Why We Need to Rethink Lighting Design for Better Cities

Lighting is fundamental to urban life and built environments. It is a basic infrastructure of everyday life, and registers many core urban concerns of modernity, from safety, crime and environmental issues, to technological innovations and their impact on social life, as well as the role of lighting in aesthetics and heritage. Lighting profoundly affects the way we socialise, perceive and construct our environments and navigate through them, determining what kinds of sociability – if any – can be enacted after dusk. Light is not only infrastructure, but also critical material, it is stuff we need, make and shape for and through living an urban life. However, it has remained relatively invisible in social research.

Our research program, Configuring Light/Staging the Social, based at the London School of Economics, addresses light and lighting through interdisciplinary projects, bringing together social sciences, design, architecture and urban planning. The aim is to explore the ways in which light as material and lived practice is configured into built environments, and with what consequences.

A central focus of the research program is to foster dialogues and collaboration between social research and lighting practice: how can designers better know and understand the places in which they intervene. Most recently this took the form of a week-long social research in design workshop that took place on the Peabody Whitecross Estate near Old Street, London in October, in collaboration with the Social Light Movement.
The Whitecross project.

The question for the Whitecross project derived from earlier research: how does neighbourhood lighting mirror and reproduce social inequalities? Why do some places benefit from a beautiful interplay of light and darkness while others get intrusive and brutal lighting that marks them as problematic or dangerous? Why is the lighting of social housing entirely focused on security and anti-social behaviour while other urban nightscapes are aesthetically carved out of the dark?

Even worse, in general neither of these polarised lighting designs is closely related to researched understandings of people’s actual social practices. The lighting people get generally arises from a mixture of engineering and economic thinking (to meet objective standards and lower costs) and rather broad assumptions and stereotypes about how people use and understand the public realm.

These issues informed the Urban Lightscapes/Social Nightscapes project. Funded by LSE Higher Education and Innovation Fund 5 and with technical support from iGuzzini, we partnered with the Social Light Movement and Peabody to bring together 25 lighting designers from 11 different countries to spend a week in October 2014 on the Whitecross Estate to learn about the value of doing social research in design processes.

Whitecross is a social housing estate with a mix of old Victorian buildings and more recent 1960s blocks. It was particularly interesting as a space to explore social research and lighting design because it is not an iconic city centre building and therefore is not the sort of place that generally gets much design attention.

The lighting is, by and large, intended to be functional and simply “work”; little thought is typically put into lighting as design. The 25 designers were divided into five groups, each with a section of the site to work on over the full week of the workshop. They analysed their spaces, planned and carried out structured social research, and developed, mocked up and presented design approaches that creatively responded to what they learned about the social shape of their sites.

We also produced a handbook for social research in design, which develops approaches and exercises for integrating research and design.

Throughout this process we focused on three core concerns: First, how to make designers more aware of the social assumptions they are acting on, for example, stereotypes of people and places, beliefs about lighting, assumptions about social problems and practices. Second, how to help designers learn more efficiently and practically about social spaces with targeted and appropriate research strategies and designs for their case study site on the estate. Third, how designers can integrate social knowledges and research more effectively into all stages of their everyday design practices.

The Urban Lightscapes/Social Nightscapes project has kicked off a whole range of new dialogues on how design, planning and engineering practitioners can collaborate with social researchers to create urban design interventions – in this case lighting designs – that take as a point of departure the social fabric of a place as opposed to its built form.

In order to build on the success of the workshop and expand the Social Research in Design approach, the Configuring Light/Staging the Social program is being jointed by Dr Elettra Bordonaro of the Social Light Movement, our key partner in the Whitecross workshop. Together we are aiming to develop the workshop concept and content into an international series of workshops that can be hosted on different sites. This workshop series will stay committed to the focus on places that normally fall under the radar of lighting design, such as social housing.

We are also expanding the Handbook for Social Research in Design that was developed for the Urban Lightscapes/Social Nightscapes project into a book-long publication outlining social research methods for practical lighting design.

Finally, working towards the overall aim of fostering interdisciplinary collaborations between practitioners and academics, Configuring Light/Staging the Social and the Social Light Movement are currently discussing with Peabody how to implement some of the designs that have been developed by the design teams on the Whitecross Estate, and more importantly, how to integrate social research aspects in forthcoming lighting design projects on other Peabody estates.