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    Light for Public Space: Light as a Resource for Cities and Citizens


    Lighting in the public realm is going through a transformative period and some cities are ahead of the curve.

    “Light for Public Space” explores diverse lighting projects that use contemporary technologies to expand the possibilities for public lighting. It was the result of a collaborative effort by Susanne Seitinger, Senior Technologist for Advanced Applications at Philips Color Kinetics, and Antonia Weiss, Strategic Designer at Philips Design Lighting.


    Part three of the book, “Light as a Resource for Cities and Citizens,”explores ways in which digital lighting can contribute to the inclusive and sustainable nature of cities. Projects developed today are already delivering immediate value to a wide range of users and stakeholders. Some of the benefits associated with digital and networked lighting range from economic to environmental, as well as from social to cultural.

    In this last question and answer session, Seitinger and Weiss weigh in on the future of lighting for public spaces and preview the third part of the book.

    The third part of “Light for Public Space” discusses some of the specific benefits lighting provides for people in cities. What are some of the challenges stakeholders face when identifying these benefits? What are some tools that you have found useful in order to measure both the quantitative and qualitative benefits of lighting?

    Susanne Seitinger: Developing tools to capture both the quantitative and qualitative impact of lighting is an area that actually requires much more attention and research. While we have traditional approaches to tracking economic development, it’s very challenging —perhaps impossible — to separate lighting from many other factors. Moreover, we have to capture how a place really feels to people. Has an intervention changed their subjective experience of a place? Somehow we have to link diverse data sources, from traditional qualitative surveys to twitter feeds, in order to understand how places are changing.

    Antonia Weiss: Lighting designers are fully aware of the effects lighting can have on people, the economy, and social life. However, there is no real data that proves any of these things. But to a certain extent, that’s okay. Lighting designers and architects rely on people, clients, and stakeholders understanding intuitively that these investments are worthwhile. Nevertheless, there is an opportunity to quantify these benefits more in the future, once the right framework is created. When we look at The Bay Lights in the San Francisco area, the economic value has really been addressed, but there are other measures that haven’t been quantified. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about them just because they don’t have numbers attached to them.

    Projects such as Her Secret Is Patience by Janet Echelman in Phoenix, Arizona, or the Bay Lights by Leo Villareal in San Francisco, California, have had a big impact on cities and people, not limited to the site of the intervention. Do designers anticipate the impact of these installations?

    SS: On the one hand, artists and designers are by definition holistic thinkers. They anticipate how their work will impact people. On the other hand, artists and designers have the freedom to focus on the strength of a particular idea and push it to the extreme without needing exact precedents. These two capabilities, thinking holistically and exploring the boundaries of what is possible, made the Bay Lights and Her Secret Is Patience possible. So I think creative practitioners have a good sense of what the impact of their work will be, but once it’s installed there are many unexpected impacts that might arise. For example, in Phoenix, the downtown association used the outline of Echelman’s artwork to brand the downtown. She could not have anticipated this result.

    AW: If you’re a good designer, then you should be able to anticipate the impact of your installation. But there are a lot of examples unleashing something that no one expected. Due to the complexity of cities, it’s sometimes difficult to assess how the one thing you are changing is going to have an effect on the overall dynamic of the city. You’re engaging in something that is very complex and organic and there is always an element of surprise. Everyone that is involved in such projects has a responsibility to learn from what has come before and bring that back to a shared pool of knowledge.

    light for public space
    Her Secret is Patience, designed by Janet Echelman. Photos by: Christina O’Haver, David Feldman, Will Novak, Peter Vanderwarker, Tom Byrne, Katie Porter


    Many cities, such as Boston, have been aiming to meet aggressive energy saving goals. What is driving cities to work towards these goals and how can new lighting tools help achieve them?

    SS: City leaders are certainly driven by their desire to lower operating costs by reducing their energy bills. However, many leaders are also focused on higher-level climate change issues, such as CO2 emissions from the energy sources upon which they rely. Furthermore, many cities like New York, are now focused on resiliency. For example Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced the release of “Building the Knowledge Base for Climate Resiliency: New York City Panel on Climate Change 2015 Report.” The more cities are impacted by global climate change, the more they want to be part of the solution to those broader challenges.

    AW: Sometimes we think that it is just about cost cutting, but public lighting can save so much energy when you look at it on a global scale. It is also a question of sustainability and reducing emissions. LEDs and smart control systems contribute tremendously to this effort. You can modulate the amount of light you bring to a certain place, depending on the seasons, kind of uses, and traffic density. In that way, the city becomes more interesting. It is not static, and you can feel the change.


    How can municipal leaders and creative practitioners, including lighting designers, collaborate more readily to work towards integrated approaches to placemaking?


    One of the challenges is working together over longer periods of time. Creative consultants may be part of a project at its initiation, but the challenge is how they can stay involved after the fact. Working in public-private partnerships or creating collaborations with non-profit organizations can assist municipalities in managing evolving strategic goals or master plans. In many ways, master plans have needed more dynamic tools to keep pace with the rapid change in urban infrastructures. To stay relevant they must adapt to accommodate new technologies and requirements all the time. On the one hand, municipal leaders have to create vehicles that maintain a high level of reliability and safety in the public realm, and on the other hand, allow for new ideas to become a reality. In some cases, they’ve created new roles and positions, like the team that programs Millennium Park in Chicago, IL. 


    AW:  I think a three-way dialogue is ideal. There have been many ideas about how to involve the public. There is definitely room to think about not just the lighting designers and municipal stakeholders, but also the end user.


    Overall, what do you believe is the most important piece of information that a reader can take from “Light for Public Space?”


    SS: I would like to inspire creative practitioners and municipal leaders to think about the key role light can play in shaping compelling public spaces. I hope they collaborate with interdisciplinary teams to consider all aspects of light, especially the interaction design involved when engaging citizens directly.


    AW: We tried really hard to choose a rich selection of projects around the world that each do different things and cover the spectrum from ambient to dynamic. The one message we really wanted to share is that lighting can do so much, but the entire design profession has been rather shortsighted until now. Lighting isn’t just a supporting actor. We need to start thinking about lighting as the powerful tool that it really is. And that shouldn’t be hard, since it relates to us as people on such a basic level.


    Read the Q&A for part one and part two of the “Light for Public Space” series.

    Watch the corresponding webinar here.