Too often, lighting is not part of the conversation when it comes to placemaking or it comes as a bolt-on at the end of the masterplanning process, with the focus on making efficiencies in energy and costs.

Kimberly Bartlett

Kimberly Bartlett

However, lighting has the power to completely transform a space’s function and feel. The race to net zero is number one on the agenda for many of us – and rightly so – but we have to look at the bigger picture when it comes to lighting design and prioritise people alongside the planet.

The relationship between lighting and placemaking goes past practicality; it is emotional and runs deep in our collective psyche. For most people, darkness makes a place unwelcoming and, for many, inaccessible.

A study conducted by the Office for National Statistics found that one in two women and one in seven men have reported feeling unsafe when walking alone at night in poorly lit areas near their homes – what should be familiar, well-known territory.

These are the people for whom we have to make better decisions. It is not only the amount of light, it is the type, too – and the wrong lighting can put people off. The cold, harsh tone of bright white light, for example, actually makes spaces feel less safe than dimmer but warmer light.

Sustainability goals

If transport links, outdoor areas and facilities are left unused outside daylight hours due to poor lighting and associated safety concerns, it is not only a waste of resources and capital but fundamentally bad placemaking. The knock-on effect of this leaves a big dent in developers’ wider sustainability goals, as walking and cycling are replaced with car use – outweighing any emissions reductions gained through energy-efficient lighting choices.

Smart lighting decisions allow us to make spaces not only more accessible but also more diverse, dynamic and inviting. Jubilee Square in the new Marleigh village development in Cambridge is a good example. Developers were keen to create a space that was adaptable and could serve as a venue for events and a hub for the community. Lighting played a big part in its success.

Warm lighting lightbulbs shutterstock_2255101535 MeMeeCreator

Source:  shutterstock / MeMeeCreator

The square has been designed in a way that means there is uniform and constant light across the space, regardless of other activity. This has allowed it to become a bustling market, concert venue, village fête and children’s play area all in one, pulling the community together without any need for a change in set-up.

All this is not to say that prioritising people has to come at the expense of nature. The new lakeside homes at Old Hamsey Brickworks in Lewes, East Sussex, for example, have set-back windows to stop light pollution from affecting the surrounding protected landscape of the South Downs National Park. By making more considered and informed design decisions, we can create great places while homing in on climate and biodiversity targets.

As an industry, we are moving in the right direction when it comes to giving light more emphasis, but there is still a way to go. To ensure we are building places that deliver for people and planet, lighting engineers have to be brought in earlier in the design phase.

In giving lighting a more important place in conversations around design, we can shape spaces that set new standards for wellbeing, safety and community, as well as aiding wider sustainability commitments. As we all push forward to meet net zero targets, we must remember we are designing for people – effective placemaking has to place humans at its heart.

Kimberly Bartlett is head of lighting at engineering consultant Introba