With 87% of our time spent indoors, the qualities and effects of lighting are becoming increasingly evident. Lighting informs our perception of spaces and prescribes our behaviors within them. It supports the staging of atmospheres, evokes feelings of (dis)comfort, and has known physiological impacts on health and well-being.
That said, lighting is… well it just is. It’s rather pervasive, somewhat unnoticed, and often taken for granted. But when coupled with knowledge of the tremendous influence it has on our lives, lighting design can no longer remain in the dark.
If lighting is at once both taken-for-granted and enormously influential, it raises questions of intention and with them, queries on the role and responsibility of lighting design as a discipline. Vladan Paunovic adds:
“I think that the most important task of lighting is to respond to the context and be tailor-made for the specific space and so the role it plays differs greatly from typology to typology.”
Artificial lighting has offered much to modern social life. It has made it possible to work and play beyond the limits of sunrise and sunset, extending the day and offering us the opportunities of nighttime and night economy. The image of the sleepless urban cityscape simply would not be if it weren’t for means of illumination.
However, lighting also reflects and supports social dynamics on varying social scales. Despite being a highly individual and sensory experience, in public spaces, it is totally regulated. When considering who is doing the lighting, what is being lit, and to what degree, lighting then also embodies a structural sense of power and control.
It has supported the prioritization of cars in urban planning, is used considerably for surveillance, and reflects unequal development across the globe. Lighting is understood as a key factor in meeting common needs of safety, crucial to crime prevention, and thus perceived as a central part of maintaining social order. Paradoxically, we know today that more light is not necessarily equal to an enhanced sense of safety for all, rather that the equation is more generally dependent on the presence of people and the activation of public space round the clock, which may be influenced by, but not defined solely on the degree of lighting offered.
The illumination of modern social life, like many other advancements, is lined with human-centricity and thus, not without environmental consequence. Not only are 5% of global carbon emissions attributed to artificial lighting, but light pollution, even at very low levels has also made its own particular contribution to the global decrease in biodiversity. Skyglow and light pollution travel far from their source disrupting entire ecosystems both on land and in the sea. The results can vary greatly: from altering the biological clocks of animals and plants to changing the proportion of certain species in their natural habitats.
“Oftentimes when it comes to lighting, the most common perception of environmental impact is a measure of energy consumption. So, the luminaires that use less energy are understood as more environmentally friendly, but this is a rather narrow view of the environmental impact. From a broader perspective, we start to see considerations of production as well as the lifespan of the different components,” explains Vladan.
“The other major consideration is that of the effects on natural habitats. We’re affecting entire ecosystems. For many nocturnal animals, for example, over-illumination of habitats could affect their ability to survive, and at the same time we, as people are losing our connection with the dark skies,” he adds.
These considerations all seem to indicate the need to rethink our relationship to artificial lighting and darkness, embarking upon a cultural shift towards a recognition of both as elements of great influence.
“The light vs. darkness binary carries great symbolic interpretation – darkness relates to evil in western cultures and is associated with negative subcultures, as opposed to light that is considered good and enlightened, perhaps prosperous, safe, and so on. These associations need to be addressed and essentially dismantled in order to seek change and for darkness to be welcomed,” Vladan explains.
Like the ecological fragility we are witnessing in the natural world, darkness stands as something to be preserved and restored with intention – both technically and culturally. In doing so, we are called to think (and design) beyond human centricity, acknowledging planetary needs as well as our own.
We have a long way to go in researching and developing lighting solutions that respond to these combined human and planetary needs. For now, it seems that comprehending the social, cultural, and environmental significance of lighting (as well as darkness) is the right place to start.