better than that. Simply put, they are wrong. Our eyes function very well in extremely low levels of light and are slow to adjust to higher levels. Turn on the bedroom light in the middle of the night and you’ll know what I mean. This can be a difficult argument to win, however, especially when perceptions of safety are at stake.


Just as headway was being made in convincing people to reduce lumen amounts in outdoor residential applications, energy efficiency introduced better fluorescent, then new LED lamping. Light quantities popped back up. With integrated LED luminaires, the lumen output is staying high and a front porch light is often the last place you’ll find a dimmer. The use of color temperatures over 3000 doesn’t help either. In an effort to do the right thing, the unexpected consequence was the wrong thing. Sigh.

I have always recommended the lowest wattage possible for any surface mounted light on a home, especially if a professional landscape lighting solution has been installed. Anything higher will force visitors to squint as they approach the door. As we adjust to energy efficient product, find the LED lamp that delivers 200 to 400 lumens rather than the 800 lumens you got from a 60 watt incandescent lamp. If using an integrated luminaire, (bravo to you!) install a dimmer. Your guests, along with the birds and trees will thank you.

I do not expect lighting professionals to become Robespierre, shouting “À la lanterne!” if lower light levels are not heeded. (Lampposts served as impromptu gallows for hanging during la révolution française.) I hope some common sense is employed and a happy balance between no light and too much is found. Now, if we are going to argue over the effectiveness of the Jacobins or Cordelier factions as they relate to the French Revolution, a lamppost might be in order. On or off won’t make a difference.

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