Discussion group on Celestial city

Alisa Smith
The Next City
September 21, 1998

Discussion

THE BIG DIPPER. THAT’S MY CELESTIAL HIGHLIGHT ON A CLOUDLESS NIGHT when I stand on my residential street at the edge of downtown Victoria. Just a few pinpricks of the major constellations populate my sky. Last year, when I went with friends to suburban Mount Tolmie to view comet Hale-Bopp — supposedly one of this century’s greatest astronomical spectacles — I could see only a dull smudge instead of the promised trailing fireball. I did not then realize that my nighttime sky is so dull because our cities are getting brighter year by year and, in the process, becoming sterile and charmless.

We unthinkingly pay for thousands of new city streetlights and the electricity to run them. The International Dark-Sky Association, a group of astronomers fighting light pollution, estimates that the United States spends $1 billion each year on inefficient, misdirected light. Such wanton wastefulness should alarm citizens across the political spectrum, from those lobbying for funds to expand the social safety net to those seeking to cut the deficit.

When I think of night in the city, I think most of the false stars close to me — the glaring streetlights and highrise offices lit up 24 hours a day — or of the sickly orange dome formed as city lights reflect off the clouds. Even here — on Canada’s western edge, where the sun finally sets into the ocean’s black void — the night is anemic. The glow of Seattle, of the American logging town Port Angeles, and of Vancouver and the ski runs in the mountains above: These sights symbolize the modern night, not the constellations the ancient Greeks outlined as Sagittarius, the archer, or Gemini, the twins.

Everyone loves stargazing on a balmy night in the countryside, yet most people ignore the sky above. The suburbs sprawl, and the streetlights sprout up like weeds. The car lot closes, but its lights stay on. A neighbor spotlights his oak tree, and those next door lose their view of the stars.

Unlike most of us, astronomers think always of the night sky. They have sensed the growing light pollution problem for decades. “At Mount Wilson, in the hills above Los Angeles, they did fundamental work on cosmology — the flashy stuff you read about in the newspaper, like the expansion of the universe,” says Dr. David Crawford, the International Dark-Sky Association’s founder. “There’s no faint [star] work done there at all now.” Now, serious funding heads only to observatories in Hawaii and Chile, where the darkness remains profound.

In the early 1980s, the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America estimated that, by the year 2000, stars would no longer be visible from the largest North American cities, and we may just fulfil this dire prediction. In the countryside, stargazers can see 2,500 stars; in the suburbs, 250; in large cities, a paltry 25. No one recalls New York City’s starry sky but rather the Empire State Building’s illuminated form.

NO LAW DICTATES A CITY’S OR TOWN’S LIGHTING LEVELS — city bureaucrats simply adopt the Illuminating Engineering Society’s standards, as a matter of course. Moreover, they often exceed these standards by up to 10 times: their motivation most often a visceral fear of the dark, compounded by simplistic politics that ricochet from one panacea to the next.

The Illuminating Engineering Society first set street lighting standards in the 1920s, and they’ve been getting brighter ever since. Despite this, litigious citizens blame supposedly ill-lit roads for causing accidents in hopes of recovering some money. “You get a lot of ‘jailhouse’ lawyers taking a lightmeter reading to make a case, though often incorrectly,” says John Mickel, chair of the Illuminating Engineering Society’s roadway lighting committee. Our cities are getting brighter because people believe that light will keep them safe from auto collisions, crime, and mishaps of all descriptions, but, given experts’ reports, we’d do better to adorn our doors with garlic, a cheaper talisman against the night.

“Improving streetlights sometimes reduces crime and the fear of crime and sometimes increases it,” says Jason Ditton, a law professor at the University of Sheffield, a director of the Scottish Centre of Criminology, and an expert in the relationship between lighting and crime. “When lighting reduces crime and the fear of crime, the effect falls off after a while. The same is pretty much true for every ‘magic bullet’ solution to the complex problems of crime and the fear of crime.”

After Wandsworth, a London borough, added 3,500 new lights in 1991, British researchers carefully analyzed crimes reported to the police and found absolutely no change. In 1993, Ditton released a study of a Glasgow low-income housing project that had increased lighting, enhanced security features, trimmed bushes, and added new paths in an effort to combat crime. He scrupulously assessed people’s feelings of safety and found that, overall, they felt less safe than before. Evidently, all the hype about safety precautions convinced residents they were living in a dangerous neighborhood.

“If it were so easy to reduce crime with lighting, then we should have made considerable headway by now,” points out the International Dark-Sky Association’s Crawford. In fact, he notes that “if you plot people’s fear of crime or crime rates over the last decade, you see that lighting has increased at a similar rate.”

Most crimes are crimes of opportunity, depending on a lack of potential witnesses. Some crimes, such as burglary, actually occur most frequently in the day. Overlighting may even facilitate crime; a neighbor annoyed by a bright security light shining in his window may close the blinds and no longer have a view over his neighbors’ yards. There goes their best security feature.

As crime festers in North America’s ailing urban cores, politicians, to get themselves re-elected, scramble to find the elusive magic bullet. For instance, when the public blamed Detroit’s mayor for increased crime rates, he trumpeted plans to light up the inner city to reclaim the streets. People who study crime know that answers do not come so easily. Even adherents of lighting for safety are half-hearted, admitting that lighting acts more to soothe people’s fears than to reduce crime.

Constable Mike Yeager, a Victoria police officer trained in environmental design and crime prevention, cautiously recommends adding lights at well-chosen locations, such as the rear of an apartment building that faces another. However, he adds that unless lighting is carefully shielded and directed downward, it becomes an irritant. “Who wants to live in bright lights all the time?” Yeager asks. “You’re not going to get any sleep on the ground floor with floodlights shining in your window.” This more thoughtful attitude to anticrime lighting echoes astronomers’ recommendation to focus light where needed and away from the sky.

In Victoria, consistently sensationalized crime reporting has thoroughly convinced citizens that the downtown core teems with dangerous legions of undesirables, especially at night. Though businesses install bright spotlights in their doorways, people still see the bogeyman around every dark corner and stay home after dark.

In reality, for the average citizen, Victoria is extremely safe. Police here grit their teeth and say so whenever they have the opportunity. Typically, about six murders occur per year in this city of over 250,000. Of last year’s 1,700 assault reports, two-thirds involved fights outside bars between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. “Most bars are well lit,” says Yeager. “It’s two drunk people who have lost all sense. Lighting won’t help that.”

A large treed area such as Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park might not be as safe as downtown — not because of darkness, but for the lack of people. “The basic level of lighting is adequate. It’s a park, not a parking lot,” says Yeager. When it comes to preventing crime, “the short answer is: The more people there are around, the better.” For example, Dallas Road Beach is even darker than Beacon Hill Park, but safer. Popular with what Yeager prosaically calls nighttime “user groups” — partiers, lovers, hippies, the homeless, druggies — Dallas Road Beach has an extremely low “random assault rate.” Its darkness is more divine than deadly, offering that increasingly rare and perfect serenity, tailor-made for gazing at the stars or into a loved one’s eyes.

Carolyn Whitzman, coordinator of Toronto’s Task Force on Community Safety, enthusiastically advocates using lights to ease people’s safety concerns, but even she has her reservations. “There was one study from England that seemed to prove there was a positive impact [from increased lighting],” she says wryly.

“Sometimes, lighting can add to the problem. For instance, there was Belt Line Park, a linear park in North Toronto on an abandoned railway line that crosses intersections and cuts through ravines. A few years ago someone suggested that all the entrances be lit. However, that would deceive people into thinking that it’s a park that’s used at night when it’s not.” If city planners remove fears that arise from a valid survival instinct, people may expose themselves to needless risks.

Even though she encourages safety audits, which frequently result in calls for brighter lighting, Whitzman readily acknowledges that it can go too far. “Why should the light shine upward? Why does lighting focus on streets, where the cars have headlights, and not on sidewalks where the pedestrians are? Why should office buildings be lit up like Christmas trees?” she asks with surprising passion. “It can get too bright, too sterile — then it’s not an inviting atmosphere.”

IN OUR QUEST FOR BRIGHTER CITIES, WE FAIL TO CONTEMPLATE OUR ACTIONS’ far-ranging effects on other species. In Japan, researchers noticed that fireflies had all but disappeared in many areas where city lighting interfered with insect navigation, communication, and reproduction. On the beaches of Boca Raton, Florida, researchers discovered that loggerhead turtles that hatched in dark areas were instinctively drawn to the seaward horizon’s faint glow, to the water and to safety. But when condominium lights shone on the beach, the young turtles moved toward the buildings, making them easy snacks for predators.

In Vancouver, formerly nocturnal coyotes, first noticed in the city in the 1980s, now roam the streets by day. “You can hardly see the stars at night. Has it changed their behavior?” ponders Kristine Webber, known as the Coyote Lady because of her recent high-profile master’s study. She intended to study people’s interactions with their new neighbors, but quickly realized the coyotes themselves were acting strangely in their new surroundings. “They become desensitized to light and people,” Webber says, wary of the problems that may develop from coyote-human interactions in the city’s busy daytime environment — from the suburbs to the gritty downtown Eastside.

Across Canada, we mark the seasons by the mass migrations of birds whose complex homing systems, relying on the stars, the moon, magnetic fields, and deep-frequency sounds, guide them from the Arctic to Mexico. In a rain or fog that obscures the stars, artificial lights act as false and fatal beacons. Most dramatically, during a 1981 storm near Kingston, Ontario, 10,000 birds died after hitting the Lennox generating station’s floodlit chimneys.

To raise awareness and combat the deadly siren song of Toronto’s brightly lit office towers, Michael Mesure founded the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) in 1993. He remembers his epiphany vividly. “It was May 16, 1990. A fog had rolled in. It was the only time I’d seen it like this. There were hundreds, or even thousands, of dead birds everywhere. It was horrible,” he says with a shudder. For the last three years, he has worked full time with only sporadic pay to collect the dead and nurture the injured, starting at 4 a.m. in the financial district. Typically, Mesure and 30 volunteers retrieve 2,000 to 3,000 birds per year of an estimated 10,000 that die colliding with lit office towers.

“We also encourage managers to reduce lighting without spending money,” he says. “Quite honestly, millions of dollars can be saved.” As well as light shutoffs, FLAP suggests installing motion detector lights, which pay for themselves in two years, in seldom used boardrooms.

Getting action from the behemoth corporations that own Toronto’s largest buildings seemed impossible, but one major tower did halve its night lighting. “That’s a big step. That’s thousands of windows and rooms. They might get others on board,” Mesure says. FLAP also scored a major success with the CN Tower, which abandoned the spotlight illumination that killed many birds.

Initially, building managers were skeptical that overlighting created problems, since scavengers or FLAP volunteers removed most of the dead birds by morning. Now, FLAP brings along a travelling gallery of stuffed birds — 50 of the most commonly found species, including warblers, sparrows, ovenbirds, and thrushes. They’ve encountered 126 species in all, some on the endangered list, as well as four species of bats, monarch butterflies, praying mantises, and dragonflies.

Mesure notes that light pollution is more than visual. Carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning electrical plants and the disposal of the fluorescent tubes’ toxic mercury threaten both bird and human environments. Pessimistic about the chances of enacting a strong anti-light-pollution bylaw, he says, “We’ve kind of dabbled in it. But good luck in a city the size of Toronto.”

I REMEMBER VIVIDLY ONE NIGHT WHEN I WAS 11 YEARS OLD, sitting around a camp fire with relatives in northern Alberta, gazing at the multitudes of stars and at the Northern Lights’ serpentine beauty. Staring up at the sky so long, I noticed some stars that were moving and far too high to be airplanes. Given my limited experience, I concluded that they were UFOs. Now I know they were satellites, their light never before visible to me from Edmonton where I then lived.

Big city kids have even stranger encounters their first time under a rural sky. In an Internet magazine, Marc Spiegler writes of a friend from Detroit who, as an eight-year-old, went camping for the first time. Late at night, she stepped out of the tent and started screaming, convinced that the clutter of stars were hurtling down at her.

In populated areas, air pollution intensifies sky glow, contributing to the skyscape’s deterioration. Airborne particles both reflect and absorb city light. For those lucky few in remote rural areas, the air pollution’s absorbing quality contains the sky glow over offending cities, paradoxically improving visibility. Nevertheless, satellite maps of North America at night show that dense clusters of lights cover the U.S. eastern seaboard and most of southern Ontario and Quebec. These regions’ seemingly rural locales face serious light pollution threats.

“I live in the country, halfway between Belleville and Napanee. City lights wreck about half my sky,” says Bill Broderick, head of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s light pollution committee. “The ordinary person likes to see the skies too. I’ve had people say to me, ‘I can’t see the Little Dipper anymore’ and ‘Do we still have Northern Lights?'”

Increasing numbers of people will wonder what happened to the Little Dipper. In 1979, when an observatory went up at Mont Mégantic, Quebec, light pollution compromised 25 per cent of the skyscape for astronomical observations; today, it ruins 50 per cent, and researchers repeat this story at observatories across North America, many built before the Second World War in formerly remote locations.

Experts now discuss the need to send telescopes into space, but, for the moment, institutions are pursuing more earthly, though still costly, measures. The University of Toronto opened an observatory in the remote Andes, so researchers could study stars now nearly invisible from its original Richmond Hill, Ontario, observatory. When the university built the observatory in 1935, Richmond Hill was a sleepy farm community north of Toronto. Today, high rises loom taller than the observatory, and an ever-diminishing buffer zone separates its 105,000 people from the metropolis.

To salvage something of their domestic skygazing operation, observatory staff pleaded for light control bylaws, winning shielding requirements and an 11 p.m. light-dimming curfew. Even so, the bylaws cover only new developments and exempt detached homes. In another small victory, starting in 1989, Richmond Hill switched from mercury vapor to high-pressure sodium streetlights, which interfere less with astronomical research and save 30 per cent in energy bills, paying for themselves in two to five years. However, Richmond Hill has yet to see any overall savings — sprawl continues to add 500 to 1,000 new streetlights per year.

British Columbia’s Dominion Observatory, a facility used by over 100 scientists from universities across Canada each year, faces a similar light pollution threat. Built in 1918 in Saanich, then a rural hinterland, the tentacles of Victoria’s sprawling growth squeezed ever tighter, noticeably compromising observations by the 1970s. In the 1980s, accelerating nearby development prompted staff to lobby for light control bylaws.

Saanich now uses only high-pressure sodium lights and requires light shielding for a five-kilometre radius around the observatory. Strong as these bylaws are, however, Saanich continues to grow, and even sensible lighting adds to the ambient glow that obscures the stars. “With the Saanich bylaws and new equipment, we have been able to keep even. But we’re beginning to lose the battle,” says Jim Hesser, Dominion Observatory’s director. “Only on the best cloudless nights can we make observations that were possible easily 10 years ago.”

Today, Richmond Hill and Saanich have the most stringent lighting regulations in Canada, but, clearly, communities need to do more to save their vanishing skyscape. Citizens need to question why politicians overlight their cities when it makes no dent in crime rates, harms the environment, obscures the stars, and wastes money.

CITY LIGHTS SHOULD EMULATE STAGE SPOTLIGHTS, WHICH ILLUMINATE very particular areas. Directing lights at the street would let a lower-wattage bulb achieve the same brightness, at a reduced cost. The worst star-obscuring offender is light shining horizontally or even upward, as with the globe-style streetlight that cities often use to suggest old-fashioned character. The even more common “cobra-head” streetlights — designed in the 1960s for U.S. interstate freeways — have covered heads but low-hanging bulbs whose sideways glare hazardously decrease visibility.

The International Dark-Sky Association recommends that cities install shielded lights in new developments. Cities can also retrofit old fixtures with shields; Saanich did this for a one-time cost of $20 to $65 for each unit. There are problems besides streetlights, which cause approximately one-third of light pollution. Advertising and sports venue illumination account for another third, leading experts to recommend directing spotlights downward and limiting the star-obscuring halide lights found in stadiums, playing fields, and car dealerships. Private lighting accounts for the final third of light pollution — astronomers shudder at the rising popularity of decorative lawn spotlights.

In the late 1980s, both BC Hydro and Ontario Hydro encouraged cities to switch from old, inefficient lights such as mercury vapor to more efficient high-pressure sodium lights. Unfortunately for city stargazers, while educating municipalities about energy efficiency, the utilities failed to consider the equally important issue of light pollution and to encourage its customers to purchase shields for the new lights.

Recently, BC Hydro finished converting 95 per cent of its roadway lighting to high-pressure sodium, along with 99 per cent of the streetlamps that it owns and that municipalities rent. In addition, two years ago, municipalities converted 90 per cent of the streetlights they own independently. This change saves 60 gigawatt-hours, or approximately $3 million to $4 million each year.

In Steetsmart, a similar program that ended in 1993, Ontario Hydro subsidized 25 per cent of the municipalities’ one-time cost in switching to high-pressure sodium. Eighty per cent of Ontario municipalities participated, shaving off approximately 45 per cent, or $14 million, of the province’s annual street lighting bill. “The cheapest megawatt is the megawatt saved — because it reduces the need to build new [power] generators,” says John Earl, a spokesperson for Ontario Hydro.

One could also argue that the cheapest light is the light never installed, or never turned on. Simply put, if the public would accept turning off 25 per cent of city lights, it would see a 25 per cent cut in its electricity bill, saving millions of dollars, and views of the sky, across Canada.

UNTIL RECENTLY, TORONTO WAS THE ONLY REMAINING major North American city fully illuminated by antiquated incandescent lights; in the early 1990s, Toronto scrapped the energy-guzzling system. But instead of making narrow spectrum, shielded, or reduced lighting a priority, then councillor Howard Levine went off on another tangent. Bowing to his pressure, the city replaced over 40,000 fixtures with metal halide lights at a cost of $17 million. Any change would have been costly, and proponents quickly point out that the lights would pay for themselves in five years. But it wasn’t the dollar figure that infuriated opponents, rather, the seemingly innocent issue of the light’s color had them fuming.

“From our point of view, this light is ‘dirty,'” explains Dominion Observatory’s Hesser. Metal halide’s full-spectrum light contaminates astronomers’ high-resolution work. “If all municipalities’ lights changed to that, it would be a disaster.”

Levine, who considers metal halide’s white, full-spectrum light visually pleasing, dismisses concerns, saying, “The astronomers will have to devise some kind of filtering device. It’s two million people versus a handful of astronomers.” He says representatives from other towns constantly tour Toronto at night when contemplating switching to metal halide. “We have some of the most beautiful and efficient lights in North America.” Levine also claims that Toronto’s old-fashioned “acorn” fixture addresses the issue of upward-shining light, and he criticizes other cities’ unthinking use of the standard cobra-head streetlight and orange-toned sodium lights. “Vancouver went wild, they blitzed the city. It looks like hell,” he says.

As little as they like metal halide, astronomers suggest a compromise, such as using carefully shielded metal halide lights only in downtown main streets and other busy pedestrian areas. In residential areas, people are sleeping, not window-shopping. Despite metal halide’s attractive light, most Torontonians hardly noticed the switch; Levine says only three or four people called city hall asking what had happened.

When asked if metal halide lights obscure the stars, he answers, “You haven’t been able to see the stars from Toronto for decades. It’s overlit. But if people want safe streets, well-lit streets, you can’t expect to see a million stars.”

IN THE U.S., MANY COMMUNITIES ARE STILL TAKING THE FIRST BABY STEPS to convert away from mercury vapor. However, those now switching better understand the need for, and efficiency of, cutoff fixtures, which focus light downward. Anticipating significant savings, the private utility Blackstone Valley Electric is converting to high-pressure sodium cutoff lights in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Over a five-year period from 1997 to 2001, the city will change its 3,258 lights for $51 each, or a total $166,158. The new lights cut yearly kilowatt-hours by 35 per cent, which the utility will pass on to the city in a 4 per cent rate reduction. In Massachusetts, the legislature is debating a bill requiring all new state-funded streetlights to have cutoff fixtures.

On the other side of the continent, San Diego has been experimenting with new lighting methods for over a decade. In 1984, the city passed stringent bylaws to save the skies over the important observatories on nearby Palomar Mountain and Mount Laguna. Councillors decreed low-pressure sodium — which less obstructs star observations and beats high-pressure sodium’s energy efficiency — for all city lights north of Interstate 8.

Unfortunately, in more recent years, anticrime rhetoric has prevailed. In 1993, San Diego councillor John Hartley led an 18-month fight to return to brighter lighting as a crime cure-all, despite scientific evidence contradicting his position. “Science is not supposed to hold us hostage and take us back to the Dark Ages,” he proclaimed. “Bright lights are what people want.”

Despite the science, few rushed to the defence of low-pressure sodium lights. “If you’ve seen these lights — everyone calls them bug lights. They have a brownish, dim color. People hate them,” says David Di Pierro, an associate traffic engineer with the city. However, he scoffs at the notion that other types of lights will help in higher crime areas, saying that a neighborhood’s character, not its lighting, affects crime rates.

Although the low-pressure sodium lights repelled many San Diegans, they do approve of the cutoff fixtures. Originally intended to shield the sky for the observatory, the city frequently installs them by request. “We have a lot of people calling in with light shining in their bedrooms, and they want cutoffs,” Di Pierro says. What’s good for the stars can be good for public relations.

Despite some positive changes in Canada and the U.S., light pollution is increasing throughout North America. “Sky glow is an inevitable result of population growth,” says BC Hydro’s Hughes. “Any light that shines down will reflect up.” Yet judicious light planning can alleviate the grim scenario of inevitability. Tucson, Arizona — a major astronomical research centre and the International Dark-Sky Association’s home town — is actually darker than it was 15 years ago, despite population growth. Because the city uses glare-reducing cutoff fixtures and a mix of low- and high-pressure sodium bulbs and strictly controls public and private lighting, Tucson’s 800,000 people can still see the Milky Way.

Years of careful education nudged the private sector into compliance, despite western Americans’ reputation for balking at the reins of publicly mandated restrictions. “We have had zero per cent opposition,” says IDA’s Crawford. “Businesses and lighting people are strong allies. We save money and have a more attractive city.”

GRADUALLY, PEOPLE CONCERNED WITH LIGHT POLLUTION ARE MAKING tenuous connections. Now that Crawford has retired as a Kitt Peaks Observatory astronomer, he plans to tout Tucson’s success to other North American cities. In Britain, the Council for the Protection of Rural England has joined astronomers to fight against light pollution in the small towns and hamlets whose car lot floodlights threaten the pastoral serenity. The British Astronomical Association runs the Sky Glow Project, involving regular folks in monitoring light pollution. Recently, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada started the Canadian Campaign for Dark Skies, hoping to involve naturalists and conservationists. FLAP is already working with the International Dark-Sky Association and with a group of amateur Toronto astronomers. In British Columbia, the Metchosin Community Association — a group fighting to keep the small town’s rural character safe from Victoria’s sprawl — is lobbying the town council for anti-light-pollution bylaws.

These activists are waging a war of science and beauty against the fear of the dark that lurks in the animal part of our brains. If we take a deep breath, we’d remember that the darkness feeds our souls.

Walt Whitman, that incomparable bard of nature’s grandeur, was moved by the darkest nights. In “Night on the Prairies” he wrote: “I walk by myself — I stand and look at the stars, which I think / now I never realized before. / Now I absorb immortality and peace, / I admire death and test propositions.”

Sadly, we listen more often to the inner cop than to the inner poet. As long as we’ve had cities and crime, people have sought to control public space and keep the bogeyman at bay. Back in the 1870s, Paris went on an urban park building spree, but the governing elite — seeking safe, genteel strolls and a counterpoint to the city’s moral and physical decay — worried about the citoyens‘ pesky nighttime behavior. In 19th-century Paris, the elite assuaged their fear of the lower classes by fencing public parks and locking them at night. It is no longer acceptable to lock the parks, so, instead, we harshly illuminate them and our city streets, hoping to allay our fear of one another. For an imagined security, we obscure our starry nights with light.

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Letters

, councillor, City of North Vancouver, responds: November 16, 1998

, Montreal, responds: November 29, 1998

  1. Darrell Mussatto
  2. Roger Jones

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Darrell Mussatto, councillor, City of North Vancouver, responds: November 16, 1998

I very much enjoyed reading your article in The NEXT CITY. As a municipal councillor with the City of North Vancouver I certainly understand how easy and desirable it is to use quick fixes, which almost always end up being wrong, to address very complex problems. The idea that increased lighting will always reduce crime and make cities more livable is a good example.

We as a municipality are about to conduct a safety audit of our city, and I surely hope we do not fall into the trap of simply providing more street and building lighting only to increase safety. Making the streets safer for all is a complicated problem requiring a wide range of social, health, and economic solutions over a long period of time.

Thanks again for writing an article that challenges some of our current beliefs and causes us think a little more about the problems we face.

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Roger Jones, Montreal, responds: November 29, 1998

Thank you for an excellent article. I agree entirely that light pollution spoils our cities. When the recent comet was visible from earth, my wife and I tried to view it from our parking lot but could only see a faint smudge. We then drove 20 miles west of the city, then away from the “orange lit” highway to get a better look. We could see a bit more of it but were still surrounded by an orange haze at horizon level. Very sad — so much waste of capital and energy, too.

I am also saddened that our politicians always look for simplistic solutions to what ails us, like adding more street lights, “tougher” gun control, lower speed limits, and so on — in the main, all mindless, knee-jerk reactions. They seem to pay very little attention to logical causality,

i. e., how likely is it that what they plan to do would clearly fix what they, or the voters, don’t like. Also, they have little regard for the cost. Indeed, in some cases, like gun control (Bill C-68) politicians actively suppress evidence against the “causality” they wish to promote and underestimate the cost by large multiples on purpose.

We used to own a country place in the Eastern Townships of Montreal, 82 miles out of town. You could look up on a cloudless night and see the Milky Way with stars like hard, bright white points burning out of the sky. We even saw the aurora once or twice. Now, for us, seeing the stars is a rare experience.

By the way, my company manages a town house condominium (a “mini-city” in itself.) We still get requests for “more lighting” of walkways, “turn lights on earlier,” “keep them on later” (for the morning newspaper man, no less!), and put more lights in the parking lots — even though we live in the middle of a city and the light spillover onto the condo’s land is often enough for walking. To address this, we are planning to use motion detectors on some lights, to replace inefficient lamp timers (they spend more time wrongly set than correctly set, by definition!) with photocell on/off switches, and to use minimum wattage spot lighting with low light spill for new installations. Thus, we are trying to be good citizens and not add to the problem.

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