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!

A tech­ni­cal solu­tion that does not foster well-being will be rejec­ted by its users.”

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.

Indi­vi­dual tre­at­ment of dif­fe­rent areas defi­nes the qua­lity of cities.”

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.

Standard street ligh­ting is no longer suf­fi­cient for ligh­ting in urban spaces.”

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.

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