Our responsibility to preserve nature’s heritage when designing the cities of the future
“Looking at the stars always makes me dream. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star.”
125 years ago, a half-mad dreamer gazed through the bars of his asylum window, transfixed on the night sky. The beauty that lay before him inspired one of the most distinguished paintings of the 20th century. In 1889, the Saint-Rémy-de-Provence sky was the muse for Vincent Van Gogh’s, “The Starry Night,” based on the French countryside which was, then, littered with the effervescence of infinite night stars.
But what if Van Gogh was born today? The turn of the century lead to an age where high-rises illuminate our horizons and streetlights and storefront neons brighten our sidewalks at night. Cities like New York and Paris can be seen for miles and miles due to their sprawling luminous glow and busy nightlife. But while the cities radiate in their own concrete beauty, the natural night sky is compromised. Our 21st century manufactured light outshines the all the stars in our solar system, and we’re left with a pollution that engulfs the sky in a misty haze.
Due to the brightening of the night sky, caused by street lights and other man-made sources, Saint-Rémy has become a victim to what has been coined as light pollution, and it is one of the worst situations in France today. Not only has the natural heritage of this site been diminished, but light pollution all over the world has lead to negative effects on nocturnal wildlife and ecosystems, and even negative effects on human health and circadian rhythms. Nearly one-fifth of the world is no longer capable of seeing the Milky Way, and in North America alone, 80% of the population looks up, incapable of seeing the dazzling spectacle that is our home galaxy.
Is there a way we can turn back the clock on our world without forgoing our modern conveniences and technological advancements?
As architects and designers, we have the privilege to evolve our built environment. Outdoor Lighting Ordinances are now included in citywide municipal codes, and groups such as the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) and the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) assist in developing best practices and identifying effective outdoor fixtures. One development of the IDA and IES was the creation of a specification classification rating system for outdoor fixtures, known as BUG – backlight-uplight-glare. This BUG rating system was originally created in 2005 to control stray light from exterior roadway luminaires, but has since been used in categorizing all outdoor lighting applications. A fixture’s BUG rating is determined by identifying its light stray, which can be manipulated through physical properties such as shielding and reflectors. The BUG rating is placed on product specification sheets, allowing designers to easily identify and compare light fixtures during the design process.
The U. S. Green Building Council (USGBC) offers credits on LEED projects through their Sustainable Sites category, giving points for Light Pollution Reduction. With more and more buildings aiming for Platinum and Gold certification, there are design opportunities to increase night sky access, improve nighttime visibility, and reduce the consequences of development for wildlife and people. Aside from specifying light fixtures with an appropriate BUG rating, designers can contribute to the Light Pollution Reduction credit by providing a photometric light distribution layout – a computer generated representation of light levels on a given surface using product-specific lighting files. Designers can also meet the internal illuminated signage requirement for LEED projects, or classify the project in the appropriate lighting zone category defined by IES/IDA.
Brightness level standards have been created to regulate light output, and technologies like light and motion sensors are utilized to activate exterior lighting only when needed. This has been made even more effective through light emitting diode (LED) technology. LEDs are changing the way we think and use light – they are energy efficient, can dim with ease, typically remain cool (unlike incandescent bulbs, which eat up from the filaments), and can be color-tuned to the appropriate kelvin temperature. Knowing if a light fixture is “warm” or “cool” is important knowledge for designers and specifiers – blue, “cool” light coming from the higher end of the kelvin temperature chart (> 4000k) could increase glare and worsen skyglow through the color’s larger geographical reach.
All efforts are in hope to reduce light trespass, glare, and skyglow, ultimately re-darkening the night sky. While these are small steps, we, as designers, influencers, and inventors, take them in hope that the natural environment can return to its natural heritage, allowing the dreamers of tomorrow to extend their gaze upward and be inspired by the unobstructed, infinite cosmos.
“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”