Songquan Deng

A New York City Council member wants the lights off at night in 40,000 commercial buildings to save the environment. Would this dim the city's iconic skyline?

You know how you’re supposed to turn out the lights when you leave a room to save energy? New York City Council member Donovan Richards wants the owners of many of the city’s office buildings to start doing the same—on a much bigger scale.

Richards, who chairs the council’s environmental protection committee, has introduced a bill that would prohibit owners of approximately 40,000 New York commercial buildings from illuminating the interiors or exteriors of their structures once workers have gone home for the night. The legislation is aimed at curbing the city’s greenhouse emissions, 37 percent of which come from commercial, industrial, or institutional buildings. Each violation could result in a $1,000 penalty.

For people worried that this will mean utterly extinguishing the trademark glitz of the New York skyline (remember the dark days after Sandy?), relax. The working version of the legislation contains significant exceptions and accommodations. Store displays can be lit if they adhere to certain efficiency guidelines. Seasonal displays and lights that address security concerns are also exempted, as are landmark buildings deemed to be “a significant part of the skyline.” The Empire State Building won't be going dark anytime soon.

But things would definitely look different if Richards’ bill passes. In an email response to questions, Richards' office says that he believes they're going to have to, if the city is going to go forward responsibly.

“This bill is primarily about energy conservation and reducing New York City’s contribution to an increasingly warm planet,” he says. “If our primary concern as a city is maintaining the status quo when it comes to energy consumption and the generation of waste, we will no longer have a planet that will support human life.”

Richards got the idea for the dimming of the five boroughs on a trip to Paris (that's the City of Light), where a similar measure went into effect in 2013. In the French capital, reducing light pollution—which can have detrimental effects on human health—was part of the goal, along with cutting carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 250,000 tons in the first year. Paris is about a quarter the size of New York, so the savings could be commensurately greater if Gotham took similar measures. (Paris continues to push ahead on this issue, and just announced a new round of regulations aimed at cutting carbon, mostly targeting vehicles that burn fossil fuels.)

Councilmember Richards says that passage of the bill would mean broad environmental benefits in New York, as well. “This bill will be most beneficial to migrating birds, nocturnal species, and people,” he says. “Many organisms have a circadian rhythm that is directly impacted by the circumstances of their environment, and [I] see this as another long-term benefit of this legislation.”

Last month, the New York City Council passed a bill mandating an 80 percent overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Meeting that goal will mean changes both cosmetic and systemic, and not on a small scale. For a city that is so defined by its glittering exterior, a dimmer profile may take some getting used to. But according to Richards, it’s what needs to be done. “We cannot afford to conduct business as usual,” says Richards. “For ourselves and subsequent generations.”

Top image: Songquan Deng / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Sarah Goodyear
Sarah Goodyear

Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.

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