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The streets are alive with the sound of darkness

Years ago I was shown a cartoon from a magazine published in 1809. It shows a street scene depicting a range of characters commenting on the first installation of street gas lighting in the UK, in Pall Mall in central London.

The cartoon, in the style of its time, has speech bubbles above each person commenting on this amazing technological advance. At the end of the line are two individuals lamenting the new technology, which they see as having a serious impact on their trades: one is a ‘lady of the night’, the other a ‘footpad’ (mugger). Both claim that the street lighting will result in the end of their businesses for, as the footpad remarks: “Not a dark corner to be get for love or money.”

This observation, made more than 200 years ago, echoes the modern requirements of public realm lighting – the ‘see and be seen’ nature of lighting at night. As many criminologists who have studied crime, fear of crime and good light at night have said: “Graffiti and vandalism start where good lighting stops.”

This cartoon got me thinking about the arguments that rage around the issue of artificial lighting at night. In the recent past, for example, Greenpeace ripped into the relighting of the front of Buckingham Palace at night. Spokesman Charlie Kronick said: “These lights are going to blaze away until the end of her reign…probably long enough to see the catastrophic effects of climate change strike our country and the wider world.”

Interestingly, since the announcement of the royal wedding, I see this lit façade in the background of every royal correspondent’s report on the evening news. Clearly the media knows a good backdrop when it sees one.

The main argument against lighting at night is, of course, energy. This is always a critical issue – wastage is unacceptable – but as Lee Barker-Field of Aecom pointed out in an Cibse Journal debate in which I took part last year, a system powered by grid-supplied electricity is “inherently inefficient”.

Therefore we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Despite the shortcomings of the grid, the UK is highly developed, and we should respond with knee-jerk reactions such as ‘no lighting at night’. This is madness and if we go down this road we forget the serious consequences of a mass switch-off at night – to our environment, our economy and our feelings of safety and security. Do we really want to go back to the days when no one went out at night?

Let me make the point one more time – in one of Michael Palin’s many Around the World in 80 Days TV trips he had hitched a lift in a lorry in Africa, as you do, to catch a train to keep himself on schedule. The scene cuts to the lorry cab as the driver, seeing the sun going down, starts to pull over to the side of the road.

Palin, animated as ever, urges the driver on but being a native of the area, he turns to Palin and essentially says: “Listen, you’re not in the West here, you’re in Africa. Here when the sun goes down we stop, when the sun comes up again we go!” Stunned silence followed.

My point is we shouldn’t try to go back. Yes, let’s work for those dark skies and starry nights, but not at the cost of low-level crime, more traffic accidents and fear on the streets – these are still part of everyday life even with light, but with the lights switched off?

Let a classic film make the point. In a scene in The Third Man, a window opens to reveal a shadowy figure and the voice calls: “Harry?!” Do we want to go back to this, or even further…1809 anyone?

Readers' comments (1)

  • I have just written my first article for submission to the ILP Journal along the same lines (hopefully it will get published) where I see your 200 years and raise you another 200 and go back to 1600s with "Do we really want to go back to the middle ages when, “No man [may] walke after IX of the belle be strecken in the night withoute light or withoute cause reasonable in payne of imprisonment” and to an environment such as “it has been said in describing the conditions of the dark streets that everybody signed his will and was prepared for death before he left”.

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