Bright Lights, Big City

Sara Manuelli looks at the importance of urban lighting strategies for the regeneration of cities.

Urban regeneration has been one of this country’s preoccupations over the past few years. When Glasgow became European City of Culture in 1990, it proved that a cultural agenda backed by city council support could generate money from tourism and local business. Many more cities have followed, culminating with 13 new candidates bidding for 2008. Other cities have used Lottery money to fund new museums, art centres and visitor attractions, mirroring what could be dubbed ‘the Bilbao effect’, where a minor city in the Basque country suddenly becomes a major tourist attraction courtesy of architect Frank Gehry.

Some cities are more visible than others in their civic pursuit. Newcastle and neighbouring Gateshead are joint bidders for European City of Culture in 2008 and can already boast a series of jewels in their crown. What with Wilkinson Eyre’s Gateshead Millennium Bridge, the soon-to-open Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Antony Gormley’s now omnipresent Angel of the North and Thomas Heatherwick’s recent ‘blue carpet’ public square, it stands a good chance to pick up Glasgow’s mantle. Similarly, Manchester, Salford and Trafford have all pulled out the stops with a series of illustrious commissions: The Imperial War Museum North by Daniel Libeskind, The Urbis Museum by Ian Simpson and the Manchester Art Gallery by Sir Michael Hopkins.

But it’s not only design and architecture projects that create regeneration. Lighting, for many years the planners’ afterthought, has gained deserved prominence as a primary environmental element. Increasingly, lighting design groups are called in to devise ‘urban lighting strategies’ for regeneration, and city councils are building in-house teams of their own. ‘With the old regional set up we were primarily involved in road lighting, but since the unified council we are involved in all aspects of lighting, including various environmental projects,’ says head of the internal lighting design team at Dundee City Council Lindsay McGregor. For the Dundee Quayside area, which is currently undergoing development, the team designed and produced a bespoke light, the Dundee Lantern, with aluminium columns intended to recall the masts of ships. For a high street development last year it also created a ‘Leicester Square’-style street lamp, using cast iron and Victorian shapes.

On a larger scale, the Lighting Architects group comprising Speirs and Major in London and Jonathan Speirs and Associates in Edinburgh, is constantly involved in devising lighting strategy reports across the UK. Most recently, Jonathan Speirs and Associates has been appointed to produce a lighting strategy to aid the 2008 Newcastle bid, where it has previously illuminated Wilkinson Eyre’s bridge. Elegantly lit from its inner arch face, the bridge has become a landmark, experiencing the passing by of the Gateshead and Tyne Community 24 hours a day. ‘In many ways it has become a symbol of connection between the two communities, of a joint relationship for the bidding,’ says director Jonathan Speirs.

Speirs and Major has worked extensively on the Coventry regeneration plan. ‘We presented the project for Coventry in 1998,’ says director Mark Major. ‘And so far it has taken about four years to implement.’ Once the scheme was approved by the city council it had to be sent out to tender for completion, which ironically meant that Speirs and Major had to pitch to win many of its own projects. ‘The timescale of the project reflects the nature of urban lighting schemes,’ explains Major. ‘We might plan early, but the lighting is still switched on at the last moment. Apart from the obvious problem of funding, there are complex ownership and property issues to consider, since not all buildings are necessarily council properties, so there is always a level of negotiation going on.’

So far the regeneration part of the plan carried out by Speirs and Major includes the lighting of Coventry’s Council House, Coventry Cathedral, both the ruins and the 1950s building by Sir Basil Spence, the Holy Trinity Church, Christchurch, and several post-war tower blocks. ‘For the historic monuments the lighting is subtle and sensitive, while the modern buildings are lit in a dynamic and kinetic way,’ says Major. Maurice Brill Lighting Design group was also commissioned to design lighting for two of the major city squares, one an interactive leisure space, and the other a graceful formal scheme to a new large-scale sculptural landscape design. Special consideration was given to vandalism and maintenance issues.

Major traces the tradition of using co-ordinated urban lighting plans back to France, ‘which has always had a sophisticated approach to light, especially cities like Lyon and Paris’. French cities also thrive on their municipal status which gives them autonomy and local power to act. ‘In the UK it all started in the late 1980s with the Edinburgh Vision Lighting Plan devised by Lighting Design Partnership, then projects like Leeds and Croydon followed, early strategies carried out to various degrees of success,’ says Major.

Major is keen to differentiate between what he calls ‘beautification schemes’ from the more ‘holistic’ regeneration processes. While the first kind tend to be monument-based and mostly concerning the image, regeneration schemes actively address issues like safety, security, energy-saving and light pollution. As a lighting designer and consultant, he must often compromise between a city’s characteristics and its security needs. For example, when advising on Cambridge, he controversially submitted a report stating bright light wasn’t necessarily good, as it contradicts the city’s rural, dark nature and it can even jeopardise safety since ‘a strongly lit path can highlight potential victims’.

A major change in lighting for cities is the use of white light. Since the oil crisis in the early 1970s, the street lighting industry in the UK has used predominantly low-pressure sodium lamps which project an orange/ yellow light. The downside of these lamps is their monochromatic light output and the inability to distinguish colours and features. In recent years, there have been new developments in ‘white light’ lamps, which project a better quality light, consume less energy and reflect less in the atmosphere.

A project which has adopted the benefits of white light is Pinniger and Partners’ lighting scheme for the city of Hull. Part of an ongoing five-year regeneration plan, it was kickstarted in 1995 when Wolff Olins was asked by the City Council to ‘rebrand’ the city. Among the needs highlighted by the study was the necessity to pick up on certain city landmarks such as the E20 road, the important trade route which runs from St Petersburgh in Russia to Limerick in Ireland. Since 1999, Pinniger and Partners has been involved in lighting a major stretch of the central roadway, which runs parallel to the city’s commercial centre, as well as highlighting individual landmark buildings.

‘White light here is crucial,’ says Martin Lupton, design director at Pinniger and Partners. ‘It’s costlier to use and needs more maintenance, but has a better quality and distribution.’ While white light is restricted to key locations on the E20 route, creating a guiding white strip, each building has a bespoke treatment, such as coloured lighting, image projection and kinetic lighting. Pinniger and Partners’ next stage is to light the Marina, as well as engineering landmarks such as the Tidal Barrier and the Humber bridge. When next month Terry Farrell’s £45.5m The Deep project opens, a leisure complex featuring an Ocean Discovery centre, Hull’s ambitions to become a destination city will join those on the regeneration wave.

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