“Everyone has the right to live in a great place. More importantly, everyone has the right to contribute to making the place where they already live great.” -Fred Kent, President, Project for Public Spaces
When I started writing this blog post about public spaces, I immediately thought about parks and how affordable, present, and well-designed these spaces should be – in all communities, and for all communities. What I failed to realize is that public spaces actually begin the moment you step outside your apartment, which is ironic coming from a resident of a city that craves greenspaces and adapts to make hangout spaces out of sidewalks and stairs. But that’s a story for another time.
Equity, and inequity, starts the moment you step outside. In the worst cases, it exhibits itself through fear, discomfort, despair, and hopelessness. For those whose daily existence is not adversely affected by it, equity feels like comfort, enjoyment, happiness, and the affordability of options and opportunities. Something as simple as a sidewalk can be a clear indicator of where you stand. Are they even and smooth? Can they be easily used by the elderly without concern of falling? Are people with physical disabilities or those using mobility aides able to easily travel on them with full autonomy? Can strollers be pushed over a sidewalk without struggle? Were the sidewalks even considered in the masterplan of your town? The omission of sidewalks from communities can have dangerous consequences; consequences that are much more prevalent in underserved communities.
Light is enmeshed in every element in our environments, whether natural or constructed, meaning it has abundant potential as a tool to help tip the scale towards equity in our communities. Its presence, or lack thereof, is yet another indicator of equity or inequity. Is your sidewalk shaded by tree canopies, or do you walk outside in the mid-day heat with no place to cool down or pause? Do you experience security floodlights on your block that, besides being obnoxiously glary and disruptive to the nighttime experience of your neighborhood, are a constant reminder that maybe there is something to fear on your street?
What about the retail shops, do they leave on the window display lights after hours to escort you from one street pole to the next? Or are the gates rolled down for “safety,” blocking the light, and creating high contrast/dark spots on the sidewalk, which increase your sense of fear when you walk down your block at night?
Ideally, each neighborhood would have the agency to positively impact its experience and activities that shape its public spaces. This would not only create a connection between the community and the places they occupy, but also increase the sense of ownership and pride. Once that emotional connection exists with your public spaces, you are bound to feel a sense of duty (and joy) in continuously figuring out ways to maintain it, make it better, and help give back to the people that use it. It’s a national issue, but perhaps it can be solved on a local level. Here are three steps to build more equitable public spaces that can positively impact your neighborhood, and the lighting approaches that parallel these steps:
Step 1 / Consider accessibility
You should be able to get from point A to point B safely and without struggle. Gathering spaces, such as parks and plazas, should be in all neighborhoods at a comfortable walking or riding distance, with visual and physical access from multiple locations. If this is not the case, focus efforts where the community is most active. Neighborhoods typically have gathering spaces, whether it is outside of a neighborhood deli or around a famous monument. Light can support accessibility by becoming a wayfinding element. It signals intersections, access to public spaces, and where ADA ramps are. Signage, dynamic lighting, and digital media are also great tools to signal transit routes, bus stops, or when a train is arriving to the station.
Step 2 / Contribute to the sense of comfort and safety
Connection to public spaces happens at different scales and distances. Your body’s position in comparison to the street affords a different experience of the environment. It starts further away from the street, and this is where your brain most often picks up cues to decide whether it is comfortable being in those spaces. Ideally, you are drawn towards a space on the approach by how it is maintained, how clean it looks, the evenness of illumination, and brightness of intersections. If a person is walking on the sidewalk at night, you want to be able to discern their face and facial expression. There is also the matter of offering varied seating options such as benches, open lawn areas, building steps, chairs, and tables. Equitable spaces are visually pleasing and appreciated by their users. They attract diversity of all genders and ethnicities and cater to all body types and abilities. Lighting contributes to those qualities by creating a sense of safety with uniform lighting that reduces contrast at night, and vertical illumination on people and faces. This is also supplemented by highlighting vertical elements and features such as trees and arches, and highlighting cultural and historical features (sculptures, statues, plaques, wall art) to celebrate the individual and unique characters of the neighborhood.
Step 3 / Create opportunity for activities to take place
Finally, a successful public space is one that hosts and allows for various types of activities that reflect the local culture and history, promote healthy living, create social connections within the community and its visitors, and drive economic development and opportunities for the people of the local community. Lighting is another essential element that creates an opportunity for the development of activities. I read somewhere that “nature is the great equalizer in that it is (or should be) available to everyone.” Tree canopies on the streets allow communities to gather and hangout, enable street artists and musicians to perform on long, hot sunny days, and can be an ideal place for local vendors to set up shop! Trees are also natural air filters, and everyone deserves clean air in their neighborhoods. At night, pedestrian lighting works well in supporting different types of activities, from playing sports outdoors, to reading a book on a bench. Lighting that is specific to sport courts (and generally afford higher illuminance levels) should also be turned off after a certain hour to be mindful of neighbors and their comfort level.
Light cannot fix everything, but it can certainly contribute to the pursuit of equity. Looking past our immediate environment, and in a more critical way, is the first step to really understanding all the details that equity impacts, and how those details shape the bigger picture. The next time you walk outside on an unfamiliar street, or even just outside in your neighborhood, check in with yourself, how you are feeling, which streets are you avoiding, and what those reasons could be. Just like any societal issue, equity in public spaces start with individual awareness and a conversation.