Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
It could also catch criminals, broadcast WiFi and... detect meth labs?
Back in 2011, the city of Chattanooga was having serious problems with gang violence in one of its more prominent downtown parks, Coolidge Park (to a point, in fact, where local police tried banning unaccompanied minors there).
“They were getting ready to flood this park with these giant baseball field lights, and they were going to kill the ambiance of the whole park,” says Don Lepard, the CEO of a local company, Global Green Lighting, that was at the time attempting to convince the city to try out a new pilot of energy-efficient, wirelessly networked LED streetlights. Lepard’s pitch – with LED’s promise of steep energy savings and scant maintenance costs – was compelling from a budget standpoint. But this leading-edge technology wasn't fully embraced in Chattanooga until officials grasped that the streetlight of the future could also be a stunning crime-fighting tool.
In a city of wirelessly networked streetlights, each overhead bulb suddenly becomes its own search light, capable of brightening to illuminate a crime scene or tailing a suspect as he sprints down the road (how far we’ve come from mimicking the static light of the moon!). Now Lepard really had the city’s attention. But officials had one caveat: The whole system needed to be controllable, they requested, from inside a police car.
“I agreed to it not knowing if we could pull it off of or not,” Lepard says. And he recounts this story today because, of course, his company did.
Global Green Lighting installed 350 of these next-generation streetlights in and around Coolidge Park as part of the pilot. Crime dropped. “We went from having people vacate the park at dark to having frisbee leagues at 11 at night,” Lepard says. Now the company – which had long been in the electronic component design world, not the lighting business – has a nearly $20 million order from the city to install 27,000 such lights throughout town. Starting next week, they’ll be delivering 350 to 400 lights a week, all controllable individually or in concert.
LEDs have gotten a lot of attention for their potential to reduce urban energy consumption (if, that is, cities are willing to pay the up-front cost of acquiring them). But Chattanooga’s story suggests that the light-emitting diode at the top of the light pole might actually be the least interesting thing about it.
These lights can enable police officers to safely exit their patrol cars. They can dim to save energy at dusk and dawn. They can flash with warning signals during emergencies. In Chattanooga, they’ll also be wired into the city’s power system and best-in-the-nation broadband network, meaning that a whole number of other external devices could be attached to them like air quality sensors, video cameras, or WiFi routers.
“From a law enforcement standpoint, if we put an air-quality sensor in that light that detects meth, if somebody fires up a meth lab, that light will pick it up, send a signal back to 9-1-1, dispatch police to that spot and set the light to flash,” Lepard says. “That’s one thing.”
The lamp pole could suddenly become a vastly more valuable strip of vertical real estate. Lepard pictures that the city could even generate revenue renting out access to it. "Anywhere you’re going to need these other devices, you’re going to need the light also," he says. “It just makes so much sense to make the light the host.”
All images of Coolidge Park in Chattanooga taken by John Bamber of Bamber Photography.