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How dark-sky communities fight light pollution

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Ninety-nine percent of Americans live under light-polluted skies

An example of a newly built home in Summit Sky Ranch, a planned dark-sky community in Colorado.
Courtesy of Summit Sky Ranch

“Have you ever seen the Milky Way?” That’s how my conversation begins with astronomy enthusiast Mark Laurin, a longtime resident of Colorado and consultant to a new development that embraces stargazing.

According to the latest research, for most people, the answer is no: Around 99 percent of people living in the United States and Europe live under light-polluted skies, unable to experience true darkness or see the Milky Way.

Communities across the globe are looking to change this. According to the Tucson-based International Dark-Sky Association, at least 15 towns and cities—many of them in the United States—have agreed to adhere to a list of guidelines that aim to preserve the night sky.

In some areas, it has been a way to encourage astrotourism, a nascent industry introducing amateur stargazers to the wonders of the universe. In other places—like a new development in the Colorado Rocky Mountains—adhering to dark-sky standards promotes environmental conservation and allows the natural landscape to take center stage, even at night.

The premise of dark-sky communities is relatively simple. As Laurin explains, towns, homeowners, and developers should “use the right amount of light, in the right place, at the right time.” This doesn’t mean towns shrouded in darkness without stop lights. Instead, communities enforce quality outdoor-lighting ordinances, educate their populace on how to promote dark skies, and encourage thoughtful placement of lighting. It’s all about reducing the ever-expanding glow of cities.

The Bortle scale measures the night sky’s brightness at a particular location. Class 1 is the darkest sky on Earth and Class 9 shows what the sky looks like from the inner city.
Courtesy of the International Dark-Sky Association

In Colorado’s Blue River Valley, about an hour and 15 minutes west of Denver, a new 240 single-family home development aims to be one of the state’s first planned dark-sky communities. Called Summit Sky Ranch, the new development will sit on 416 acres bordering a historic working ranch to the north and the White River National Forest to the west.

Although the small towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff in southern Colorado have achieved dark-sky designation, Summit Sky Ranch is different: Instead of attempting dark-sky designation decades after a town was built, developer Tom Everist is building Summit Sky Ranch from the ground up as a place that will conserve the night sky.

Small changes will have a big impact. The planned community uses the natural landscape to block out light from other houses amid the aspen trees. Summit Sky Ranch will contain only five street lights in the entire development, all located at important intersections for safety. Each of the street lights are downcast, with shields, and according to Everist, are designed to radiate as few lumens of light as possible. Not only will these prevent skyglow, but they will also eliminate wasteful lighting from unshielded or poorly aimed outdoor lighting.

The Ranch’s location behind a ridge near the town of Silverthorne makes it “a pristine dark area that begs to be developed as a dark-sky site,” says Everist. A lack of ambient light and a fondness for stargazing prompted Everist—whose family family first came to Colorado in 1965 to provide construction materials for the Eisenhower Tunnel—to seek dark-sky designation.

“Personally, I just love stars and the sky,” Everist says. “I grew up in the Midwest, where you could see the stars and the Milky Way…. I find real peace and contentment from being outside in the dark and enjoying the natural sounds of the night.”

If real estate sales are any indication, others agree. About a third of the homes in Summit Sky Ranch, which start in the $600,000s, have sold. Trails, a private lake, and a 7,000-square-foot community center with a pool, hot tub, and yoga studio are no doubt attractive amenities. But Everist says that the dark-sky designation—and plans for a state-of-the-art observatory with a 20-inch refractor telescope—is a marketable asset. “We’re selling a way of life to our homeowners, and it’s resonating.”

Developments like Summit Sky Ranch might be leading the way for new dark-sky housing communities, but preserving the night sky is also a crucial task in many National Parks in the United States. Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, California’s Death Valley National Park, and Big Bend National Park in Texas are just some of the many parks and sanctuaries that have achieved dark-sky certification. Preserving the night sky in National Parks is not only a crucial part of maintaining a natural environment in some of our country’s prettiest places, but also a boon to tourists who go to these spots to stargaze.

Advocates point to other benefits. Nocturnal animals like bats, foxes, and owls all need darkness to hunt and thrive in the wilderness. Excessive nighttime light disrupts animal sleep patterns and damages fragile ecosystems. Mark Laurin, the astronomy enthusiast who helped design Summit Sky Ranch, says that for these animals, “light pollution is like a bulldozer destroying their lives.”

A photo of the “supermoon” taken at Summit Sky Ranch in November 2016.
Photo by Jack Dempsey, courtesy of Summit Sky Ranch

Unnecessary lighting is also a drain on the economies and environmental wellness of cities. According to data sourced from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2011, 13 percent of residential electricity use in the United States is for outdoor lighting. Bad outdoor lighting wastes 0.5 kilowatt hours of energy per house, per night, which equates to enough energy to power a 50-inch plasma TV for one hour. In addition, the International Dark-Sky Association believes that at least 30 percent of all outdoor lighting in the United States is wasted thanks to unshielded light on streets and in parking lots.

Even in cities, dark-sky policies could cut energy use, save money, and reduce carbon emissions. While Laurin acknowledges that completely retrofitting large urban areas like Chicago or New York City to fit dark-sky accreditation would be a “daunting task”—if not impossible—the “simple difference in putting a shield over the light, pointing the light down, and putting the light lower to the ground” would reduce light waste. Illuminating only the places that need it and turning off unnecessary lights would also help preserve darkness.

For Laurin, Everist, and others involved in Summit Sky Ranch, darkness is a natural resource that is neglected. In a way, they are attempting to adapt a modern concept of home ownership to a centuries-old desire to understand humanity’s place in the cosmos. As Laurin says, “If you have ever seen the Milky Way in a dark sky, if you’ve ever seen the planets orbiting Jupiter or the rings of Saturn... in the 40 years I’ve been doing this I have yet to meet a person [who sees these things] and doesn’t experience awe.”