BOGOTA — Why have we condemned streets, squares and parks to daytime-only places of enjoyment? And why do we assume that where there is little light, there is also little safety? Is creating more streetlamps the only way to improve a city's lighting and safety? Why not turn abandoned, dirty, unsafe and solitary places — such as traffic overpasses — into inviting places to walk? 

To answer these questions, it's first necessary to consider the fact that street lighting was conceived only to illuminate the streets, without regard for a more thorough science that can change hostile spaces into safe nocturnal meeting places. Light can transform the face of cities so dramatically that architects, city planners and even sociologists have studied lighting design for decades now.

Experts like these recently converged in Bogotá for the Imagine Light Forum (Imaginemos la luz) to discuss their projects and how light can improve the Colombian capital. 

American lighting designer Leni Schwendinger, who was invited to the forum, walked around the capital's historic center and to places such as the Plaza de Bolívar. Her impression can be summarized in the contrast between the joy of observing the center's sumptuous colonial architecture and her dismay at finding such an important part of the city so poorly lit. Another lighting specialist, Paulina Villalobos, says she saw in Bogotá what she had seen elsewhere: Light that dazzles the pedestrian, ignores shadows as a resource and is indifferent to overall planning concerns.

The light bulb goes on

The problem in the capital — as in other Latin American cities — is the superficial view of light. “Artificial light is as important inside as outside,” says architect Alfredo García Mejía. “It is not a miracle but an element that must complement the public space.” For example, the wrong lighting can impede enjoyment of monuments, he says.

UAESP — the Special Administrative Unit for Public Services — is the municipal body in charge of lighting, while the energy firm Codensa provides the bulbs on our streets. Until 1999, city lights were white. Their technology included toxic mercury, so today the city uses sodium lamps instead. The city has 337,000 lighting units, compared to 250,000 in Los Angeles and 145,000 in Buenos Aires.

In a collective process controlled by the Codensa control center, the lights gradually go on every evening as photo cells inside them sense the diminishing sunlight. 

Hebergeur d'image

Bogotá's financial district at sunset — Photo: Antonio J Galante/VW Pics/ZUMA

City official Carlos Jaimes says the government decided in 2012 to change some 33,000 lamps to LED lighting. “What we have seen with the pilot LED lighting is that you can obtain better lighting levels, while reducing energy consumption,” Jaimes said during the forum. “In the trials on the Church of San Francisco, we saw people taking pictures, enjoying the space more.”

Participants agreed that not all parts of the cities needed the same amount of light, as different areas are home to different activities. “What we did stress is that more light does not necessarily mean more security,” says Chilean architect Paulina Villalobos. “Obviously, if you can't see a thing it’s dangerous for basic things like walking or for crime.” But she says the solution “is not to flood the city with light,” especially the type commonly used in cities and designed for cars. In Chile, she has participated in discussions about the effects of excess lighting in cities, which range from contributing to stress, to premature aging and cancer. 

Leni Schwendinger has explored the idea of simple projects to change perceptions of such public areas as overpasses. She says she redesigned one overpass in New York, turning it from a dirty, neglected area to one that people now enjoy using. 

The forum yielded two important lessons, Schwendinger says. First, the quality of pedestrian areas must be improved with lighting designed for pedestrians. And second, the city should create small, well-defined areas with agreeable lighting. That would be a start.