Lighting can transform our cities

Local authorities are getting more creative with street lighting. Sarah Balmond considers what is being done.

Something is happening to the built environment at street level – light systems are changing and with it the cityscape is taking on new forms.

Local authorities are seeking out increasingly innovative and integrated solutions to change the way we interact with our streets; a light is no longer about illuminating a dark spot late at night.

While some lighting may radically alter the urban horizon – think sci-fi possibilities such as digital light paintings embedded in pavements or lights that flicker to colour when reacting to traffic – a lot of the work is low-key and focuses more on changing the infrastructure of lighting.

The Victorian ‘pole and light’ concept is slowly being eroded by designers who are creating integrated, multi-functional lights, which take on the big design disciplines of branding, identity, signage and wayfinding. And far from being small-scale artwork pieces, the products have every possibility of being mass-produced and rolled out nationally.

However, walking along the street you wouldn’t necessarily notice anything yet, in part because the projects have such long lead times. But the seeds of an urban renaissance are being sewn, as demonstrated by a host of emerging local projects.

For example, Leicester City Council recently appointed lighting designer Jason Bruges to carry out the final phase of its five-year long cultural mapping programme, funded by the Arts Council England Lottery (see News, page 6).

The project, ‘Art on the move’ involves a series of permanent interactive light installations that will mark out a mile and a half-long route, linking the new city cultural quarter and a £14.7m community organisation, the Peepul Centre. The route can be used for cultural festivals, such as Diwali, and will celebrate the diversity of Leicester. As part of the project, Bruges is also putting together a White Paper to recommend other possibilities for ‘interactive’ development across the city.

‘We will be using interactive technology that is site-specific and multi-functional, and we are researching possibilities at the moment,’ says Jasia Mcardle, public art manager at Leicester City Council.

Bruges believes there is a growing fusion between decorative and street lighting. ‘People are looking to be cleverer when designing lighting strategies,’ he says.

Increasingly, he says, lighting is playing a pivotal role in helping establish city identities. ‘The lighting departments want licences for unique light products to help create a brand identity for the city. There is a lot coming out, but it is the designers working with large manufacturers, pushing out new products, who will lead the way. It is early days, but we are waking up to the potential,’ he says.

Westminster City Council is also trailblazing with its distinctive lighting system along Victoria Street, created by Pearson Lloyd Design. The project, winner of this year’s Design Week Industrial Product Design award, features environmentally-friendly lighting that integrates elements such as bollards, bins and cycle racks to reduce street clutter. These peripherals are attached to a soft triangular aluminium extrusion at the base of each column.

Luke Pearson, founder of Pearson Lloyd Design, says, ‘A pole with a light and then a sign next to it just doesn’t make sense any more, it creates visual pollution.’

Historically, he says cities have grown organically, generating a ‘soup’ landscape ‘with nothing matching and no integration’. Lighting systems must address these issues where communication and a sense of identity are key,’ he maintains.

‘There is a lot of interest in this area – change is happening. It is really exciting,’ he adds. The Borough of Poole is also investigating innovative lighting systems as part of its ‘Full Sail Ahead’ regeneration scheme to create a quay side and second harbour crossing for the region. The initiative will lever in around £1bn of investment. The borough commissioned a consortium of designers including Inflate, Jam Design, B&B UK and Ide Architects to come up with a range of first concepts for a proposed streetscape last year (DW 28 October 2004) and is working with landscape architects B+Buk on developing an identity and lighting strategy for the 40ha site.

Borough of Poole regeneration project manager Alan Taylor says the design blueprint will focus on safety, security and public access. He believes the streetscape will help to ‘plug the exodus of young people’ and ‘keep the second and third generation from leaving Poole.’

‘This not a simple, quick-fix project. The issue here is longevity. We have to be practical to create designs and manage a scheme that will be used for years to come,’ he adds.

The design world is notorious for a high turnover of product design, but lighting street systems have a rare permanence in the flux. This new wave of street lighting, while still in its infancy, promises to irrevocably alter the urban landscape for a future generation.

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