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Public lighting plays a prominent role in reflecting and reproducing inequalities, particularly in the public realm and in the context of housing in London. There is a fundamental division between the technical and aesthetic framing of urban spaces through lighting: while some places benefit from lighting that is consciously deployed to to enhance value through place-making and to emphasise heritage, identity and aesthetics, social housing estates are characterised by substantial over-illumination in which lighting is a purely engineering solution to technical problems of order, safety and policing. The problem of social inequality in public lighting is that the right to socially successful and engaging urban places gets lost in this unequal split. This has a significant cost impact on national and local budgets: around 30 per cent of a local authority’s energy bill is for street lighting alone (Green Investment Report 2014). By contrast, huge opportunities for equitable public spaces are available through new light technologies and innovative design processes grounded in social research. Public lighting can address issues of urban inequality. It can be used to focus value, care and creativity on public spaces, estates and future mixed-use housing. It can help build social inclusion and civic life across urban spaces, working to produce light as a socio-technical infrastructure that is cost effective, socially sustainable, and creates spaces that are engaging, accessible and comfortable for the diverse citizens that share them. This report provides practitioner- and policy-targeted recommendations to tackle social inequalities in public lighting. It identifies the institutional and intellectual challenges we need to meet in order for lighting to play a part in place-making that will tackle rather than reinforce social and spatial inequalities in London and beyond.

Light is a powerful material. It is fundamental to our lives and it can help create new and interesting spaces in many different ways. Even though this tends to be unrecognised in most discussions, lighting is currently gaining a new momentum. Fuelled by continuous innovation and the development of new technologies, it has now taken centre stage in different discussions around economic and environmental costs in the context of climate change and sustainable urban development, as well as new questions on aesthetics and city branding and the quality of life in cities. But not all of us benefit equally from this new status of light and lighting. Looking at the lighting in different kinds of urban spaces can actually tell us quite a bit about social inequalities. For example, in London social housing estates tend to be brightly and harshly illuminated to allow for better CCTV surveillance, which is assumed to prevent anti-social behaviour. This kind of lighting prompts a range of issues, but also ‘marks’ these space as ‘dangerous’ or ‘problematic’, regardless of whether this is actually the case or not. In fact, darkness has become some sort of luxurious good in London: neighbourhoods that are well-off are usually not only darker and free from these crude lighting interventions, but also have much softer nightscapes which feel calm and safe and are aesthetically pleasing.

To address this, Configuring Light/Staging the Social has establishing an expert working group to tackle social inequalities in public lighting. Consisting of high-profile experts and stakeholders in the fields of design, planning and policy making, this working group has met on three occasions in order to develop a cross-disciplinary and actionable agenda to facilitate a more careful consideration of lighting in social housing planning and development. Each meeting saw some of the working group members as speakers and focus on a London-based case study – the Whitecross Estate, the Thamesmead Estate, the St John’s Way development – to evaluate how social inequalities are mirrored in different types of social housing lighting. Read Mark Major’s (Principal at Speirs + Major) reflections on the project on our blog.

The report summarising the discussions and key take-aways for tackling social inequalities in public lighting, particularly for social housing can be downloaded below.

LSE has also produced a film on the project which looks at light inequalities on the Thamesmead Estate, see below