Learning from Los Angeles: looking to the past for the future of street lighting

In the discussion about street lighting, we’re hearing a lot about ultra efficient LED light sources and smart city / IoT capabilities. While these technologies are undoubtedly part of the landscape of the future of street lighting, we rarely hear anything about conserving the actual design of street lights themselves or the importance of their historical context within the urban environment. 

Chris Burden’s ‘Urban Light’ installation at the LACMA

Although we take them for granted, the designs of street lights contribute hugely to the overall look and feel of the urban environment. The LA street lights depicted in the photo above as part of Chris Burden’s ‘Urban Light’ installation at the LACMA can also still be found in numerous LA areas, such as Beverly Hills, and simply ooze 1920s Los Angeles. I, for one, enjoy the idiosyncrasies of street light design. In Berlin, where I live, you can still tell whether you’re on the West or East side of the former Berlin Wall by the designs of the street lamps – of which there are several beautiful variations on both sides.

Classic 1952 Selux luminaires still in operation on Berlin’s Karl Marx Allee, formerly Stalinallee

Unfortunately, we’re seeing historic street lighting being replaced all too often by ultra BRIGHT, ultra white and characterless LED lamps.

I may well be a futurist, but I firmly believe that it is our duty to find a balance between technology and historical context. Yes, we want our cities to be smart and efficient. But surely not at the expense of the quality of the urban landscape?

Milan’s city-wide LED street lighting refit may well have been well intended, but the aesthetic consequences have arguably changed the visual landscape of the city for the worse

Fortunately, a new development in California could be illuminating a potential third way. In her recent Citylab article entitled “The Future of the Streetlight Might Be in the Past”, Laura Bliss tells of a new competition from the L.A. mayor’s office inviting designers to reimagine the rich history of civic illumination to design next-generation streetlights.

“Our city is in the midst of an unprecedented effort to reinvest in and reanimate its public realm,” Mayor Eric Garcetti wrote in a competition brief that went live online in November. “We need a streetlight that safely illuminates all of that activity while at the same time expresses a design sensibility that is unmistakably contemporary—and proudly of, and for, Los Angeles.”

The high pressure sodium landscape of cities such as Los Angeles are being permanently altered by the new white light of LED fixtures. This doesn’t mean we should be changing historic lamp posts too

The civic importance placed upon the streetlight here is highly commendable, especially considering the enormous financial constraints placed upon cities such as LA to find cost effective solutions for public lighting. Most importantly, in the face of the relentless pursuit of the new, LA – of all places – has recognised the importance of keeping an element of its heritage in the greater LA streetscape, however banal it may seem. W

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