Light is food
A conversation with Prof. Dr.-Ing. Paul W. Schmits about light, urban spaces and well-being.
Light has an effect on our well-being – this sounds plausible in relation to living areas or our workspaces. But to what extent is this true for exterior areas and urban spaces?
Everybody has their own personal ideas about what well-being is. For a definition of well-being in the context of light, I would like to make reference to the lighting planner William Lam, who talked about activity needs and biological needs. Whereas activity needs were concerned more with the functional light that is required to complete certain tasks, Lam‘s biological needs (which mainly relate to our psychological, to a great extent unconscious needs) are by and large congruent with our definition of well-being. This includes, for me, everything that ensures that human beings feel comfortable in a situation so that they can assess it correctly and be oriented easily. This is a self evident of course in urban spaces: no pedestrian wishes to stumble over something or be run over. But beyond this, I would like to also have the feeling that I am on the right road, I can assess the location and I know where I am heading. In this way I believe this feeling of well-being can be distinguished from the light that we need in order to able to see objects.
How are well-being, ecology and sustainability related?
Sustainability also incorporates well-being.
If I provide a technical solution that does not create a feeling of well-being, consumers will reject it and it will be replaced by a new solution. Shortlived technical solutions like this are anything but sustainable. When we think about sustainability, energy efficiency is often the first thing that springs to mind but this frequently conflicts with our feeling of well-being. All good light planning or light development therefore poses the question: what are my requirements, what target conflicts arise as a result and how do I achieve a balance? This needs to be rethought and reappraised for every situation.
Well-being has nothing to do with the qualities of light – for example with the light colour, the spectral composition of light. So what should light planners in exterior spaces pay attention to?
We have to differentiate between light colour and spectrum. Colour is a specific element of human perception. We therefore perceive red light as pleasant and warm, colder light as neutral. Accordingly a situation in an old historical part of town in warm white has a comforting effect on us whereas neutral white light appears to be fitting on an arterial road. In short, there are contexts that come about due to the ‘genius loci’, the quality of the place. An insect however sees no light colours but reacts more or less sensitively to certain spectral ranges. With LEDs we can compose light spectrally so that, on the one hand, it meets the requirements of human beings for well-being in a certain situation and on the other hand minimises the negative effects of artificial light on fauna and flora. We can optimise the balance therefore. This is a highly promising approach that requires much better research!
Dr.-Ing. Paul W. Schmits is Professor of Lighting Design at the University for the Applied Sciences and Arts in Hildesheim.
Back to the well-being of human beings and the role of public spaces. How does lighting affect communal living in cities?
Here too there are opposing goals. Urban marketing asks: How I do I make the city attractive for visitors? Neighbourhood management on the other hand mainly focuses on the well-being of locals. For this reason we search for a balance between the external scenery of cities and the design of a neighbourhood for people who live there. To this end it is important that urban marketing and urban developers talk to one another and consider the consequences for the other party concerned. Individual treatment of different neighbourhoods determines the quality of cities. This applies also for what are known as problem neighbourhoods or deprived areas. Light can achieve much here. It gives people the feeling of not being ignored – particularly when the solution chosen is clearly not the cheapest one.
Greenspaces and parks are important urban spaces too that people are increasingly reconquering for themselves. What can light achieve here?
Parks are living spaces in the middle of the city, the fauna and flora of which is of course also vulnerable to the wrong light. On the other hand landscaped areas of this kind contribute significantly to our well-being – including early on or late in the evening. There are restaurants, squares for sporting activities or pleasant car-free connections for cycling or pedestrian trans-port. Here too the goal is to find the right balance between well-being, functional aspects and a feeling of safety and security. Investigations have shown that more light increases the feeling of security but in reality does not automatically generate more safety. Here a sense of proportion is required on the part of the planner.
I find the idea that lighting planners should consider a park not just in terms of the spatial dimensions but also in terms of time an interesting one.
The fauna and flora of a park are subject to a circadian rhythm from the outset. Locals too want to have their peace and quiet at some point. As a planner I should look at the activities in the park and their dynamics – including in winter when twilight comes early in this part of the world. Concepts for dynamic lighting can then be derived from this. Simply switching off light at certain times may be sufficient but maybe various graduated light scenarios may also be the right solution. This is a key argument in favour of smart lighting! Regulation of lighting can not only save energy but also help to link up ecology and well-being in a sustainable context.
Successful light planning takes into account the scale, character and use of a district.
This doubtless constitutes a demanding task for professional lighting planners and urban planners. How can greater interest and understanding be engendered among the wider public for matters of lighting?
I would explain this as follows: Light is a source of nutrition or food almost – i.e. something we need to live. We are aware of current discussions about food, where allergies and sensitivities exist, where there is too much and too little and it is an individual matter. Why are there no similar discussions taking place about light? We need to communicate more knowledge about light, from the primary schools to the universities. Light must cease to be a niche matter. The festivals of light that take place each year demonstrate how when light becomes the main attraction, it is met with huge acceptance!
To put the question more provocatively: Do we need lighting activists who campaign for good lighting?
In lighting planners and lighting designers, we already have our first lighting activists. Professional, independent lighting planners can demonstrate with credibility that, when it comes to design and effect, it is no longer about the quantity of lighting sold. Different lighting design prizes that exist for some years now are helping this cause by generating news and ensuring the subject of light is covered in the media. The many people involved with light either as urban and landscape planners or working for the authorities require much more support, attention and self-confidence too. Particularly with landscape architects, awareness of light and its contribution to our well-being is increasing. This is also evident from the manner in which they are increasingly seeking to close ranks with lighting designers. In recent years, our lighting design students at the University of Hildesheim cooperated with landscape architecture students at the Leibniz-University of Hanover, thereby achieving wonderful results.
Premium quality lighting: a sign of estimation for citizens, including – and especially – in problematic areas of the city.
The question remains as to how industry should respond to these new requirements for lighting. Which tools, which products do light planners need that focus on both well-being and sustainability?
Installing lighting in public spaces using standard street lighting is becoming less and less feasible. This still has its justification such as on arterial roads. Yet particularly in inner city areas we require more complex tools. Requirements include an extended range of light colours, dynamic solutions for control, various lighting proportions adapted to the situation and manifold assembly options. Not everything can be handled using pole-top luminaires, and as such multi-functional light columns open up interesting options. I need a design in medieval areas in towns that is different to that for areas with modern buildings. We need lighting product families that are rich in variants yet have a consistent design language, comprising wall-mounted luminaires, bollards, spotlights and floodlights. Using tools of this type, a new philosophical approach can be realised for every urban district.
Parks and other public sites are living spaces in the centre of the city. The lighting planning here aims at a balance between ecology and well-being.