Rethinking the way cities use artificial light

Is a brightly-lit city a beacon for prosperity? In the 21st century, more intelligent ways to use light may be the hallmark of the cutting edge. Ian Cheney explores in "The City Dark."

The City Dark is a new film that explores the impact of urban light pollution on humans and the natural environment. It's screening at the new BMW Guggenheim Lab, which we previewed earlier this month .

In the film, director Ian Cheney challenges designers and urban planners to rethink the way cities are lit.

The problem with light pollution? Astronomers can't see through it, fauna are disoriented by it and perhaps most apparent of all, human circadian rhythms are disrupted by it.

"The City That Never Sleeps" may no longer be a point of pride for New York.

But it's hard to argue with the value of light. It makes new spaces accessible, improves public safety and promotes social interaction.

In the film, Cheney states the following: "We might love light [but] we might need the dark." He also says that "a darker city is a matter of design," suggesting that it's up to designers, architects and others to better navigate that balance.

The folks at Urban Omnibus spoke at length with Cheney about his film and the challenge of what you could call a city's most unnatural inclinations.

Here are some highlights:

  • "[When] one mentions the disappearance of the night sky, people instantly connect. There's something so fundamental and present to all of us about that."
  • "It’s not that advocates of 're-darkening' the city [such as the International Dark-Sky Association] want to turn off all the lights... a growing number of designers are thinking about light in a more sophisticated way than we may have in the past, when we were responding to a centuries-long legacy of having too much darkness and seeing more light as better."
  • "It may seem ironic that a lighting designer would be talking about the need to use less light, but fortunately lighting designers aren’t paid by how many lumens of light they use in a design."
  • "We can use better lighting as a way to create different and, in the end, more livable spaces, where people will be able to sleep better, birds can find their way and we can connect to the stars."
  • "People feel safer in well-lit spaces. But when you start getting into the data about whether introducing light alone will consistently make a neighborhood safer or not, there are instances where it does and instances where it doesn't, where light just moves crime elsewhere or even makes it easier for criminals to operate. But it's inarguable that people continue to feel safer in the light."
  • "The most profound risk we're taking by losing the night sky is becoming a completely downward-looking species."
  • "There is so much about a city that is a shock to the human immune system."
  • "We’ve evolved for many, many generations with certain cycles of light and dark. It’s very interesting to live in an urban environment and think about how can we design spaces to give us the things we want out of a city, which are many, and yet not make us sick or unhappy or solipsistic in the process."

The City Dark [Urban Omnibus]

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