By Janet Lennox Moyer
When we work in public settings, the basic demand on lighting designers is for straightforward fixture layouts capable of providing enduring effects and requiring minimal ongoing attention. That doesn’t sound particularly exciting – and it’s not, unless the lighting designer uses it as a baseline and reaches above and beyond.
Parks, plazas, resorts and historical sites (among many others) are all spaces that really should come alive at night, but their lighting designs often run counter to that vitality by being so utilitarian that they spark boredom rather than energy. It’s easy to understand why this happens: Because such spaces play host to high levels of traffic and often multiple uses, they demand lighting treatments that stand up to abuse and exposure to the elements before anyone thinks much about aesthetics.
It’s not like the situation in residences or many commercial settings, where owners see the property nightly and have high expectations about how it should look. In most cases, the users of public spaces are decidedly not the owners, but are visitors drawn to waterfeatures, activities and opportunities for recreation made available in these settings.
In a great many cases, the challenges of lighting for public use are further compounded by restrictive budgets and managers who are more concerned with costs than they are with maximizing potential lighting effects. In addition, public spaces are almost always larger than typical residential or commercial spaces, meaning there’s a demand to provide more lighting with fewer fixtures, greater brightness and wider beam distributions.
Getting creative within those constraints is a significant, multi-level challenge that requires the designer to balance these often-conflicting demands.
In residential projects, the style and scale of the property dramatically influence the development of lighting concepts. With their generally larger scale, by contrast, public projects drive the designer first of all to grasp the needs of the design from a significant safety/security standpoint before aesthetics can come into play.
What this means is that the design actually begins with what one perceives from outside the property under development: The designer must consider what someone will see from the street or other adjacent areas with respect to identifying the ways they can safely and securely approach structures, for example, or pathways, parking areas and/or mass-transit facilities.
|In this composition, an area of importance – in this case the intersection of two roads – creates the need to have a brightness transition that gives those who walk or drive through a space important information about how to proceed. The muted foreground lighting provides visual continuity along the road, while the bright spot defines the intersection and creates a focus of visual (and navigational) interest with the big boulders. (Photo by Michael McKinley)|
The lighting designer can actually increase the usage of some or all of these facilities by drawing people into the space – including those who can see a plaza’s fountain or a park’s interactive waterplay area from their vantage points in local buildings or through the windows of passing cars or buses. Indeed, lighting has been shown to have significant influence on the formation of memories, which I’ve always taken to mean that lighting can be used to extend, limit or direct the way people see and remember a public space.
Because of their scale, however, public spaces do not generally use as many fixtures per tree or general area as do private spaces. To think in those multi-fixture terms is simply prohibited by costs in almost all cases. Instead, we think on the level of setting single fixtures between two trees, for instance, so the canopies of both are illuminated.
This constrained deployment of fixtures requires the designer to evaluate which areas of a space have the most importance and to light some areas while leaving others in relative darkness. The challenge thus becomes one of locating light throughout the site to provide a visual flow through the space while still retaining a sense of safety and creating aesthetic effects.
|The lighting in these areas comes from above and washes the spaces in light bright enough to help pedestrians perceive grade changes and surface differences once the sun goes down – the sort of safety consideration that is a key part of lighting programs in public plazas such as this one. But that’s just one lighting function: The trees, watershapes and artworks are even more brightly lit than the decks to sustain their function as the primary attention-getters. (Left: Photo by Dan Dibble. Right: Lighting by Stefan Graf; photo by Gary Quesada, Korab Ltd.)|
This is basically an issue of managing “brightness transitions” from one area to another by planning how light falls throughout the landscape, thus avoiding the feeling that some areas are inordinately dark. Many of the solutions are relatively simple: When lighting a path in an otherwise dark area, for example, you can use fixtures that have a distribution pattern wide enough that their light washes the plantings beyond the path’s edge.
This washing concept can be a key to developing a perception of safety: Light levels in the range of one to two footcandles will, when placed evenly along a path or through a planted area, provide the feeling of moving through a consistently lit space – far more comforting to the average person than moving through areas in which bright stretches are punctuated by spaces of nearly complete darkness.
Setting specific target levels for lighting is ultimately determined by the activities that will take place in the given space, moderated in all cases by ambient-light intrusion from surrounding areas and local code requirements.
FREEDOM OF MOTION
Reflectivity of hardscape surfaces can come into play as well. A concrete pathway, for example, may require only one footcandle to provide adequate lighting, while an asphalt surface will not reflect light as efficiently. The basic design of the latter might pass muster with inspectors, but it won’t be enough to create a sense of safety among park or plaza visitors.
By “sense of safety,” it is generally meant that lighting must ensure that visitors will feel secure from the sudden, unseen approach of a stranger and safe to move casually through the space. The best way to accomplish that goal while creating a visually pleasing environment is through a comprehensive plan that encompasses as much of the space as possible.
|Our daytime sense of a space is wide open and easily read by most everyone who follows a path or road such as this one. At night, however, the space becomes more mysterious and the lighting design must make pedestrians (and even drivers) feel safe and secure and sure of where they’re going. In this case, downlighting offers a dappled, limit-defining edge with the groundcovers, while uplighting contributes a vertical component that fills out the composition and establishes longer views along the road. (Right: Photo by Kenneth Rice, www.kenricephoto.com)|
Basically, this means lighting more than just the paths. If the entire space cannot be lit, you can select specific elements in the setting that will, when illuminated, provide visitors with adequate information about the surrounding space by lighting potential obstacles such as curbs or fountain basins, for example, or defining the boundaries between solid ground and open bodies of water.
As for the paths themselves, they tend in public projects to be wider and accommodate more formal traffic patterns than do walkways found in residential projects. These traffic patterns mean that special attention should be paid to identifying entry and exit points by selecting fixtures that have reflective, decorative qualities to attract attention and serve as visual markers.
In some cases, simply using fixtures with higher wattages than surrounding fixtures will do the job – or perhaps it will take a physically larger fixture or even lit signage. Again, the appropriate solution comes from the nature of the project and the overall landscape-design concept for the entire property.
Lighting systems for public spaces almost always come with automatic controls: No single person should ever have to be called upon to wait for the darkness and judge when to turn on the lights, nor should an operator be on call to dim certain lights to set a mood or accommodate the needs of a special event.
Spaces that have multiple and shifting activities (particularly parks) benefit from having their lighting equipment connected to photocells and time switches with 365-day on/off capabilities. This day-to-day adjustability will eliminate the need to change settings from one season to another as activities change and the hours of sunset and sunrise move along with the seasons.
Establishing these control systems truly is a commonsense matter – if, that is, the designer has a clear picture of the activities and programs that will be taking place in the facility or in sections of the facility. Some parks, for example, will stay open longer during baseball season or to follow a summer theater-under-the-trees schedule. Whatever the need, there’s generally a control system that can accommodate it or be adapted to do so.
And of course single pedestrians or couples or families are not the only people who are drawn to public spaces, which means that landscape lighting decisions must be driven by the full range of intended activities that will take place on the site.
This can mean lighting for organized activities such as theatrical or musical performances, sports, dancing, dining, speeches, festivals, weddings or receptions. The size of the crowd (and thus the required lighting) will vary significantly depending on the activity. The designer’s job is to understand potential uses and respond to the visual needs of each activity and each area individually.
You can’t make generalizations: Large properties may include theaters or band shells, for example, that will never be used at night and thus will never require performance lighting. By contrast, when such facility is intended for night use, the lighting system will need to accommodate entry and egress for the audience as well as theater lighting and control systems.
In such cases, any landscape-lighting designer would be well advised to call on the services of a specialist in theatrical lighting. The same holds generally true if a lit space is designed for baseball, tennis, croquet, horseshoes or swimming: As with theatrical lighting, sports lighting typically works within specific guidelines available from a number of resources – but is often best left to the experts just the same.
As with all landscape lighting projects, equipment selection for public spaces occurs after design concepts have been plotted out by the designer and approved by local building authorities.
With large-scale public projects, much of the lighting will consist of high-intensity-discharge (HID) light sources whose long service lives and high-lumen outputs make them natural candidates for properties that cannot tolerate the same maintenance frequencies as residential spaces.
|Day or night, the gate for this California winery captures the attention of anyone passing by or seeking it out. By day, however, the structure offers a clear barrier to entry into a vague space beyond. By night, the brightly illuminated gate is an invitation, while the lighting in the background invites visitors to enjoy the setting to its fullest. (Right: Photo by Kenneth Rice)|
Selection of the appropriate light sources depends largely on the color of the light produced as well as its wattage and efficiency. Often, the color is selected to match the color of the light sources used in surrounding street lighting or with adjacent properties so the site blends seamlessly with its surroundings. In some cases, however, a shift in color may be needed to attract attention – as is the case in lighting flags or signage.
Many HID sources do not produce a full spectrum of color, so the appearance of people, plants, buildings and sculptures may be either greatly enhanced or diminished. As alternatives, using a bluish source (such as a mercury-vapor lamp) to accent a stand of pines at the rear of a space can be used to add depth to a scene, while the warmer hues of a high-pressure sodium light source will shorten the appearance of long, narrow spaces. Similarly, adding color to lighting for a building (or a portion of a building) can emphasize an architectural detail or provide contrast to other elements in the landscape.
Incandescent sources are infrequently used in public or even commercial spaces because they typically have shorter working lives, lower lumen outputs and more confined distribution patterns than the alternatives. Still, in locations close to buildings or in areas where the goal is to accent a particular plant, sculpture or structure, incandescent lighting may be the right choice because the distribution of light is more easily controlled than is true with HID sources. Moreover, the color is flattering to peoples’ appearance.
|In many cases, light of different colors can be used to lend texture to outdoor spaces. Here, the fountain is lit by incandescent sources in contrast to the the soft mercury-vapor lamps that light the walkways. (Lighting and photo by Lloyd Reeder, Greenlee Lighting)|
As was mentioned at the outset, the fixtures you select for any sort of public space or lighting purpose must be able to withstand substantial abuse as well as the nature of the outdoor environment. Vandalism is a huge concern, but simple wear and tear will also be a major factor – not only because of corrosion or the effects of relatively heavy traffic, but also because landscape maintenance may require the use of large machines that can damage lighting equipment.
This means that designers should choose fixtures for these spaces that have strong housings, secure locking mechanisms for aiming adjustments, impact-resistant lens materials and tamperproof screws or other accessories that prevent fixture disassembly. Lighting along pathways – including bollards, posts or pole-mounted sources – must even in many cases be designed to withstand collisions by vehicles.
Another design consideration (and limitation) is the fact that when equipment used for uplighting in public spaces uses 120-volt (or higher) power service, the fixtures must be permanently mounted on junction boxes rather than attached to moveable stakes. This is a major issue when it comes to locating fixtures for mature plants and requires coordination of fixture locations and heights.
The provision of precise plans and specifications is a matter of paramount importance with public projects because bidders will often package the lighting equipment and try to substitute for specified equipment with less-expensive alternatives that may or may not produce the desired results. As a result, designers should strive to educate clients about the required quality levels in a way that forestalls use of substitutes wrapped in false promises about savings.
The size and scale of public projects often present challenges as well as opportunities that smaller projects do not, including the possibility of working with artists in creating site-specific sculptures or fountains. This may mean a need to light massive waterfeatures or art pieces, and it may also mean designing custom fixtures. (Don’t shy away from “custom” options: In my experience, the custom equipment will be produced in such large quantities for a big public project that the cost may well end up being comparable to off-the-shelf alternatives.)
|This is another clear case in which a space that has plenty of points of visual interest during daylight hours truly comes alive when illuminated by night. The main entertainment area features warm incandescent lighting so guests feel comfortable and look their best. Lighting of other colors creates bright vignettes and special nighttime spaces that tend to wash into one another in daylight. (Right: Photo by Kenneth Rice)|
You also need to be prepared for the fact that the design and construction of these projects can run on for years. The extensiveness of these stretches can make it easy to lose sight of the initial ideas that went into developing a lighting program. That in mind, ongoing and extensive documentation of the desired results and of the systems required to achieve those results is a huge and necessary help.
And if changes are needed that will result in changes to the lighting program – as is all too often the case – you need to keep your eyes on the overall design goals, no matter how much the sand keeps shifting beneath your feet.
Yes, lighting public spaces requires you to balance a range of concerns that can be both complex and difficult. What keeps me going, personally, is the knowledge that a properly designed system, correctly installed and expertly adjusted, will provide lighting in a great space that will provide safe, secure enjoyment for countless people for years to come.
Janet Lennox Moyer is founder and principle designer for MSH Visual Planners, a landscape-lighting-design firm in Brunswick, N.Y. She started her career as an interior designer for commercial and residential clients before shifting her focus exclusively to landscape lighting in 1983. Since then, she has designed a broad array of highly prestigious projects worldwide. In 1991, she wrote The Landscape Lighting Book (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), the second edition of which was published in 2005. Moyer has lectured extensively and is widely considered one of the world’s foremost experts in the field of landscape lighting.