Seeing clearly: a new vision for London’s lighting

Guest blog by Nicolas Bosetti, Research Manager at Centre for London

There couldn’t be a better demonstration of how public lighting can make London more enjoyable and memorable at night than the Illuminated River artwork. Yet the scheme also highlights how elsewhere in the capital, we have made rather uncreative use of lighting.

In a report funded by the Rothschild Foundation, Illuminated River and the Mayor of London, Centre for London explores the role that lighting plays in city life, and how the capital can become one of the best lit cities in the world.

We found that our street lights have a lot of room for improvement: they were designed for vehicle traffic, with the experiences of pedestrians and residents coming after. We tend to light up the roadway but many park walks or playgrounds stay dark – meaning play and outdoor physical activity stops are sunset, which is mid-afternoon in winter. Our street lamps often shine a harsh light all night, when we could use new technologies to dim lights when and where they are not needed, or reduce glare and adjust colour temperatures to make public spaces more welcoming and inclusive, and reduce light spill into resident homes.

The other main source of lighting is private, emitted from buildings and industrial land. When it comes to buildings, London has taken a very permissive approach to lighting, which has produced haphazard results. Buildings try to outshine each other and little is done to ensure that they respect recommended light pollution levels – let alone encourage owners to produce good lighting designs. This is most obvious in central London, where bright lights spill from office buildings all night long, with little regard for energy consumption, light pollution or impact on heritage.

Peter’s Hill (left – before, right – after). Following the City of London Lighting Strategy in 2018, the City have reduced the scale of lighting at Peter’s Hill, introducing lighting at ground level as well as warmer, lower lighting levels.

© City of London Corporation

How can London do better? Crucially, the capital needs a strategy to guide how public and private bodies should use lighting. We found that:

  • London does not yet have a citywide strategy on how it will use or regulate lighting, and London Plan policies on lighting are non-specific.
  • Only two of 33 London local authorities – the City of London and the City of Westminster – have adopted a comprehensive lighting strategy - a document that many cities across Europe have had for years.

Without lighting strategies, London is missing out on a wide range of benefits, from supporting high streets, to making our public spaces more inclusive, broadening access to art, and reducing energy consumption. To give one example – the City of London achieved a 50% reduction in energy consumption since the launch of its lighting strategy in 2018.

The report offers ideas and examples of highly successful lighting interventions:

  • A renovated public space in Shadwell estate, where passageways, seating areas and a playground are sensitively lit, while corridor lights have been dimmed or removed to reduce spill into resident homes
  • A community-led initiative to light historic buildings in Rotherhithe, to make its public spaces more interesting and inviting.
  • New lighting of bridges as part of Illuminated River, which transforms the experience of walking along the Thames while reducing light spill onto the river.

These projects show how changing the process we use to install lighting – by putting users and the environment at the heart of lighting design will make the city a much better place after dark. The report offers a toolkit on how this can be done.

Just like it has transformed the Thames, lighting could make London’s public spaces as beautiful and welcoming at night as they are during the day.

You can read the report here.

Online launch event held by Centre for London on 10th March 2021.