With all of the static energy burning away in today's world, it's no wonder a growing number of communities want to stay in the dark. A handful of communities are working with educational organizations and lighting manufacturers to dim the lights in an effort to limit nighttime lighting pollution. And if the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) succeeds in its ongoing public education campaign, more communities will be regulating the annoyance of lighting pollution.
The problem is easily understood: Under the assumption that more is better, cities, road agencies and developers have been lighting up our urban areas, ostensibly to provide safety and visibility. But specialists on the topic tend to agree that less is actually more, from the standpoint of light pollution, safety and energy conservation.
Though the problem of over-lighting is rampant, "I would say that the biggest offenders are cities," said Jack Sales, a California spokesman for IDA. Most cities still use drop-lens cobra-head luminaries with high-pressure sodium vapor fixtures to light streets and municipal yards. These lights produce an extraordinary amount of uplight glare, and are particularly inefficient at converting watts into lumens. The retro-style candle standards currently popular in neotraditional developments are another culprit because most do not restrict uplighting of the night sky. The major private property offender are the wall pack units used commonly to light industrial projects.
Concern about light pollution is not a new phenomenon. The first generation of communities changed its practices about 20 years ago, according to Sales. These were usually in places associated with important astronomical observatories. In fact, the IDA was founded in Arizona, where observatories are central to research institutions in the Flagstaff and Tucson areas. In California, San Diego, the city most associated with both the Palomar and Mount Laguna observatories, and San Jose, near the University of California-operated Lick Observatory at Mt. Hamilton, were early leaders in using regulation to combat light pollution.
In San Jose, the city converted a majority of its streetlights to LPS (low-pressure sodium) fixtures during the early 1980s. Even more interesting, the city worked directly with Lick Observatory astronomers to develop specifications. A few years later, the city required new or revised developments to use LPS lighting in parking lots.
The current revival interest in dark sky ordinances, though, has more of a quality-of-life basis. According to Sales, this second generation of communities is combating light pollution for aesthetic reasons. In the war on sprawl, think of dark sky ordinances as the battle over lumen control. Interestingly, the new generation includes very different kinds of towns. The Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas, most famous for its steadfast fight against the Ahmanson Ranch development in the Santa Monica Mountains, adopted a dark sky ordinance during 2002. And 350 miles away, in a stunning perched valley of the Eastern Sierra, the Town of Mammoth Lakes adopted a dark sky ordinance in May.
In Calabasas, the idea to adopt an ordinance came from Councilwoman Janice Lee, who began to ask questions about light pollution in 1999. She did her own research, and discovered the IDA and other information on the Internet. Then she launched a quiet campaign to educate her council colleagues and to direct staff studies. In Calabasas, the lost identity of a rural, coastal mountain town may have driven the ordinance, which seeks to preserve what little remains of that rural heritage.
In Mammoth Lakes, a recognition of the economic value of tourism may have been an additional factor. "We just wanted to preserve a dark sky for our residents and visitors, so visitors could remember why they came up here." said Senior Planner Bill Taylor. As in Calabasas, the Mammoth Lakes ordinance was driven by little more than a personal interest of two decision-makers — in this case, Planning Commissioners Mike Telliano and Elizabeth Tenney. The ordinance has the typical restrictions on uplighting, and should result in a gradual retrofitting of street lighting with full-cutoff fixtures and an inventory of private lighting around town that does not meet the goals. The regulation met no resistance.
Though not a movement that will take the planning world by storm, the dark sky advocates instead prove that simple solutions are worth pursuing and may result in incremental improvements in the urban experience. Expect the dark sky movement to emerge in communities that focus on, and value, their natural environmental setting.
Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.