How Light Helped Remake Downtown Philadelphia

Neal Peirce looks at how Philadelphia has used light to help transform the image, and fortunes, of Center City.
DMZ111 / Flickr

If you haven't been to Philadelphia recently, you may not be aware that Paris might have a new rival for its famous moniker. "America’s birthplace city," says Peirce, "now shines with an ingenious mix of lights designed to please and inspire residents and visitors alike. Center-city street lights have been rescaled for pedestrians’ pleasure and safety. Buildings and statuary along the grand Benjamin Franklin Parkway, stretching from City Hall to the Philadelphia Art Museum, are bathed in carefully crafted, state-of-the-art illumination."

"And running south from City Hall, along South Broad, the city’s 'Avenue of the Arts,' several theaters and private buildings are now illuminated every half hour each evening by ingeniously programmed LED lights. The form is far from static: the LEDs, their projections constantly shifting color and form, play on and celebrate the architectural features of each building, even while they’re coordinated with each other to create a single inspiring 'show.'"

But only two decades ago, the area that is now flooded with young professionals, families, shops, and restaurants was "in sad shape." Under the guidance of Paul Levy, founding chief executive of the Philadelphia’s Center City District, the area "made a clean and safe, people-friendly downtown its top priority." And central to this transformation was improving the lighting. 

"Did advanced lighting 'make' the plan for Center City Philadelphia rejuvenation? No – basic safety and order came first," writes Peirce. But there's no doubt that the improved street lighting and dramatic architectural lighting has been a key element in changing the area's image.

"[T]he value to any city, in building its business identity – but even more in building residents’ appreciation and enjoyment, the feeling one lives in a special place – is hard to overestimate," concludes Peirce. "The city is light, it’s animation, it’s dramatized, eye-catching architecture."

Full Story: Lit-Up Philadelphia: American City Model?

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