1998 Sept. 9 To the Editor, Providence Journal: I have heard through the Boston Globe and the Internet (including your own web site) about the "Illuminate Providence" proposal, and I'd like to shed a different type of light on this glaring idea. Many, many people in the world -- including many in the Providence area -- enjoy the night-time environment without artificial lights permeating everywhere. Have you so quickly forgotten those wondrous sights that we were able to see in the last couple of years -- naked-eye comets known as Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp? Or how romantic a stroll under the stars can be? Surely our children deserve to see stars at night from their homes, just as they can see trees and birds in the daytime. But our ever-increasing use of outdoor lights in urban and rural areas alike is stealing away the natural wonders of the night, and this is an incalculable loss to our civilization. It is becoming harder and harder to escape from manmade controls and effects in our daily (and nightly) lives, and this effectively gives us less independence. It is a myth that more light reduces crime. In fact, I can cite cities and towns across the United States that have actually turned off lights (to reduce crime or to save taxpayer money for other purposes), where police officials report that pre-existing crime rates either plummeted or remained unchanged. Other police officials note that glary security lights can promote crime and be potentially dangerous to police officers, as criminals can actually hide in the shadows and be invisible because of the glary light pointing out in all directions. And a recent survey published in USA Today placed dogs, alarms, moving to a safer area, and having someone at home all as deterrents that were ranked above lighting by prison inmates convicted of property crimes. Having said that, I note that there are good uses for thoughtful outdoor lighting, such as around important street intersections. But we have been too thoughtless by permitting lights to be erected that are unshielded, permitting their glary light to stream out dangerously into the eyes of motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists, and to invade bedroom windows at night or the yards of amateur astronomers, young and old. Bad, glary lighting can and does cause accidents and promote crime. Thoughtful, full-cutoff lighting (where light is not emitted above a horizontal plane cutting through the bottom of the lamp) is becoming very popular around the country and the world as an aesthetically-pleasing and energy-efficient way of illuminating some of our environment at night. Buildings and monuments can be nicely enhanced by low-lumen, fully-shielded lighting that is recessed and/or shines downward and not outward or skyward. But lighting up buildings, monuments, flags, and bridges just for the sake of lighting them up is more likely to create ugly sights than aesthetically-pleasing sights unless careful thought is employed in advance. Most taxpayers do not realize that most streetlighting is paid for from their taxes, that usually there is no legal requirement mandating specific streetlights, that most outdoor lighting is highly inefficient (much of it even dangerous), and that towns and cities pay large monthly and annual bills to keep streets lit at night. My current home town in Massachusetts has a population of around 27,000 but an annual streetlighting bill in excess of $500,000 for electricity alone! Single cities like Boston spend tens of millions of dollars every year on electricity alone to light their streetlights, and I suspect that Providence spends many millions each year for the same purpose. An increase to lighting public buildings, monuments, and bridges is likely to incur large continuing annual costs in electricity to keep the lighting glaring. And promoting more energy usage and more night-time glare with the reward of tax incentives for businesses does not appear to be sound policy. I suggest that the City of Providence sit back and think for a while longer about its outdoor night lighting. It might be better to do something completely different, like implement an extensive outdoor-lighting ordinance that mandates: that all outdoor lighting above a certain lumen threshold (a minimum of 1000-2000 lumens is often used in such ordinances in other cities and towns) be fully shielded; that lower-lumen light bulbs be used to make light less glary; that all sign lighting be recessed, shielded, and mounting at the top, pointing only downward and only on the sign; that closed businesses turn off all signage and parking-lot lighting after a certain hour (like midnight); that floodlights be banned unless they are fully shielded so that their light is not emitted above the horizontal; and that non-security lights around other public edifices be turned off after a certain hour. With the new energy-efficient sodium, metal-halide, and fluorescent lamps now available, one can generally get the same amount of light on the ground simply by shielding a lamp that uses half (or even a third) of the electricity of older or existing unshielded lamps; these new lamps put out several times more light (lumens) per watt than did older incandescent and mercury-vapor lamps, but power-utility companies are loathe to tell the taxpayer that they are so efficient, and they often replace 200-watt mercury-vapor lamps with 200-watt metal-halide or HPS lamps, resulting in 2 to 8 times more light on the ground! A 35-watt HPS or metal-halide lamp is quite bright and is generally sufficient light for most streetlight applications. A good general rule is that if one can see an outdoor light bulb from 50-100 yards away, it is a bad light. Outdoor lights simply are not effective when one gets a certain distance away, so an unshielded light bulb above 1000 lumens becomes nothing but a glary eyesore when you have moved a few tens of feet away from it (where its light is no longer strong enough to be useful). Just putting up a lot of glary, bright lights is more likely to backfire on a city like Providence than to create huge benefits. Converting all the existing streetlights to full-cutoff and encouraging businesses to change all their lighting to full-cutoff will greatly enhance the aesthetic beauty of the city. Give tax benefits to businesses that make their places look attractive. It is possible to have an aethestically-pleasing night-time environment in any city that includes the ability to see hundreds of stars and even the Milky Way from that same city! Artificial lights alone don't make the night-time environment appealing in any way at all --- any good lighting engineer will note this fact. But once you see a nicely, not-overly lit area in which the source of the lighting in invisible, you quickly realize that a city or town (or business or neighborhood) can be made a much nicer place to live in or to visit. Then you begin to wonder why everybody doesn't put more thought into night-time lighting! Respectfully yours, Daniel W. E. Green [firstname.lastname@example.org] on behalf of the New England Light Pollution Advisory Group (a volunteer group with members in all New England states) http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/nelpag/nelpag.html
Also available is information from the International Dark-Sky Association.