Smart cities are implementing more minimalist LED street lamps, meaning greater cost-efficiency and brighter lights. However, some planners question what a brighter city will mean for humans and the ecosystem. While the Smart City movement is arriving with an arsenal of LED lamps, Florida’s Sanibel Island shuts off lights to protect the environment.
The Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge—located in the city of Sanibel—has been praised for its eco-friendly planning. Because nearly all of the island’s artificial light shuts off at sundown, the wildlife refuge fades into the darkness of the Gulf Coast each night, accentuating the starry skies, protecting turtles from bioluminescent sand, and making it easy for residents to hit their REM-cycle stride. Now, some planners are asking: instead of adding lights, should other cities be following Sanibel’s example?
Smart city technology is drastically changing the way cities are illuminated. LED street lamps are beacons of blue light, the same kind of light that comes from our computer screens and can affect the quality of our sleep. Light pollution can also cause harm to several species of birds, turtles, and insects, and researchers are pointing out the additional qualitative loss that comes with the loss of true darkness—an inability to experience the night sky. The Guardian reported that in 1994, an earthquake in Los Angeles led to a power outage and, subsequently, numerous phone calls to the Griffith Observatory regarding the “strange sky.” The callers were viewing the stars.
While some are pointing to the negative ecological effects of light pollution and calling for a more “natural” way of lighting streets, not everyone is on board with creating cityscapes that coordinate with our circadian rhythms. One study of residents in Spain found that white LED lights make residents feel safer at night, meaning removing the feeling of safety—whether connected to actual safety or not—could be politically contentious. Additionally, studies conducted on the correlation between safety and lighting have resulted in different conclusions in different cities. Removal of night-time lighting in cities such as Atlanta, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Fort Worth could be detrimental to the safety of residents, according to the study.
Planners could debate for years on how to best implement street lighting, but the technological curve is moving faster than they are. Before we know it, LED lights will be covering our streets in the name of “Smart Cities”; places like Los Angeles, New York, and Houston have already implemented blue-light LEDs. Planners and residents must deal with the consequences, and perhaps consider adding melatonin supplements to their grocery list.