The film takes a look at the increasing glow of urban illumination and how it is dramatically reducing our ability to see beyond our own atmosphere. More and more city dwellers can't see stars at night, which Cheney poses as a significant psychological negative. Urban light pollution affects more than just city stargazers, as Bonnie Tsui wrote for Cities back in April.
In the film, Cheney consults historians, astronomers, and astronauts - people with rarefied experience with the cosmos - but he also talks with people who are familiar with the effects of artificial light on our ordinary everyday: the owner of a lighting store; a Boy Scout troop leader who brings city kids to the woods; a wildlife veterinarian who deals with disoriented birds; a lighting designer; a criminologist who studies how installing bright lampposts reduces urban crime.
One of the major ideas in The City Dark is that it’s easy to forget the scale of our world in the universe if you never get to see the night sky and all there is in it. Nowadays, Cheney says, you have to go farther and farther to get closer to the universe. He seeks out astronomers on the summit of Haleakala, one of the most isolated spots in the world, thrust up above the cloud cover on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Scientists there are on the lookout for killer asteroids en route to Earth, but they also ponder a deeper loss with the ever-encroaching fog of light from cities below.
Here's the first of six segments, but the whole film can be viewed over at PBS.
The film is available online in the U.S. on PBS until August 5.
Top image: The lights of Cape Town, South Africa, shine up on a fog covering the city. Credit: Mike Hutchings / Reuters