New York City: Light it Right

What light is right? How much is too much? These questions don't typically get asked in cities, as they simply rely on what they've always done. But now the Municipal Art Society in New York is bringing these issues to the table.
March 29, 2009, 5am PDT | Nate Berg
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"Sodium-vapor-or high-pressure sodium-lighting was Brandston's bad guy, what he calls "the lamp of least choice." He and the Municipal Art Society, under whose aegis he was conducting the tour, object to the color of the light-unlike whitish metal halide, high-pressure sodium burns yellow-orange. "There is this negative subliminal response," Brandston said. "The connotation, mainly, is crime." This month, the M.A.S. launched a campaign against the sodium lights. In a press release, Vanessa Gruen, from the M.A.S., asserted, "Yellow light muddies the colors of the surrounding neighborhoods and causes trees to look brown. It makes people feel less secure, because the colors around them are not true." Asked for comment, Seth Solomonow, a Department of Transportation spokesman, said that high-pressure sodium lights are durable and cost-efficient, and have been the city's default lights for thirty years.

In Brandston's view, an overreliance on instruments, instead of instincts, mars contemporary urban lighting plans, which should be determined not by how technically bright an area is but by how well someone standing in it can actually see. "We have, over time, overlighted everything in America," he told the tour group. Cities, he said, should be thought of as rooms without ceilings."

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Published on Friday, March 27, 2009 in The New Yorker
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