Renée Loth

Lights on or lights off?

By Renée Loth
September 25, 2010

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THE ELECTRIC light is a necessity of modern life, stretching the day and enhancing productivity and safety. In the city, light can be an exuberant social force and an urban design tool of surpassing beauty. Paris, after all, is not celebrated as “the city of dim.’’

Still, we have effectively banished the stars. Light pollution spills wasted energy into the skies. Circadian rhythms are disrupted. Migrating birds die by the millions. The halo around Las Vegas can be seen in the desert, 250 miles away.

There is both a dark and light side to Thomas Edison’s disruptive technology. Forward-looking city planners have become increasingly sensitive to the ill effects of light pollution; controlling it is now even part of the mission of the National Park Service. No less than clean water or air, darkness is a fragile natural resource that’s under attack by human intervention and needs to be protected.

And yet, everybody loves the landmark Citgo sign, which blasts 218,000 LED lights every night into Kenmore Square.

“It is tricky ideologically to be for the spectacle of a modern city and also be an environmentalist,’’ said Tim Love, principal of the architecture and design firm Utile, and commissioner of urban design for the Boston Society of Architects. “If you’re fully for one or the other you’re probably deeply conflicted.’’

This tension is illustrated in Boston City Hall. In 2007, the Menino administration started a conservation initiative called “Lights Out Boston,’’ which encourages private property-owners downtown to extinguish their lights between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. for the spring and fall bird migrations. The lights of tall buildings disorient the birds, and they either smash into the windows or circle desperately until they die of exhaustion.

The program saves more than feathered friends, of course. Jim Hunt, the city’s environmental chief who oversees Lights Out, says the 600 property owners who volunteer for it report energy savings of up to 25 percent.

But the Menino administration is also supporting “Light Boston,’’ an advocacy organization that promotes illumination in the city. The group has raised funds to spotlight historic buildings, bridges, and church steeples, and has an ambitious plan to create a “Diamond Necklace’’ of lighted historic sights around the city.

So which is it? Light Boston or Lights Out?

“With enhancements to technology,’’ said Hunt, “we can still get lights to keep the city safe and vibrant without being wasteful of energy or causing significant environmental harm.’’

Indeed, Light Boston champions sustainable techniques such as timers and light shields, and works with designers to get the most effective lighting using the least amount of energy. Still, Light Boston president Ben Colburn says that Boston presents a special challenge, because so many of its historic buildings are light-absorbing brick.

It’s only been 120 years since Edison tested the first street light in New York City — an eye-blink of human evolution — and already two-thirds of Americans can’t see the Milky Way from their backyards. Only a few years ago amateur astronomers could count up to 50 stars in the constellation Orion. Now most people can’t see more than 10.

And it isn’t just wishing on a shooting star that’s harder. Lost in the hazy, light-washed skies is an intimacy with the natural world, the sense of vastness and wonder that comes from standing alone under a canopy of stars. Isn’t that at least as spiritual as viewing a church steeple flooded with light?

In Cambridge, the forces of darkness and light are battling over a change in a city zoning ordinance that would allow more signage on large commercial buildings along certain parts of the Charles River. The amendment sets up a special permit process to waive existing restrictions on sign height, size, and illumination.

At a City Council hearing this month, residents decried the proposed change as an assault on the very identity of Cambridge. “The Charles River is a major resource for this area,’’ said Pebble Gifford, a realtor and activist. “To clutter it up with signs of this nature is very troubling.’’ Just as strongly, the Chamber of Commerce supported the change as friendly to business. The Council must act on the proposal by Oct. 5.

For his part, Love isn’t surprised at the binary nature of the Cambridge debate, but he wishes it could be more nuanced. There is plenty of aesthetic room between the desert town of Borrego Springs in California — where the nearest traffic signal is 50 miles away — and Times Square.

As an example, Love points to Fenway Park. Signs inside the park conform to standardized logos of white letters on a green background or, if they are lit like the new Cumberland Farms sign, he says, “articulated so each letter is its own glowing object.’’ That makes the signs more like sculptures. The first step toward resolving the Cambridge dispute, he thinks, is to make any sign above a certain size “an aesthetic question and not just a legal question.’’

More broadly, there are technical fixes to light pollution that can be adopted tomorrow. Boston uses about 19 different kinds of streetlights, often named for their shapes: acorns, cobras, lollipops, shoe boxes. How much more sustainable — and pleasing visually — would the city lights be if they were all converted to new energy-sipping fixtures with shields that direct the light to the ground where it’s wanted? Boston is moving in this direction, but it is behind other cities such as Pittsburgh and Seattle.

The good news is that advocates for dark skies have helped raise public consciousness so that we may think twice before blasting a parking lot or driveway with megawatt sodium lamps. But there is too much delight in a beautifully luminous city just to pull the plug. Much as it would simplify the debate, this is not a topic with an on-off switch.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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