Urbis Schréder: imagining the future of Public Realm

We’ve been writing about where Public Realm lighting has come from and where we are at the moment – now its time to look at what we might expect to see in the years to come. We asked two of the chief influencers in UK Public Realm lighting what they thought.

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Urbis Schréder: St. Blaise Square, Bradford


The creative design view comes from Iain Ruxton, a Senior Associate at Speirs+Major

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Let’s start with controls, because that is where so much interest lies at the moment.

And the first thing to say is that it has to be about what is relevant and genuinely useful. We see too many instances where controls are sold to clients on the basis that it’s cutting-edge technology – with little or no regard as to what is actually needed. The technical foundations of a lighting scheme come from the original analysis in how a space is meant to work.

What has changed in the world of controls is actually the light source. Historically, there was very little that cold be done with discharge lighting other than switch them on and off. The LED has changed all of that, enabling light levels to be fine-tuned and, of course, for the tone of white light to be adjusted. It means that Public Realm lighting can be so much more responsive to its surroundings.

But we’re not so interested in IoT. So much of it comes down to ‘how much stuff can we nail to a stick’. Yes, it makes sense not to clutter a street scene with additional hardware, but all the cameras and the sensors have little or nothing to do with lighting. IoT can be  a massive distraction to the job in hand – which is good lighting.

We’re interested in the ability to control lighting on a lantern-by-lantern basis. At a basic level, it’s the kind of control that brings energy savings along with it, but its in the aesthetic possibilities where the real gains can be made. Light doesn’t have to be passive; it can actively engage with the occupants of a space.

Beyond controls, its optics – optics – optics. The early days of LED lighting didn’t engage with optical control – there were other things to worry about. But the optical systems that we knew from the traditional sources disappeared almost overnight. The ‘soft’ relationship between a reflector and a bulb light source has become a thing of the past, and hard edge cut-off is the norm. we’re glad to see that those classic asymmetric reflectors are finally coming back, now that we’ve learned more about LED light production. We know that the LED can be glare-y by its very nature but, at last, we are seeing more subtle optical design.

We’d like to see a greater commitment from clients to better lighting upgrades. So much of the LED replacements create a poorer visual environment than the lanterns they replaced and that hasn’t helped to improve the reputation of the LED. A lot of our Public Realm work comes from urban regeneration projects such as Granary Square, behind King’s Cross in London and there is a client assumption that commercial success comes from investment in design.

It’s very difficult to link economic success in revitalised areas directly with ‘better lighting’ and analyses are being done around the country at the moment to find out more about this. Granary Square was set out to deliver a space that worked for everyone concerned. Argent, the developer company, understand the value of good design. You can see that the quality of the landscaping materials is so much better than it could have been under other developer regimes.

Its about what I said right at the beginning; analyse what’s intended.

No two spaces are the same – nor should they be – and this may be a grotesque generalisation, but most of us work longer now than we did 20 years ago, so the night-time economy has become far more active. There is a closer connection between work and leisure environments. That means the social experience begins almost on the pavement outside your workplace, though that may be a very urban viewpoint . . .

Let’s finish with a huge question for the urban planner, and one that goes much further than lighting design. The Cowgate in Edinburgh leads a double life. During the day it is little more than a thoroughfare and the motor car rules supreme. But at night, it shows its party face and it is closed to motorised traffic. It becomes part of the commercial heart of Edinburgh and the emphasis is on visitors having a good time. Its not hoping too much that the next time the Cowgate is re-lit, that this double life is taken into account and we have the chance to add to the creative personality of the space.

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Urbis Schréder: The A19 at Thornaby-on-Tees


Public Realm lighting is one of the most legislated areas of light engineering. To find out where the Standards are likely to be headed, we asked Allan Howard, Technical Director (lighting) at WSP, the global engineering consultancy

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There are three aspects of Public Realm lighting where we can expect to see changes in the near future:

The Circular Economy is something that is definitely ‘up’ for manufacturers at the moment. There is a risk that this is something that will mean different things to different people so its important that specifiers understand what is being offered.

WSP has been involved in an exercise to examine the economic case for producing ‘Circular Economy’ products. The question that was asked concerned what it means for a luminaire to be ‘circular economy friendly’. Would it be sufficient for the LED engine and driver of a fixture to be replaceable, on the ground that they are the ‘active’ parts of the assembly and they WILL fail, or should it be considered an ethical issue demanding that the entire assembly be capable of disassembly. There are production costs associated with this issue and manufacturers will approach this in different ways.

Lighting performance in the Public Realm is constantly under review and the latest Draft of BS5489-1 is currently out for comment. We’ve watched lighting class requirements fall over the past 25 years, and what would originally have required a P1 scheme may now be acceptable as P3. There are (at least) two reasons for this; energy is the big driver, of course, but we’re gaining a greater understanding of what is actually required for the lighting of streets. The shift from sodium lighting to white lighting, first with metal halide lamps and now with LED has changed the way that we perceive our surroundings. Its only sensible that we look again at how the Public Realm needs to be illuminated overall.

Research being undertaken by Steve Fotios and his team at the School of Architecture, Sheffield University suggests that lower illuminance levels can be used provided that light uniformity is improved.

And that leads to scheme design and what might be expected of a lighting scheme. The LED revolution has resulted in a wholesale replacement of street lighting, though possibly not in a way that Steve Fotios would appreciate. Government financial support to authorities was based entirely on energy saving and so funding was, in the main, only available to replacing lanterns – not the columns or associated cabling.  Consequently, only lanterns were replaced and there are few situations where the original scheme planning has been successfully replicated. LED lanterns have created high-glare and low-uniformity situations. Whether authorities will ever find the resources to improve the current situation is a case of wait-and-see and probably don’t-hold-your-breath.

A lot of attention is given to urban lighting, where the lighting is only a part of a broader approach to improve the night-time commercial activity of the city centre. These schemes haven’t suffered in the same way as the many thousands of miles of residential streets mentioned before. Budgets have generally been available to create a new ambience for the city centre and its here that we’re seeing a combination of sound engineering practice and creative lighting design. But we have to add a few words of caution here.

Architectural lighting products need to be sufficiently robust to survive in the Public Realm. The best in-ground uplighter on the market may still struggle to cope with an aggressive steam-jet pressure street cleaning process. There is no IP testing for steam jets; perhaps there should be.

Finally, we have to make people feel safe and happy. People will avoid apparently dark spaces; if the space looks dark as you approach it, people will not feel safe. There is a risk that new IoT technology creates a drive towards more dramatic visual experiences, where lighting is reduced to a very low level until sensors detect that there is someone walking along the pathway. Safety is often not about seeing where we’re standing, but much more about what we’re walking towards. Scheme design needs to ensure that the fundamentals of Public Realm lighting are adhered to.

The ‘Broken Light’ installation on Atjehstaat, Rotterdam is an excellent case in point. At first sight the footpaths seem to be lit only by the reflected light created by ‘broken light’ – but the highway has uniform lighting and the dramatic ‘broken’ lighting effects are layered over a functioning low-level ambient lighting – very good design approach.

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