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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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