Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
The city wants to spur foot traffic, business, and density through a new “bright lights district.” Urban lighting scholars point out some pitfalls.
New York’s Times Square, London’s Piccadilly Circus, Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing: These teeming “bright lights districts” are such integral parts of each megacity’s identity that a visitor almost feels compelled to experience their frenetic, always-illuminated energy.
Some smaller American cities have recently been attempting to mimic this aesthetic, albeit on a lesser scale, in the hope of spurring economic development and a more pedestrian-friendly downtown. Denver’s theater district, for instance, now features an enormous video screen and lighted advertisements peddling the latest in products and entertainment, and Atlanta is in the process of planning such a district for a section of its downtown.
The organization Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) is spearheading the effort to relax signage restrictions so that property owners can go bigger and brighter. “At this point, downtown Atlanta’s zoning doesn’t allow signs that are over 200 square feet, and our billboards are stuck in time,” says Jennifer Ball, CAP’s Vice President for Planning and Economic Development. “We’re anticipating an increase in size as well as the ability to do large-screen video and LED boards.” Atlanta’s City Council will likely vote on the measure in January.
Part of the goal is to capitalize on such signage during sporting events that will soon take place downtown, especially the college football championships in 2018, the Super Bowl in 2019, and the NCAA Final Four in 2020. Media companies, in exchange for the benefit of new signage, would be required to advertise certain products or services that sponsor the events.
But the larger aim is to bring more people downtown—and for them to experience the area on foot rather than in their cars. Atlanta is known for its incredible sprawl, with its more walkable neighborhoods scattered throughout the city and thus only easily accessed via automobile. The city is aiming to make itself denser and more pedestrian-friendly, and the district is, according to Ball, “a piece of the puzzle.” To further that goal, the bright lights district would also include more housing and ground-level retail outlets and restaurants. “Atlanta wants to have a strong core that is walkable and bikeable and has the level of density to support a lifestyle where you don’t have to be in your car all the time,” Ball says.
Such a multi-pronged strategy is important, as urban lighting scholars caution that illumination on its own doesn’t guarantee an increase in business or foot traffic. Margaret Petty, Head of the School of Design at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology and a historian of electric lighting, says that there’s no evidence to suggest that lighting alone attracts people to an area, unless that area, such as Times Square, is “iconic.” Josiane Meier, lecturer at the Technical University of Berlin and co-editor of Urban Lighting, Light Pollution, and Society, adds that the “if you build it, they will come” model doesn’t really work in terms of lighting and density. “The interdependency runs the other way,” she says. “Density is a prerequisite for the existence of bright lights districts.”
Petty and Meier also warn that the intensity of such lighting—in the form of luminous signs and enormous media screens—negatively affects the environment. Such districts contribute to light pollution and the burning of fossil fuels. They also disrupt humans’ circadian rhythms and cause disorientation in insects and animals. “It actually doesn’t make us safer,” Petty says. Meier notes that traffic safety can be an issue due to distraction and glare caused by bright signs. While Ball says that such issues aren’t a “deal breaker” in the planning of Atlanta’s proposed design, “they are something we want to consider. We want to make good decisions.”
Petty urges cities to think more sustainably and creatively about their lighting. “We should be asking how lighting can emphasize what is important to a city rather than advertising,” she says, adding that some contemporary lighting designers are even trying to bring more darkness back to cities to decrease light pollution and promote a different aesthetic. “These bright commercial districts started more than a century ago,” she says. “It doesn’t show much progression in our thinking about urban space if we’re continuing to do it and get brighter and brighter.”