Rethinking lighting - turning perception into reality
A summary of some recent work in Somalia on solar lighting of urban spaces, and some studies in the US and UK on the actual and perceived benefits of urban lighting.
The first bit of rethinking lighting has been done for me - it's the huge shift in the availability, performance and cost of solar lighting products - particularly solar PV panels and white LEDs. These are being increasingly packaged up with one of the variety of battery types and charge controllers into a street lighting option which is totally self-contained. No wires, no limits to where it can go, even the most marginalised and unserved area. But I think there's still a lot of scope for the formats and packages of these lights to be improved in terms of the amenity they offer. Even in the picture, they're just pretending to be normal streetlights, but in a denser urban environment other physical formats are surely possible.
Some stories about solar street lighting are getting into the press, such as in Mogadishu, where the response of people is reported as being to take the lights to heart and protect them from harm and vandalism, responding to the clear desire people have for streetlighting.
But what exactly are the benefits? In the house, people report the benefits quite clearly in terms of activities in the house after dark, reading and learning, family time and sometimes income generation etc. On the street it's a bit more complicated maybe. Several studies have highlighted that while people have a strong perception that street lighting makes them safer from attack and being hit by cars, in fact the statistics available (not many, and even less in low or middle income countries) don't necessarily bear that out. Perceiving themselves to be safer with lights, drivers may be less careful. Perceiving themselves to be safer walking on a lit street, a person may make themselves vulnerable to attack.
The second one made me think in particular - reviewing evidence again just from the UK and US, so work is really needed to unpick the whys - again the results were mixed, but showing statistically significant reductions in crime in the UK case where streets were lit compared with control cases - but no relative difference between crime and night and during the day!
This systematic review puts forward 2 hypotheses for why street lighting might reduce crime:
"The first suggests that improved lighting leads to increased surveillance of potential offenders (both by improving visibility and by increasing the number of people on the street) and hence to increased deterrence of potential offenders. The second suggests that improved lighting signals community investment in the area and that the area is improving, leading to increased community pride, community cohesiveness, and informal social control. The first theory predicts decreases in crime especially during the hours of darkness, while the second theory predicts decreases in crime during both
daytime and nighttime."
The US results no significant change don't say much at all, but the UK results finding a change - but both during the day and at night - imply that the second hypothesis might be stronger. Although I'm not sure either tell the full story and there are clearly cases where neither theory is applying - there's also an intriguing possibilty that in certain contexts feeling safer, might actually somehow make you safer. Feeling like your town is going somewhere, might actually make it go somewhere. Feeling like a community, might make it more of a community. And while maybe only part of the package that needs to come together, maybe some new way of delivering some form of improved public lighting in the distributed way that's now possible, could help create that perception. And in so doing be a kind of lightning rod for that wider change, become a very visual symbol in the community of the possibliity of a brighter future.
Ok, I'll stop the light metaphors! But I think the potential of solar public lighting has barely been scratched, and to my (basic at the moment) understanding the focus seems to be on the hardware (which is needed) but it seems like more thought is needed about what a model for the more organic spread of street lighting would be. Questions immediately arise - where something is a public good, who pays? Who will safely install and maintain? Are there some types of communities or spaces which will respond to some kinds of lighting better than others? What are the particular benefits, perceptions or implications to women in particular of streetlighting? How can the light be part of that bigger change?
How can a change in perceived safety be turned into a change in fact?
I'm sure others have looked at this issue already much more than me, but it seems a rich area for futher consideration.