Urban Lightscapes/Social Nightscapes was a lighting design workshop that took place on Peabody’s Whitecross Estate (WHX) on 13-17 October 2014. Led by Configuring Light/Staging the Social in collaboration with Peabody’s IMPROVE project and the Social Light Movement and funded by LSE HEIF5 funding and iGuzzini, it brought together lighting design professionals, architects, planners and social scientists. The focus of the workshop was the creation of new lighting design interventions to help improve the outdoor spaces on the estate. In this workshop, LSE researchers supported the design teams in their social research to help them better understand WHX and its community in order to come up with sensible public lighting ideas. Throughout the workshop, the design teams engaged in a dialogue with the WHX community to understand life on the estate, their lighting needs and try out different lighting fittings.
Peabody – one of the oldest and largest housing providers in London – provided the Social Lightscapes workshop with an exceptionally rich site for our case study: the Whitecross Estate in Islington, London. Whitecross is a fairly old estate built for the urban poor in the 1880s. Today, the estate also encompasses a range of post-war redevelopments that were built on the other side of Whitecross street, cutting the whole estate into two areas. The state is home to about 1,200 people, with some families having lived on it for generations. At the same time, the estate is relatively open to outsiders passing through, being an inner city area and home to a daily food market on Whitecross Street (which cuts through the estate) which serves workers in the City (more than locals) at lunchtime.
The lighting on the Whitecross estate is very functional and bright, following engineering paradigms. There is currently no lighting strategy in place for the estate and new lights tend to be installed in reaction to residents complaining about ‘lack of safety’. Most of the public lighting, especially newer lamps, is installed very high up to flood light the public spaces on the estate. This stark lighting not only consumes enormous amounts of energy and causes light pollution in people’s flats, but also leads to very high contrast ratios – stepping out of the floodlight feels like stepping into complete darkness, even when the space ‘outside’ the floodlight is not actually that dark. Moreover, it does not respond to actual social activities: for example, because of the positioning of very bright lamps in some housing blocks, residents are not able to see their locks when opening their front door.
Twenty-five lighting designers, architects and urban planners came together for five days on the Whitecross Estate. For their social research and lighting design projects, they were divided into five groups each allocated a micro-site on the estate. In a lightwalk together with the Whitecross community previous to the workshop, these locations had been identified as most ‘problematic’ or ‘interesting’. The brief for the design teams was to conduct social research on and around their micro-site and, based on this social research, develop new lighting design interventions for that site which would be pitched to Peabody at the end of the week.
Group One worked on one of the edges of the Whitecross Estate. They identified the core problem of their area as the boundary between the estate and the external public space, particularly the YMCA hostel located opposite, and a problematic corner with a reputation for ‘anti-social behaviour’ such as drug dealing.
Group One initially considered a design solution that would try to strengthen the Peabody boundary using trees and lighting. However, after reflections based on their research, they decided against trying to ‘resolve’ the problem with a design, but instead to make the boundary issue a feature of the space using a temporary light installation called ‘Drop of Light’. This could function as a light ‘bridge’ that might prompt further discussion between stakeholders and feed into a later design once more thoughtful community engagement had been prompted.
Group Two worked on one of the two big towers on the estate and its surrounding area. The social research the group conducted revealed that residents appreciated the location as well as the community spirit of the Whitecross Estate. This issue was important because research indicated that the area included a major thoroughfare through the estate, for both residents and outsiders passing through. Most people felt their pathway was affected by poor lighting, characterised by the stark contrasts created by flood lighting. Women were more affected than men and more likely to change their route after dusk to walk along an alternative path that was more evenly lit. The group addressed the issue of improving connections through the estate by suggesting a catenary lighting system as well as highlighting existing greenery and allotments to reflect what residents valued on the estate.
Group Three also worked on a tower block on the newer side of the estate as well as the surrounding area which included a currently fenced park. Their social research and site engagement showed that residents had a strong sense of identity with the space and appreciated it as a peaceful and quiet area with a strong sense of community. The green spaces on the site were particularly valued as a strong ‘connecting’ element to nature, but at the same time residents articulated a need for ‘better security’ after dusk. The group proposed emphasising the valued quietness and peacefulness of the environment and particularly the important relationship to nature by up-lighting the trees in the park as well as bringing the lighting for pathways down to a human scale in order to make the space feel less functional and ‘more safe’.
Group Four was given a large central space, Chequer Square, which also was the location of the community centre, gardening activity and social gathering. Research quickly focused on the fact that ‘users’ included not only residents but also the many passers-by who use the square as a short-cut, as well as visitors from the market who come in to eat their lunch. The issue here was how to make the space welcoming and friendly, but at the same time make sure it is not too open and is clearly marked as the residents’ space: residents were happy to hospitable but outsiders should know whose space it is. The group addressed this complexity by proposing to highlight the existing greenery provided by the garden club, highlighting elements at the entrances as well as
the historic doorways of the blocks to ‘mark’ the experience of ‘arriving home’.
Group Five worked on a series of housing blocks that – apparently – faced out of the estate, plus the public spaces ‘behind’ it. The group used social research to explore whether residents of Banner House really felt part of the estate despite being located on its edge, using the inward-facing entrance as ‘front of house’ as opposed to the ‘official’ entrance on Banner Street. Roscoe Street (running ‘behind’ the blocks) was perceived as a major thoroughfare for ‘corporate London’ and the green space here lacked opportunities for acting as a meeting space. The lighting was perceived as similar to ‘Blackpool illuminations’ and the bulkhead lights above the doors made the house ‘look like cells’. In response to that, Group Five proposed lighting that would mark the thoroughfare on Roscoe Street through ‘human-scale’ street lighting. Further, the existing green space would be accentuated through up-lighting one of the big trees as a ‘community tree’. The block itself would get balustrade lighting and door lamps in the shape of the door numbers which would be back-lit, humanizing the residential spaces and making them more welcoming.
The Whitecross workshop comprised the highest proportion of lighting designers of the series, until the final Paris workshop. Yet, a major impact on the participants of doing social research was to emphasise that lighting is not a stand-alone issue, or a technical one, or a matter of aestheticizing a brutal space. Rather, it but that it goes hand-in-hand with other aspects, such as landscaping (e.g. improving surfaces), furniture, layout, connections between insides and outsides (of buildings, spaces, the estate as a whole. Thus lighting design initiatives are best tied together with larger improvement programmes, as well as relating more openly to other service provision and maintenance.