Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lighting and crime: Toronto the beautiful

This week I spent time in Toronto, a city with a terrific downtown and dozens of vibrant and healthy neighborhoods. It is also a city with a lighting mish-mash. Bright, glaring halide lights line some streets while yellowish sodium lights line others. There seems no rhyme or reason as far as I can tell.

A decade ago local activists convinced policy folks the bright halide's were the way to go. Their research suggested halide's white color made it easy to see faces at night and reduce pedestrian fear. I’ve never been able to find those studies so I’m unclear how robust they were.

Halides are everywhere on Toronto’s streets. Frankly, in some cases their sharp and glaring impact looks awful. Someone has forgot that, as with all urban designs, one size does not fit all. Some tactics work in one place but not another. Why switch from one lighting form to another without knowing specifically what is actually needed at that place?

The lighting-for-safety debate is decades old. A famous 1981 UK study made the definitive claim that lighting did not decrease crime. Case closed! Or so they thought. Science by definition always challenges assumptions, even well established ones. Lighting studies since then have done precisely that.

In 2004 criminologists Brandon Welsh and David Farrington's in-depth study on CCTV vs lighting concluded: "Improved street lighting is an effective form of surveillance to reduce crime in public space and it has few if any perceived harmful social consequences (unlike CCTV), and may attract less public resistance than CCTV surveillance cameras." Is that the final word? Unlikely. Nor should it be.

Lighting in some places will make places safer. That much is fairly obvious. But when and where? There comes a time when practitioners must act. Smokers may, if they unwisely choose, continue to smoke regardless of the medical research showing it will kill you. Yet we still wisely legislate against media images promoting teenage smoking.

Similarly, perhaps we should start legislating for a proper crime diagnosis in specific places and then installing the proper lighting to fit? We have engineering standards for lighting levels in traffic intersections. We have the Dark Sky folks who want to cut light pollution that drowns out starlight. Why not pressure our local politicians to legislate for a neighborhood by neighborhood diagnosis of proper lighting for safety?

It is not a case of more-light-is-better. Crime is not simple. The lighting-for-safety equation isn't simple. The devil is in the details. Local ordinances and by-laws need to be carefully drafted, not in some generic fashion. But we need to act.