Inequalities in Public Lighting

CL convened three meetings of an expert working group to look at case studies of Peabody social housing estates in order to investigate how lighting can reflect and reproduce urban inequalities
Download Tackling Social Inequalities in Public Lighting final report.
Download Mark Major’s keynote speech at the report launch

Compare the moody atmosphere of a well-lit heritage district with the flood-lighting of a council estate: light codes the city, telling a story of unequal treatment and divided expectations. One area is aesthetically designed for tourists and well-heeled consumers, the other is functionally oriented to maximize surveillance and public order, with the expectation of crime and insecurity. The lighting reflects social differences, is the product of policies that assume these differences and then plays its part in reproducing those differences.

CL assembled an expert working group to explore these issues through case studies of three social housing estates provided by Peabody Trust. The experts included social housing professionals, police, homeless charities, lighting designers and council planning officers, plus academics from several disciplines.

The case study estates represented an important diversity of cases:

  • Roundtable 1: Whitecross Estate, Islington, is an old inner city estate.
  • Roundtable 2: Thamesmead Estate, Greenwich/Bexley, is a modernist construction on the edges of London in the process of reconstruction
  • Roundtable 3: St John’s Hill development, Wandsworth, is a classic new mixed development in which lighting public space has to serve diverse stakeholders

The roundtable series concluded by highlighting a number of themes that connect light to a range of inequality issues:

  • Place vs Problem: is lighting used to add value to a sense of place or to functionally manage a space marked out as ‘problematic’
  • Openness vs separation: does lighting connect a social space to the wider city, supporting socio-spatial inclusion, or does it work to segregate spaces as dangerous or marginal
  • Social complexity vs top down design: does lighting acknowledge, value and support social diversity or does it aim to design it away
  • Professional vs lay knowledge: lack of a shared language of light creates imbalances of expertise; can public understanding of light and public design be democratized?
  • Care vs cost: (Ine-)qualities of infrastructure are perceived by the public in terms of lack of municipal care and as reflecting inequalities of citizen status. Good standards of lighting, including maintenance, are not just a matter of cost but also of people’s social and political value in the city.