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In Colombia, smart street lamps seek to build better community with light

Custom lighting in a Cartagena neighborhood illuminated the importance of better nighttime design

All images by Don Slater

It’s an aspect of urban design closely tied to economic activity, safety, and social interaction, not to mention being intertwined with many of the most popular cultural events. But for many, the emerging field of nighttime design, and the ways lighting impacts how we interact with and perceive our urban environment after dark, is a concept that hasn’t quite clicked.

In Cartagena, Colombia, an historic city and popular tourist destination, a multi-national research team conducted an experiment in designing community-led street lamps to demonstrate the importance and impact of lighting on a neighborhood and its residents. Echoing themes pushed by the new breed of night mayors and club councils springing up in cities across the globe, this lighting experiment, completed in 2015 but recently documented in a new film, literally illuminated the importance of urban design after dark.

“Can lighting be used to galvanize a community and bring it together?” says Leni Schwendinger, a designer at the multinational engineering and architecture firm Arup that helped organize the Cartagena initiative. “Can we use light as a force to bring people together?”

Don Slater

Smart Everyday Nighttime Design, the collaborative research project, used Getsemaní, a UNESCO world-heritage district in Cartagena that’s in the midst of change and gentrification, as a testing ground for new ideas about nighttime design. The team—urban lighting researcher Schwendinger; Don Slater, co-director of the Conjuring Light research group at the London School of Economics; Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano and Despacio, two Colombian partners; iGuzzini, which helped construct lighting; and Citelum, which helped with site engineering and installation—devised a methodology that brought social, spatial, and design processes together.

The team began by surveying residents in the rapidly gentrifying quarter—a charming area of pastel homes and narrow streets, outside the city’s famous walled quarter, that’s increasingly filled with cafes, bars, and restaurants catering to a growing crowd of visitors—and asking them about changes to the urban landscape and the cultural history of the area. Local stakeholder meetings and discussions led to the creation of lantern prototypes, boasting a diverse array of colorful patterns that reflected local traditions and designs.

During a one-day, one-night trial, a pop-up” prototype pilot installation, the lanterns were presented to residents, who could mix-and-match colors, patterns, and filters to create their own lighting solutions. The result, a set of vibrant, multi-hued lights hanging at relatively low heights above the street, created pockets of illumination and social interaction, encouraging patrons to stay out later and offering residents more places to congregate and celebrate.

Schwendinger and her colleagues’s multidisciplinary approach aims to find a new way to create urban lighting that does more than lighting the way. With a background working rock shows, opera, and projection projects, Schwendinger understands the power of light in a narrative and commercial sense.

Don Slater

But she believes initiatives like the Cartagena test can showcases lighting’s power to change neighborhoods: dark streets can be lit up to encourage economic activity and increase perceptions of safety. Representative lighting design can also create neighborhood identity, important in a tourist-heavy real estate market where long-time locals may be feeling pushed out, and add something more unique that uniform rows and grids of overhead lamps.

Due to its international presence, and Colombia’s initiative to modernize its lighting system, Cartagena was an ideal choice for this temporary trial. But Schwendinger says these ideas can work anywhere. The research group plans to continue studying new solutions, potentially starting a think tank to further investigate these ideas and create more concepts and pilots.

“This isn’t just about art,” Schwendinger says. “Lighting changes behavior.”

Don Slater