Dark cities, sustainable cities?


Hong Kong's symphony of lights, Goulard Sébastien

Cities are getting brighter, and more attention needs to be focused on this issue. *On July 1st, France introduced a new law banning night illumination for non-residential buildings. This is the first time a country has implemented a policy of this sort; the question is whether such a policy can help cities become more sustainable.

There are several objectives in reducing commercial lighting at night.

The main one is simply to save power. It is not sustainable to consume power the entire night for no purpose. Everyone, including companies, should be concerned by this issue. We cannot advocate for environmental preservation on the one hand, and continue to waste energy on the other hand.

Another objective is to reduce light pollution. Sky glow not only prevents amateur stargazers from looking at stars but has severe consequences on our environment. Light pollution disturbs the behaviour of fauna1, and may also have negative effects on human health.

Darkness may actually make cities greener!

This policy seems very ambitious and may create a sustainable precedent2, but there are other concerns involved.

  • First, we need to know more about the consequences of light reduction on security. Are dark cities more dangerous than illuminated ones? Despite all the diverging theses on the relation between darkness and safety3, we still cannot answer this question.  As this is the first time large metropolises in a developed country have implemented this kind of policy, no comparison can be made.
  • A second point concerns the enforcement of this policy, which applies essentially to non-residential buildings, but with some exceptions. The Eiffel tower will still be illuminated, and other major historical buildings will be exempted. We can assume that there will be other exceptions as well (for example, in tourist areas…). If a company does not respect the law, what will happen? Do the authorities have the necessary (financial and human) means to verify the implementation of the policy? What will be the sanctions applied to companies that disrespect it? A mere €750 fine? That is-not much for the budget of a supermarket occupying an entire building. These questions still need to be clarified.
  • In the absence of clear regulations and enforcement, this policy would only “remain on paper.”   The regulations need to be enforced; there should be more than just an “announcement effect”4.
  • It is also important to forecast the implications of the illumination ban on tourism and entertainment. Paris is known as the “city of lights”. Many visitors enjoy sightseeing from the Seine River and strolling through the lamp lit streets of the old districts by night. Without light, tourists may go out less and this will be detrimental to certain economic activities, for example, restaurants.

 If the policy proves to be successful, similar ones may be extended to other cities and countries, and nighttime will again be dark.

Can this policy be implemented in China?  Like Europe or the USA, China wastes a lot of power on night illumination. But illuminations are also a promotional tool, and in the case of Hong Kong a part of its identity. In the British ex-colony, illuminations have become a great tourist attraction, with the “Symphony of Lights” attracting thousands of visitors every night. As a recent article published in the South China Morning Post pointed out, despite complaints from environmental NGOs, “there is no reason to disappoint them (the visitors)”5. Nevertheless, lighting needs to be used efficiently and more attention should be paid to educating consumers.

 For the moment, there is no perfect solution to this problem. Cities must face the challenge and experiment with a wide range of policies. There has, however, already been a notable change in attitude: brighter cities do not mean better cities anymore.

  1. Terrel Gallaway T., Olsen R. and Mitchell D. (2009) The economics of global light pollution. Missouri State University, Department of Economics.  http://www.missouristate.edu/assets/econ/world_light_pollution.pdf. Retrieved July 9, 2013. []
  2. Turning it down: cities combat light pollution by going dim (2013) NPR. March 13, 2013. http://www.npr.org/2013/03/03/173365741/turning-it-down-cities-combat-light-pollution-by-going-dim.  Retrieved July 9, 2013. []
  3. Bogard P. (2013) Turn down the city lights and make streets safer. Bloomberg. February 24, 2013. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-02-24/turn-down-the-city-lights-and-make-streets-safer.html. Retrieved July 9, 2013. []
  4. Shankleman J. (2013). Will Paris still be a ‘city of lights’ following illumination ban? Business green. January 30, 2013. http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/2240130/can-paris-still-be-a-city-of-lights-following-illumination-ban.  Retrieved July 9, 2013. []
  5. Switching off a city of lights isn’t the answer (2012). SCMP. March 30, 2012. http://www.scmp.com/article/717631/switching-city-lights-isnt-answer. Retrieved July 9, 2013. []

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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