Urban lighting

Prior to the 1980s, the concept of urban lighting was non-existent. Aesthetic public/exterior lighting designs were restricted to luminairs or lighting systems which were installed by electrical engineers or manufacturers whose concerns were with functional goals, expressed mostly in terms of safety and visual effectiveness.

Due to the energy crisis of that period, considerable technical progress in the lighting industry was made and this was concurrent with a radical change in night-time urban lifestyles. Thus the development of professional lighting designs through mastering new technologies with new-found visual results enabled officials, architects, planners and citizens to share the responsibility of breathing new night life into cities.

Urban lighting has become a specialised field and is recognised as one of the most important components of all urban projects. The design of nocturnal landscapes has multiple impacts: cultural, environmental, social and economic.

Both natural and artificial lighting serve to increase the awareness of the beauty and diversity of city landscapes.

Century City, Cape Town

This stimulus encourages people to rediscover and perceive the night-time environment in a new and different way.

The urban nocturnal space can be transformed into an area of open exploration and diverse experimentation, but this can also generate an increasingly accentuated divide between those who wish to treat public nocturnal space as a congenial place for daily living and those who prefer to encourage the realisation of spectacular illumination effects.

Nocturnal tourism

Nocturnal tourism is developing worldwide and stimulates human circulation at the heart of historic sites, illuminated monuments, rejuvenated ports and harbours and previously run-down parts of cities now injected with new possibilities and destinations. This form of tourism is a generator of economic activity and employment, thus beneficial to all.

What becomes of the landscape after nightfall? Is it the same by moonlight as it is by sunlight? The day interpretation of a vista will be transformed during the changing light intensities that are due to the movement of the sun, the shortening of shadows until midday and the lengthening and change of direction during the afternoon.

Umhlanga Rocks

Without artificial lighting, few sites would be visible by night. Urban development and infrastructure furnishes the night with luminous points: domestic, industrial and public lights. These diverse light sources may generate a nocturnal image quite by chance but in the vast majority of cases, the image produced is at best uninteresting and more often, unacceptable.

Up until about 20 years ago, this was the case with public lighting in most cities but today, fortunately, in some South African cities, the role of lighting is changing fundamentally. Beyond the solely functional aspects, contemporary urban lighting design is now able to transform space, create an agreeable ambience and improve living areas. Through this evolution of the landscape from natural to artificial lighting, we are able to improve the environment and make a nocturnal creation to acceptable standards. But this can only succeed if artificial lighting creates an appealing landscape by night and is not used as an excuse to justify an inappropriate demonstration of illumination, or to participate in the destruction of the landscape. The landscape at night may be more than the object of simple lighting; the illuminated scene should be specifically conceived to be seen and appreciated at night, and generate interest to read the daytime landscape for comparison.

The intervention of artificial lighting determines the manner in which the viewer perceives the site, as certain combinations of light, colour and shadow evoke similar emotions in people. Compositions of light on grand scales aim to provoke instant reactions, similar to festive environments where high-intensity, multi-coloured moving light sources stimulate those specific senses.

It is the quantity of light that makes vision possible and this is the primary characteristic of night-time atmospheres. The emphasis is on light control through high quality optical reflectors and lenses to obviate any light pollution issues, with cognizance taken of lamp colour, temperature and colour rendering indices.

Aspects and atmospheres

Light can be rich, enhancing and beautiful or poor, uncomfortable and insipid. Every project involves different aspects of lighting design.

Street lighting is a functional urban lighting exercise that absorbs the focus of the motorist, whilst a pedestrian is a spectator who can view the entire urban landscape.

Convivial atmospheres are created by pedestrian streets, walkways and shopping malls where high vertical illumination levels allow identification and generate feelings of safety.

Discreet luminous environments provide good visual comfort without attracting attention and without great contrasts. They are soft by nature, as found in residential areas and hotel complexes.

Romantic environments are cosy resting places, generating warmth and a connection through colour, with moonlight for the classic component.

In all cases, the following aspects of lighting are essential:

  • the design of the illumination;
  • its effects in terms of quality and quantity;
  • its sense of volume, space and use of vertical surfaces;
  • appropriate use of the main type of light source;
  • specification of the equipment to be used and its location; and
  • compliance with standards.

The durability of the installation is paramount, as are operating and maintenance schedules and resistance to wear, tear and vandalism.

Information and photos supplied by Alan Hughes, Beka (Pty Ltd).

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