Building Community Through Better Street Lights

A report by Feargus O’Sullivan for City Lab.

A new film highlights a pioneering lighting project in historic Cartagena.

What can lighting do for a community? For some fascinating answers, just look at the results of one pilot research project in Cartagena, Colombia.

Concentrating on the Caribbean city’s extremely busy Getsemaní neighborhood, the project, a collaboration spearheaded by Arup’s lighting team, worked with local residents to look at possible ways to light the area in a manner that strengthened community links, to create distinctively local solutions. Completed in 2015, the project has this year been commemorated in a new film by collaborators Plane-Site, providing a snapshot of a neighborhood not just discussing how it wants to light itself, but also more broadly trying to negotiate a period of dramatic change without losing its soul.

On first visit, Getsemaní is not necessarily a place where either night-time vitality or soul are lacking. A small peninsula jutting into the harbor just south of Cartagena’s famously beautiful, tourist-packed old town, Getsemaní is often referred to as the city’s “popular” quarter. Rundown until quite recently, it’s the old town’s more raffish sibling, likewise filled with elegantly worn old houses painted in shades of saffron, turquoise, and mint. In recent years it has become increasingly busier at night as the streets are taken over by cafés, restaurants, and small hotels that make it one of the city’s best places to be after dark.

Scratch the surface, however, and things are more complex. Businesses are replacing the homes of Getsemaní’s residents, who have all but departed its main streets, driven away not just by rising housing prices but also noise and night nuisance. The stark inequalities in even this small area are becoming ever clearer by the different states of repair among Getsemaní’s buildings, whose conditions become even clearer under lamplight. And while the area’s evenings attract many different groups of users, they remain somewhat segregated from each other, simultaneously leaving darker, quieter corners where safety from crime is by no means guaranteed.

Good lighting in a neighborhood like this can do more than just make streets more secure at night—important though that is. Well-lit streets attract people to linger later, boosting businesses’ earnings, and also increasing the opportunities for the social encounters that bond a community. If local people are engaged in devising how light is used, this can help boost a combined sense of pride and security that emboldens people to use their neighborhood more fully.

To push this kind of engagement in Getsemaní, the project ran workshops with local community representatives, a group including local government, artists, and residents. They presented this group with design possibilities they had previously developed through researching the area’s history and existing lighting. Their starting point was a lantern prototype that melded well with what parts of Getsemaní were already using for illumination, but which could also be adapted through color and design to further fit local tastes and interests. Participants were invited to appraise and embellish these designs to create something they felt was expressive of their neighborhood. This process sparked imaginations and brought up some remarkable serendipitous discoveries, project leader Leni Schwendinger tells CityLab.

“The idea is to be influenced by local aesthetics and interests to create a new lighting fixture. A curlicue design we suggested [to feature on the lantern’s panes] comes from the metal grilles that Getsemaní’s houses have in front of the doors and windows, in a very simplified form,” Schwendinger says. “One of the local participants presented the curlicues in a trio shape, saying ‘This is a symbol of Caribbean pride, something that will announce to our friends and community, as well as to tourists, that we are proud to be Caribbean.’ I was floored.”

It wasn’t enough just to have a characterful lamp, however. Tall, dazzling pole-mounted lamps in regimented rows would have risked creating a harsh, overly regimented light in an area whose charm is in its irregularity. Setting up their prototypes along a main street, the group decided instead for lamps irregularly and at relatively low heights, hanging on private buildings that, with their interior light spilling into the street, already played a major role in night-time navigation. The result, as photos show, was to create lighting that was not just functional, but which created a suitably moody spread of light and shadow, making the night feel safe but also welcoming.

So what can be learned from this approach? The Getsemaní project was primarily an exploration of how lighting designers can engage with communities, an experiment rather than a permanent overhaul of the area’s infrastructure. It nonetheless brings out some key lessons that are worth applying elsewhere. Lighting need not, for example, be glaringly bright or placed in a uniform pattern to be effective. Rather than a neutral resource enabling an area to function (in the manner of electricity cables or sewers), lighting can also work as a badge of local identity. And you can strengthen and deepen links between a community and its environment simply by the obvious but often neglected process of asking what it actually wants.

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