Street and Area
Cities of Light: The lighting of our streets, roadways, and urban nightscapes

The role of street and area lighting has gone through significant change over the years. In the early 1900s only about 10% of the population lived in urban areas. Today that number is over 50%. The introduction of gaslight street “systems” (i.e. luminaires and a distributed fuel source) in the early nineteenth century was universal in urban areas within a generation and greatly altered the lives and schedules of city dwellers.  By the 1870s, the emerging electrical corporations were constructing metropolitan electric generation equipment to provide a dependable power source and open the way for electric light to supplant gas light in homes, the workplace and on public thoroughfares. At expositions and fairs in the early 1990s, these same industries showcased their revolutionary electric appliances and indoor and outdoor lighting to an eager American public.

Born out of these expositions, movements such as the City Beautiful Project and White Ways led to widespread municipal installations of incandescent electric lamps in ornamental post type luminaires in parks, streets, train stations and around libraries and government buildings; such installations were seen as signs of public pride, progress and prosperity. The primary goal of street and area lighting was to create illumination that provided a safe, attractive and well lit environment for the people who lived and moved about the neighborhoods.

The emphasis on lighting for automobile roadways and as a security measure began to develop just after World War I. New lighting industry codes were published that encouraged municipalities to install a new type of bracketed luminaire, much higher than those in the business district, that held the lamp out over the street and illuminated the pavement so that drivers could see farther ahead and distinguish obstacles at a distance. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, General Motors displayed their vision for American cities connected by a network of four-lane high speed highways.  Designers responded with a variety of new streamlined streetlight luminaires, based primarily on a 20-foot steel, concrete or cast iron pole and a single bracket and a simple bracket and lamp. 1

Responding to the massive road building projects following World War II, the industry advocated the need for specialized roadway luminaires, increased luminaire density and most importantly, higher light levels. A new lighting technology, sodium vapor, was promoted as the ideal efficient alternative to traditional incandescent lamps.  With more highways under construction, tighter municipal budgets, and urban neighborhoods being transected by primary roadways, it was only a matter of time before the orange glow of sodium vapor, and later, the bluish glow of mercury lighting began showing up in city and neighborhoods.

The relighting of American cities and towns with high pressure sodium continued at record pace into the 1960s.  By the 1970s, lighting professionals, the scientific and medical research communities and municipal planners and engineers began to address the issue of “light pollution.”  “Was all this light,” they asked, “actually contributing, through psychological and other factors, to the problems it was supposed to address?  Can we lower the number of outdoor luminaires and the overall illuminance levels and still create nighttime environments that instill feelings of safety and enjoyment?”

Today, the discussion is as much about the quality as it is about the quantity of lighting for streets, urban areas and roadways. State and Municipal authorities are faced with creating lighting schemes for a diverse urban landscape, while taking a responsible approach to minimize  the level of light pollution impacting on our night environment.  Government agencies and industry organizations increasingly emphasize the importance of environmentally responsible and sustainable building practices, including the use of innovative lighting solutions that not only reduce energy and maintenance costs, but reduce their carbon footprint.

1 Alfred Holden, “Lighting the Night: Technology, Urban Life and the Evolution of Street Lighting” Places Journal, 8:2, 1992, College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley