The sky at night: Astronomy Ireland and designing a light efficient environment.


The Hubble telescope has provided in a low key, yet powerfully persuasive, manner a sense of the scope of the universe. Yet, counterintuitively, the contemporary era has seen our personal relationship with the universe shrunk by light pollution. Photopollution prevents us seeing the night sky in anything like its true magnificence as street and ambient lighting vies with and usually overcomes the stars. And this problem is a design problem. Because there has been a profligate approach to the use of energy and the design of street lighting in our towns and cities for decades.

However, as reported in the Irish Times from December 24, Astronomy Ireland ‘is to launch a campaign to raise awareness about the problems of light pollution’.

As the article notes, ‘light pollution is the scourge of astronomers around the world as it washes out the sky and makes it much more difficult to see fainter objects, particularly the Milky Way. It also deprives the public of the full pleasure of seeing the sky at night’.

While these are – arguably – aesthetic issues there are concrete design and environmental aspects to this topic. David Moore of Astronomy Ireland estimates that ‘as much as 30 per cent of the bill for public lighting, which is currently €300 million a year, could be saved if local authorities stopped using wasteful light fittings’.

Astronomy Ireland ‘wants public lighting fitted with reflectors to deflect the light downwards. They are now common on the country’s motorways’.

He says that: ‘What we have… are light fittings that are incredibly badly designed. They are just a bulb hanging out of a pole and so much of the lighting gets wasted because it goes upwards and not where it is supposed to go. With light shade deflectors you can go down to a lower wattage bulb, space them further apart and save energy’.

What is interesting is that, as Moore notes, there is now a confluence of environmental and political pressures which make the possibility of darker skies much more likely. Organisations such as the International Dark-Sky Association – a non-profit group composed of scientists and other interested parties, have been lobbying for much more strict guidelines and regulations on photopollution. In the current climate where energy efficiency is rapidly ascending the list of public priorities their work would seem likely to be granted a more sympathetic hearing (although it is worth noting that they have had a series of successes in terms of enabling the introduction of public lighting regulations in the US). Somewhat disturbing is some research they have done into the adverse health effects of photopollution on human physiology.

I’ve mentioned Victor Papanek and his attempts to codify a socially responsible and engaged design practice previously. One would like to think that there is now an opportunity for designers to engage with issues like this one in such a way as to see products and artifacts which are utilitarian, technologically advanced and socially responsible. And if a result of this is a renewed appreciation of our local and planetary environment then it is difficult not see that as yet further vindication of Papanek’s theses.

For further information see the website of the International Dark Sky Association here and an interesting look at better designed public lighting here

(Images: International Dark-Sky Assocation. When the eastern power grid failed, from Ontario to New York City, in August 2003, it revealed something many city dwellers had never seen: from horizon to horizon, a sky full of stars. Then the power came back on.

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