The street you live on, your neighbor’s garage or even your own back porch probably has one: a light that goes on when it gets dark. Most likely, it was installed with the hope that it would make your neighborhood a safer place to live.
The conventional wisdom is that better outdoor lighting deters criminals — those who would do their dastardly deeds in the cover of darkness. But whether or not the facts bear that out, we do know that lighting up the night eradicates something else: the ability to see the stars in the night sky.
More illumination on crime needed
A definitive answer on whether outdoor lighting has a direct impact on reducing crime is hard to come by since a neighborhood’s improved nighttime lighting is often accompanied by other measures directed at deterring crime. However, a December 2008 U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services report titled “Improving Street Lighting to Reduce Crime in Residential Areas” stated that it is “clear that reductions in crime can be achieved by improvements in street lighting and that these reductions will be most worthwhile in high-crime neighborhoods,” and that artificial lighting at night “can also improve local community cohesion and pride, which in turn increases the willingness of residents to intervene in crime or cooperate with the police.”
But the report also points out that “most improvements in lighting have been made in the course of projects that aimed to rehabilitate deprived and rundown neighborhoods with serious crime and disorder problems. Because the lighting improvements were usually a relatively minor part of the project, it is impossible to know what part, if any, they played in the claimed reductions in crime or improvements in community satisfaction.”
On the other hand, over the past decade, approximately 16 lighting and crime evaluations have been carried out in major cities in England, Wales and Scotland. Their results have shown that better lighting can reduce overall crime by 40 percent. There was even some evidence that areas adjacent to those that received improved street lighting experienced reduced crime rates, as well.
Less light on wildlife required
Unfortunately, while we may consider ourselves to be safer by lighting up the night, wildlife has not fared well under such circumstances. Artificial night-lights disrupt nocturnal animals’ ability to hunt, hide from predators, navigate and reproduce.
Migrating at night, birds — especially immature ones on their first journeys — have been known to collide with brightly lit, tall buildings. Scientists estimate that about one hundred million birds are killed in the United States annually by crashing into windows or dying from exhaustion after becoming confused while trying to navigate by artificial night light instead of the stars. Research published in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management shows that artificial light causes young salmon to stop swimming downstream. Instead, they seek cover from predators in the shallow water near the shoreline, a behavior that makes them even more vulnerable to predation.
Lights attract moths and other night-flying insects. This disrupts the normal nocturnal patterns of some predator species of bats and birds — which are not repelled by light — by creating an artificial concentration of food around points of light, causing an imbalance in the predator/prey ratio. For species that are repelled by light, such as horseshoe bats, long-eared bats and mouse-eared bats, free-flying food becomes scarcer and more difficult to procure, aiding in causing these species to become threatened or endangered.
Would you be in favor of improved nighttime lighting where you live — whether it is the installation of new streetlights or a neighbor’s yard light — or would you, instead, choose the stars?
Feature photo: Migrating birds are often the victims of artificial night light. ©John T. Andrews