Night Lighting: Would You Choose Safety or the Stars?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | July 20th, 2011 | 11 Comments
topic: Green Living

Canada geese

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.”

Yosemite National Park

The best chance to see a natural night is in a national park. ©John T. Andrews.

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.

Marsh sunset

If given a choice, would you light up your nights? ©John T. Andrews

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.

It is estimated that a child born today has a less than one-in-ten chance of ever witnessing a truly dark sky. His or her best opportunity to see a natural night is in a national park.

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?

Happy trails,

Candy

Feature photo: Migrating birds are often the victims of artificial night light. ©John T. Andrews

Comments

  1. As someone that has never been able to afford a car in her life, who has lived in craptastic neighborhoods, who has worked graveyard shift and who is currently going to school at night to finish her degree and got home after midnight last night, yes, please, turn on the lights. Stars are nice but I’d rather be safe. It’s sad that we have to choose, but it’s true. If you are lucky enough to have never had to walk home in a bad neighborhood at midnight, you don’t get to lecture those of us that do about birds or light pollution.

    Wren | July 21st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  2. Wren, there’s no lecture here — my columns present two sides of an eco-ethical issue with the hope of starting a discussion! Thanks for your comment; you make a good point! — C.G.A.

    C.G.A. | July 21st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  3. If I had to choose, I’d choose the stars. It’s worth noting that the advent of prevalent artificial lighting also has harmful effects on the circadian rhythm of human beings, contributing to stress and lack of sleep, both of which can have cascading effects on human physiology.

    Nine Quiet Lessons | July 21st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  4. This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, Wren! And the issue affects far more than “just” astronomy and wildlife. Check out the website of the International Dark-Sky Association (http://www.darksky.org/) for more information on outdoor lighting options that minimize wasted light and energy, thereby increasing the utility (and efficiency) of that lighting while lessening or eliminating harmful side-effects. The IDA’s listing of Frequently Asked Questions has all sorts of useful information, some of it quite surprising. For instance, city light pollution has been shown to increase air pollution by inhibiting chemical reactions in the atmosphere that occur naturally – BUT ONLY IN THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT.
    It’s entirely possible to have well-lit, safer neighborhood while still avoiding excess or misdirected lighting, and you can save energy (i.e., money) in the process.

    Joan Campbell | July 21st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  5. I second Joan Campbell’s comment. In my college astronomy class the professor reviewed the dark sky project, Most street lights cast light in all directions, wasting a lot of light up ^^. Lights that focus the light down save energy and dramatically reduce light pollution.

    Josh | July 21st, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  6. I think humans need to respect the earth and its nature, animals and environment. We as humans need to stop being so selfish. The earth is not ours, we belong to it. We should allow nature to live naturally and reproduce/survive/thrive. Without nature there is no diversification of species but extinction. Keep the natural night stars and ditch the artificial lights. By the way, it’s incredibly wasteful for buildings to have their lights on all night long, think about how much energy would could save!

    STP | July 22nd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  7. Having been the victim of a crime, I’ll choose safety every time.

    Julie | July 22nd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  8. The stars for sure. I have a telescope and streetlights are ruining my fun.

    Abhijit Chanda | July 22nd, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  9. Outside under the stars every time.

    Richard Evans | July 24th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  10. Interesting article. My first thought is Why do I have to choose? One of the comments on your points to http://www.darksky.org/ which offers us an alternative, so we don’t have to choose.
    I also like Earth Night, where everyone turns out their lights for an hour.
    And I like places which are using Solar for the street lights. Some places are cutting back on street lighting to save money.

    Dale Stubbart | July 25th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  11. When you’re in the city, you expect to deal with that environment and artificial lighting is certainly an element of city life. One of the main draws for heading out to nature is in leaving the city and all of its conveniences and lighting behind.

    Art Hardy | July 26th, 2011 | Comment Permalink

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