How To Light Cities In The Future Without Ruining It

From the medieval candle to phosphorescent trees and glow-in-the-dark concrete, Daryl Mersom charts the trajectory of urban light, and asks how the problem of light pollution can be tackled in the modern era.

Artist Daan Roosegaarde’s Waterlicht ‘floods’ Museum Square in Amsterdam with light, Netherlands. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
Artist Daan Roosegaarde’s Waterlicht ‘floods’ Museum Square in Amsterdam with light, Netherlands. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

The ever-increasing demand for the 24-hour illumination of cities is blighting urban residents with two distinct forms of pollution. Current lighting solutions rely on vast amounts of energy, of course, much of which is not yet generated from renewable resources. According to the International Energy Agency, lighting accounts for almost 20% of global electricity consumptionand thus high levels of carbon emissions.

But there is also an increasing acknowledgement that light itself constitutes a form of pollution – and mounting evidence that our exposure to urban lighting at unnatural times is making us ill. It is reported that the glow of Los Angeles is visible to planes 200 miles away, while in Reykjavik, light pollution is obscuring the northern lights.

With our current lighting technologies being called into question, it is time we considered the numerous alternative lighting solutions being pioneered. Indeed, 2015 was declared the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies, in recognition of the critical role that photonics (the science of light particles) now plays in our urban lives and communications.

Some of the most interesting plans to tackle the two-fold problem of urban light pollution include experiments with phosphorescent trees, light emitting algae, glow-in-the-dark concrete and light scheduling based on big data.

 The glow of Los Angeles is visible to planes 200 miles away. Photograph: Alamy
The glow of Los Angeles is visible to planes 200 miles away. Photograph: Alamy

According to the Dutch artist and designer Daan Roosegaarde, we must move into a brave new world of green illumination. After tracing the history of urban lighting from the innocuous and personal candle to light bulbs and increased energy demands, Roosegaarde says the next step is for us to explore bioluminescence.

One Studio Roosegaarde project involves utilising the luminescent properties of marine bacteria in small plants. While the technology is protected and still being developed, Roosegaarde imagines that it could be scaled up to provide trees that offer biological alternatives to lampposts. “Yes we are changing things,” says Roosegaarde, “but in a way we are doing already on a massive scale. Let’s not be scared – let’s be curious.”

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Another tantalising trajectory for his “glowing nature project” involves light-emitting algae. “The algae is beautiful. When you move your hand through the water, it starts to light up. It becomes very responsive, very interactive and that’s something we are pushing. It’s not copper wires and cables; it’s a living thing, and you can sense that.” While the interface is still in development, Roosegaarde suggests that the algae could be used in lampposts as a way of illuminating our streets.

In response to the potentially harmful influence of these new technologies on the ecosystem, he admits, “there are George Orwell scenarios where we completely damage existing systems”. It is impossible to predict how new technologies will impact the ecosystem, and they may impinge on certain species, causing irreversible damage. Nevertheless, he contends that “there are also Leonardo da Vinci scenarios” where we discover safer ways to light our cities.

 The world’s first glow-in-the-dark cycle path in Nuenen in the Netherlands. Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/Corbis
The world’s first glow-in-the-dark cycle path in Nuenen in the Netherlands. Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/Corbis

One creative Roosegaarde solution to the unlit bicycle paths in the Dutch town of Nuenen involves using thousands of twinkling stones to create an illuminated route. The Van Gogh path, named after the artist that lived in the town in 1883, blends the traditional with the contemporary in a gesture that points both back to the painting The Starry Night, and forward to the innovative future of urban lighting.

South Korean artist Koo Jeong-A has, like Roosegaarde, been involved with the Unesco Year of Light, and was invited this year to build a glow-in-the-dark skatepark in Everton, after Liverpool City Council learned of the success of her previous work with glow-in-the-dark concrete in France. When I asked her about the availability of the material, she told me that since the project took place in France in 2012, it has become a lot easier to procure. While her use of the material is largely concerned with aesthetics, it is not difficult to imagine how the technology might provide solar-powered illumination in more practical urban scenarios.

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In Glasgow, an alternative lighting solution has been developed based on big data. Future Cities says: “Glasgow is leading the way with the trial of intelligent street lighting, looking at ways to add more control and efficiency to our lighting network while harnessing the power of real time data to improve both lighting and safety throughout the city.” The lighting responds to our interactions with the city, as we produce data based on our patterns of movement. This project surely nods towards a more Orwellian future of urban lighting.

Contrary to Glasgow’s pioneering work, Roosegaarde believes that the contemporary obsession with technology is on its way out. “I think technology will completely disappear, and you see that in a way already. It will be there but less invasive than it is right now. For me, bio is the new digital.”

Whether or not any of these early trajectories for bioluminescent lighting materialse by late 2016 – the date by which Roosegaarde aims to launch a bigger project – he is opening up a dialogue about how we tackle this endemically urban problem. He argues that there needs to be a radical shift away from fuel-based lighting towards alternative and intuitive lighting. “Just planting trees and putting grass on roofs is great, but it’s not enough. We need more radical ideas, and I’d love to be a pioneer in that.”

For now, though, big data lighting and glow-in-the-dark concrete offer tentative solutions to the problems posed by our cities’ thirst for light.


This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.


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