Cities in the shade: new strategies for sustainable lighting in the public realm

The second collaboration between the RCA Helen Hamlyn Centre, the RCA’s Department of Architecture and the Megaman Charity Trust Fund. This study will build on the Megaman Charity Trust Fund’s twin interests in education and environmental protection and build on ‘Light Volumes and Dark Matters the two-year study (2008/10) led by Research Associate Claudia Dutson, which has centred on rethinking the over-illumination of commercial interiors.

As cities, from Barcelona, Birmingham and Bilbao to Santiago and Shanghai, compete for inward investment from tourism and business, there has been much focus on lighting the public realm – on illuminating civic buildings, monuments and bridges to create an urban identity or sense of place. While many lighting schemes have won plaudits for such a high-profile creative approach, others have been accused of causing ‘light pollution’ and wasting energy - and some countries have even considered legislation to curb excessive lighting in public space.

This project takes as its starting point the premise that now is a good time to rethink how the public realm is artificially illuminated at night, given a background in which low energy light sources are opening up new possibilities and all cities are seeking to move towards a lower-carbon economy. How can we continue to give the civic realm – and especially its tourist areas – a distinctive sense of place while introducing lighting strategies that are more environmentally friendly? How can we maintain an urban animation and drama at night while reducing energy use and the threat of ‘light pollution’?

This project aims to explore the psychology of lighting public space and monuments, and the practicalities of achieving dramatic effects without the same expenditure of light and energy. A collaboration between the RCA Helen Hamlyn Centre, the RCA’s Department of Architecture and the Megaman Charity Trust Fund, the study will build on the Megaman Charity Trust Fund’s twin interests in education and environmental protection. It will also build on the two-year study (2008/10) led by Research Associate Claudia Dutson, which has centred on rethinking the over-illumination of commercial interiors ‘Light Volumes and Dark Matters’.

A range of architectural, spatial, psychological, technical, urban and commercial factors will be considered in the new study. Close engagement with city space decision-makers, outdoor lighting experts and users of the public realm will form a key component of the project. The study will explore three main strands of enquiry in the first instance under the following headings:

- The Architecture of Light: exploring how light reveals itself in striking the architectural fabric – massing, shade and shadow

- Art of the Decorative: achieving fantasy, beauty, metaphor and colour choreography

- Tailored to the Task: luminaires, light sources and light strategies that are fit for purpose – whether lighting a city square or a famous architectural landmark