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Laws govern all manner of human activities. There are laws that tell us how to behave in certain settings, laws that ensure fair and equitable treatment of people, and laws for maintaining the peace that we require to live and thrive. While there are many disagreements over what kinds of laws should exist, few would argue that there simply should be none. The world consensus, broadly speaking, is that laws are a cornerstone of our civilization itself.
Laws can also be an effective tool to sensibly regulate the use of outdoor light at night. But what are the benefits to pursuing lighting policies? And if your community doesn't have such a policy, why should it consider adopting one?
Setting clear standards for outdoor light use
Land use policy is an important tool in urban planning in order to improve the wellbeing of towns, cities, and their residents. It is part of a broader set of governance approaches that consider efficiency of public services, sanitation and public health, sustainable use of the environment, and social and economic activities. It aims for consistency of the built environment so that landowners understand allowable behaviors, as well as ensuring the use of safe methods and practices in construction and occupation of structures.
Governments regulate outdoor lighting for a variety of reasons, but the motivation for many is to set expectations of property owners, establish some uniformity or predictability in the types of lighting installations in a territory, and to reduce the potential for conflicts between neighbors. Some seek to include outdoor lighting as an element of 'placemaking', in which urban planning focuses on the aesthetics of places rather than the utility of designs alone. In this, they intend for outdoor lighting to contribute positively toward a sense of amenity that defines a community and promotes its unique qualities or characteristics.
Increasingly, municipalities around the world show an interest in the social and environmental consequences of poor lighting design, and establish outdoor lighting standards to enhance public safety and reduce the harms associated with light pollution. They often let land uses guide the establishment of outdoor lighting norms on the presumption that the types of lighting installations found in a city follow from uses; for example, a parking lot is something one expects on a commercial property, but it would be exceptionally unusual on a residential property.
In many world jurisdictions, all of this comes together through the planning permission or plan review process. In order to receive construction permits or certificates of occupancy, property owners installing outdoor lighting must show the municipality what lighting products they intend to install and how the products comply with the lighting policy. While not all lighting is subject to this kind of public review, the permitting process can ensure that non-compliant lighting is never installed in the first place.
Lighting policy for public safety
A quality outdoor lighting policy can contribute positively to public safety, ensuring there is adequate light for various nighttime tasks while eliminating negative effects such as over-lighting relative to needs or causing dangerous glare. The most obvious example is the lighting of public streets and roads, a situation where there is a clear connection between inadequate lighting and increased probability of traffic accidents.
A lighting policy can prescribe where, when and under what circumstances a municipality will light public streets — and when it will not do so. At low traffic speeds and volumes, there is no convincing evidence that continuous lighting of roadways improves public safety. Similarly, there is no evidence that all-night lighting of residential streets has any effect on the perpetration of either violent or property crime.
In some cases, the same public safety goals can be achieved through the use of non-lighting interventions such as reflective paint or paving materials. Not every nighttime hazard can be avoided by using outdoor lighting, while others can actually be made worse. Avoiding the installation of lighting in places where it brings no benefit to the public saves money and energy. A lighting policy can formalize this in law.
Maintaining neighborly relations
Perhaps the most compelling reason for establishing community lighting standards through an outdoor lighting policy is encouraging goodwill between neighbors. Disputes involving outdoor lighting are frequently escalated to either government enforcement divisions or the judicial system, particularly when neighbors are unwilling to settle their differences themselves.
At the heart of most neighbor disputes over lighting is a legal concept known as nuisance. This is any behavior or use of one property that causes substantial and unreasonable interference with another property owner's use or enjoyment of their land. The most common manifestation of nuisance that involves outdoor lighting is light trespass, in which light emitted on one property falls on another property where it is presumably unwanted. Light trespass can cause sleepless nights, ruin nighttime ambience, and even diminish property values.
By putting limits on the kinds of lighting that property owners can install as well as proscribing certain light uses, neighbor disputes can be avoided before they begin. Lighting policies can be common-sense solutions that prevent conditions of nuisance from arising while allowing for the reasonable use of outdoor lighting on private property.
After the policy, the real work begins
But it's not all just an easy walk down the high road to better nights in one's community. Enacting the outdoor lighting policy is only half of the equation. The other half is how the municipality enforces that policy. Even in places where it's relatively easy to write and enact a lighting policy, sometimes the good feelings quickly disappear when it comes time to compel property owners to follow the rules. And enforcement often ends up as the weak link in the chain.
A public policy without the backing of robust and predictable enforcement is like a car without wheels: it doesn't get one very far. And effective enforcement likely won't happen without strong support from the community. Although politicians may crow about their new lighting policy, their constituents might not be at all happy about it. If a municipality then goes about aggressively enforcing the policy, public pressure to change course will be quick and intense. Many an excellent policy has been rendered hopelessly ineffective this way.
The better public policies are those that have strong community support that relates in some way to shared values. And some of the ideas above — uniform standards, promotion of public safety and maintaining good relations among neighbors — can be the rallying point that launches a lighting policy that enjoys so much public support that the need for proactive enforcement is greatly reduced.
High-quality outdoor lighting policies are informed by all of the considerations described above. If your community doesn't have such a policy, or its existing policy could benefit from modernization, we can help you. Contact us today.
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