Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
It wasn’t easy to banish streetlights and signs. “Frontier people don’t like being told what to do.”
As humanity sprawls ever outward, we’re killing off the night. Light pollution from street lights, digital billboards, and 24/7 commerce is turning the once-inky firmament into a paler shade of slate: 80 percent of Americans now live in places where the Milky Way is virtually invisible. That’s not only sad for the spirit, it’s bad for your health—the American Medical Association has issued warning after warning about the sleep-disrupting effects of light pollution and certain types of bulbs.
But in the tiny bordering towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, Colorado, combined population less than 1,200, the evening brims with stars. Over the course a decade, night sky advocates have convinced the former mining towns to go dim after sundown, revealing the valley’s wide-open celestial majesty. A short film by Great Big Story chronicles the towns’ efforts to preserve this declining natural resource.
“Have you ever seen the Milky Way? That goes from horizon to horizon?” Jim Bradburn, president of Dark Skies Inc, the nonprofit that pressed the town to go dark, asks in the film. “It’s the most magnificent thing in the world. That’s what we see here.”
Like so many others, the towns’ main streets once blazed with neon and fluorescent signage, buzzing into the night. Floodlights swept brightness through yards, garages, and ranch lands. According to the New York Times, amateur astronomer Bradburn and his group held court with homeowners’ associations and threw stargazing parties to muster more appreciation of the night. “That wasn’t easy. This is frontier town,” he says in the film. “Frontier people don’t like being told what to do.”
But eventually leaders warmed up to the idea of a darker community, replacing streetlights and passing ordinances requiring outdoor lights to have hoods and shine downwards. Little by little, the stars shone brighter, and as they did, more residents came around. Then telescope-toting tourists started showing up to visit the small observatory Bradburn helped build. That’s when locals began to see the light, economic-benefits-wise. “We’re always looking to do something to bring people into our community and lately that seems to be, we need to invest in our sky,” says Westcliffe Mayor Christy Patterson in the film.
Last year, her town and Silver Cliff were recognized by the International Dark Sky Association as among a handful of official “dark sky communities” around the world, which helps to draw more visitors and adds a new dimension of town pride. “I feel we are a very special place to be able to look at the stars as our ancestors did thousands of years ago,” says one young local. In this world, that’s a feeling in short supply.