Trying to replicate Times Square in places like Atlanta

Large cities often borrow ideas from each other. But, is it possible to design places like Times Square into being by adding lights?

Some smaller American cities have recently been attempting to mimic this aesthetic, albeit on a lesser scale, in the hope of spurring economic development and a more pedestrian-friendly downtown. Denver’s theater district, for instance, now features an enormous video screen and lighted advertisements peddling the latest in products and entertainment, and Atlanta is in the process of planning such a district for a section of its downtown.

The organization Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) is spearheading the effort to relax signage restrictions so that property owners can go bigger and brighter. “At this point, downtown Atlanta’s zoning doesn’t allow signs that are over 200 square feet, and our billboards are stuck in time,” says Jennifer Ball, CAP’s Vice President for Planning and Economic Development. “We’re anticipating an increase in size as well as the ability to do large-screen video and LED boards.” Atlanta’s City Council will likely vote on the measure in January…

But the larger aim is to bring more people downtown—and for them to experience the area on foot rather than in their cars. Atlanta is known for its incredible sprawl, with its more walkable neighborhoods scattered throughout the city and thus only easily accessed via automobile. The city is aiming to make itself denser and more pedestrian-friendly, and the district is, according to Ball, “a piece of the puzzle.” To further that goal, the bright lights district would also include more housing and ground-level retail outlets and restaurants. “Atlanta wants to have a strong core that is walkable and bikeable and has the level of density to support a lifestyle where you don’t have to be in your car all the time,” Ball says.

Such a multi-pronged strategy is important, as urban lighting scholars caution that illumination on its own doesn’t guarantee an increase in business or foot traffic. Margaret Petty, Head of the School of Design at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology and a historian of electric lighting, says that there’s no evidence to suggest that lighting alone attracts people to an area, unless that area, such as Times Square, is “iconic.” Josiane Meier, lecturer at the Technical University of Berlin and co-editor of Urban Lighting, Light Pollution, and Society, adds that the “if you build it, they will come” model doesn’t really work in terms of lighting and density. “The interdependency runs the other way,” she says. “Density is a prerequisite for the existence of bright lights districts.”

It sounds like the Atlanta plan isn’t just about lights; it is about creating denser, vibrant places with a variety of uses and lights (which both can attract people and highlight existing activity). New Urbanism and Jane Jacobs come together to possibly reshape Atlanta.

Will it actually work? This reminds me of the number of cities that tried to replicate the High Line after it proved very successful in New York City. It isn’t hard to build things to look like someplace else – look at Las Vegas – but it is difficult to create legitimate neighborhoods that aren’t just tourist destinations. Times Square is interesting not just because of the tourists but also because it is at the center of the number one global city (New York City) and and is located in one of the most densely settled places in the United States (Manhattan). A bar/entertainment district with some housing above and nearby may be nice but it can’t exactly replicate the conditions of a New York City or London or Tokyo.

What could a city like Atlanta create that would be more authentic to itself while also increasing density and vibrancy? What is unique to Atlanta that can’t be found elsewhere (besides the sprawl)?

Look for glow-in-the-dark roads

Lights along roads can cost quite a bit of money so why not use glow-in-the-dark road markings?

Light-absorbing glow-in-the-dark road markings have replaced streetlights on a 500m stretch of highway in the Netherlands…

One Netherlands news report said, “It looks like you are driving through a fairytale,” which pretty much sums up this extraordinary project. The design studio like to bring technology and design to the real world, with practical and beautiful results…

Part of that vision included weather markings — snowdrops, for instance, would appear when the temperature reached a certain level. For now though, the 500m stretch of the N329 highway in Oss features only the glow-in-the-dark road markings, created using a photo-luminescent powder integrated into the road paint, developed in conjunction with road construction company Heijmans.

Roosegaarde told Wired.co.uk Heijmans had managed to take its luminescence to the extreme — “it’s almost radioactive”, said Roosegaarde. You can get some sense of that in this embedded tweet, which appears to show three stripes of varying shades of radioactive green along both the highway’s edges.

Sounds pretty interesting, particularly if the markings can last long-term. I suggested something like this a few months ago to combat the issue of snow covering lines in parking lots.

The beauty of highway over ramps

A sample of photographer Alex MacLean’s aerial photography includes this picture of a highway intersection in Albuquerque.

Alex MacLean 2008

Beautiful. There are several dimensions to this:

1. The interplay of light and dark both from the sunlight as well as the darker roadway and the lighter desert.

2. The modernist twists of the highway ramps.

3. The smallness of the cars, a reminder of the limited lives we lead.

I know highways are concrete entities that lead to traffic and air pollution but I’ve always enjoyed seeing them from above.

“Chicago’s RIverwalk To Be the Next Times Square?”

The City of Chicago just announced what it desires for its Riverwalk:

In the Mayor’s attempt to turn the Chicago Riverwalk into Times Square Jr. or Hong Kong Lite, the city may soon be installing some new lights. A lot of lights. The Mayor wants to boost tourism in the city by 10 percent, or attract 55 million annual visitors by 2020 and thinks that adding a light show to the city would be the key. The lights are intended to highlight Chicago’s architecture and skyline, but also to open up tourists’ wallets by extending the day into night.

This “bright” initiative, headed up by the president of Broadway In Chicago, will start with an international call for submissions. Plans show that the lights won’t only be noticeable in the loop, as the Mayor’s vision is to expand the project into the neighborhoods. Perhaps some think Chicago’s world famous architecture can’t speak for itself.

More on the plans:

“It will make nighttime in Chicago an experience unto itself. It will make us North America’s city of lights. People will come from far and wide to see what we’ve done and enjoy our city,” Emanuel told a clout-heavy audience at the Museum of Science and Industry.The light-up Chicago initiative is being spearheaded by Lou Raizin, president of Broadway in Chicago.

If artists, architects and engineers “work together as teams,” Raizin said he’s certain they will find ways to use Chicago’s world-renowned architecture, the city’s iconic bridges, Lower Wacker and the river itself as a “canvas” to “imagine lighting in a unique and different” way.

“It’s about creating a spectacle that winds up allowing us to be sensitive to the assets that we have, but making a pivot that takes the old guard to the vanguard. It’s not just washing a building with light. It’s about creating theater. It’s about engaging. It’s not just color. It’s three-dimensional. It’s really creating events in light,” Raizin said.

One can only hope this is done tastefully and doesn’t turn out to be garish. But, there is a lot of potential with the riverwalk and I’m still surprised it has taken this long to do much. This may seem particularly odd since since Chicago has a long history of protecting land along Lake Michigan. Yet, the city has never quite respected the river in the same way as the lake. The river has always been much more functional: a connection to the Mississippi or a place to dump sewage. Perhaps the lights indicate a new era might soon begin…

Beautiful infrastructure: new image of the US from space at night

This is worth gaping at for a moment:

United States

Some of the details on how the image was obtained:

These super-high-resolution images, made possible by a new type of infrared sensor on the satellite, were revealed here at the American Geophysical Union conference Dec. 5.

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite has a “day-night band” that can detect natural and man-made light with unprecedented resolution and clarity. It can resolve everything from the nocturnal glow of the atmosphere to the light of a single boat at sea. It can detect auroras, wildfires, the reflection of moon and star light off clouds and ice and the lights alongside highways. The sensor has six times better spatial resolution and 250 times better resolution of lighting levels than anything that came before it.

The VIIRS instrument works by scanning in 22 different wavelength bands. For each pixel, it uses a low-, medium- or high-gain mode to accurately depict the light from each source. Low-light signals are amplified and bright lights are kept from being over-saturated.

This could be an example of infrastructure at its finest. With a quick glance at this photo, you get an idea of the geographic dispersion of the American population. Of course, it could also tell you something about light pollution…

Turning half the streetlights out in Detroit

The fate of Detroit has been in the news in recent years and here is another symbol of the city’s troubles: it is considering taking out a number of its streetlights.

Detroit, whose 139 square miles contain 60 percent fewer residents than in 1950, will try to nudge them into a smaller living space by eliminating almost half its streetlights.

As it is, 40 percent of the 88,000 streetlights are broken and the city, whose finances are to be overseen by an appointed board, can’t afford to fix them. Mayor Dave Bing’s plan would create an authority to borrow $160 million to upgrade and reduce the number of streetlights to 46,000. Maintenance would be contracted out, saving the city $10 million a year.

Other U.S. cities have gone partially dark to save money, among them Colorado Springs; Santa Rosa, California; and Rockford, Illinois. Detroit’s plan goes further: It would leave sparsely populated swaths unlit in a community of 713,000 that covers more area than Boston, Buffalo and San Francisco combined. Vacant property and parks account for 37 square miles (96 square kilometers), according to city planners…

Delivering services to a thinly spread population is expensive. Some 20 neighborhoods, each a square mile or more, are only 10 to 15 percent occupied, said John Mogk, a law professor at Wayne State University who specializes in urban law and policy. He said the city can’t force residents to move, and it’s almost impossible under Michigan law for the city to seize properties for development.

This sounds similar to the story from late last year where Detroit suburb Highland Park also decided to reduce its number of streetlights to save money.

Here is my question: does the story stop with streetlights or is the turning off of streetlights just the first step in much bigger efforts to contract Detroit? If you were a politician, perhaps dealing first with streetlights eases people into larger steps of consolidating and/or reducing services. Turning off streetlights is not a small thing; people tend to equate them with safety. Once streetlights are reduced, what comes next?

This story reminds me of an argument in Barrington Hills in late 2010 about reducing the number of lights to preserve the community’s rural, wealthy character. So wealthier, higher-class areas want fewer lights while cities and denser areas see street lights as a basic building block of city services?

 

Battle over outdoor lighting in Barrington Hills really about the character of the community

On one hand, it seems like a silly fight: people in Barrington Hills, Illinois, a wealthy community known for its large lots and wealthy residents, are battling over a proposed ordinance that would limit outdoor lighting. On the other hand, this debate appears to be about much more than just outdoor lights: it is a discussion about whether Barrington Hills can retain its character or whether it will slowly just become another suburb.

A little background about the community:

Barrington Hills has kept a worried eye on the encroaching masses from the time of its incorporation in 1957. A local history says the village was conceived of in the locker room of the Barrington Hills Country Club by men who vowed to prevent their estates and gentlemen’s farms from being sliced into tract housing.

The village set its zoning code so that properties must be a minimum of 5 acres, a trait it has kept despite booming development in the surrounding communities of Algonquin, Barrington and Carpentersville. Even South Barrington, a town with traditionally large lot sizes, had to allow a subdivision in order to settle a lawsuit.

But Barrington Hills got a glimpse of an unhappy future a decade ago when a developer sought permission to build hundreds of homes in the village’s northwest corner. Turned down by the trustees, he sued and won the right to de-annex the land (to date, though, nothing has been built).

The defeat has lingered in the minds of some village leaders, and some say it plays a role in the lighting feud.

Two years ago, Barrington Hills updated its comprehensive plan — a blueprint meant to guide a town’s future development — and among its recommendations was the adoption of “light control standards to preserve dark skies and rural atmosphere.”

That had been a longstanding concern in the community, Knoop said, and the Village Board approved the plan without controversy. The trouble started when some trustees tried turning light control into law.

So this debate places two values in opposition: the ability of suburban homeowners to light their home as they wish versus the ability of the community to control its own destiny. Both of these are powerful forces: many people move to suburbs, and particularly exclusive suburbs like Barrington Hills, so that they don’t have people telling them what to do. But at the same time, people move to places like Barrington Hills because it doesn’t have sprawling subdivisions and busy roads.

In my mind, there is little surprise that some small issue could become such a big debate: it is not about the lights but rather about whether Barrington Hills can retain its character against the pressures that threaten to turn it into just another suburb. Such debates are relatively common in many suburbs as both political officials and residents consider how proposed changes to laws, zoning, and development patterns might alter the feel of the community. In this particular community, we could ask: why did this discussion develop around outdoor lights instead of another issue or is this a long-running (yet punctuated) debate that the community has been having for decades?