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Margaret Hartley's Greenpoint
by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

Dimming the lights

Last summer, towns and cities in Maine and Illinois began removing some streetlights as part of a budget-cutting measure.

Wilton, Maine, removed 103 of its 314 streetlights in July, anticipating a savings of almost $20,000 a year, the Daily Bulldog of Franklin County reported. In Rockford, Ill., a city of 150,000, about 2,400 streetlights have been removed, for a savings of about $500,000 from the city’s streetlighting bill of $2.7 million.

Concord, Mass.; Santa Rosa, Calif.; Upper Dublin, Pa.; and South Portland and Auburn, Maine, are among the other municipalities that have removed up to a third of their streetlights over the past three years.

Town or city leaders all cited cost as the major reason to cut back on lighting. With budgets tight all over, governments have been looking hard for savings wherever they can find them. And electricity is expensive.

Some cities have switched to more energy-efficient light bulbs; some have turned to motion-detecting switches that would keep streets dim when no one is around.

Reducing lighting obviously cuts energy usage, but there are other benefits as well. Decreased usage decreases carbon emissions and light pollution. Too much light shining up from our towns and cities not only impacts our ability to see the night sky but has been shown to harm nocturnal creatures and affect the patterns of migrating birds.

“Light is a powerful biological force, and on many species it acts as a magnet . . .” National Geographic reported in its November 2008 issue. “The effect is so powerful that scientists speak of songbirds and seabirds being ‘captured’ by searchlights on land or by the light from gas flares on marine oil platforms, circling and circling in the thousands until they drop. Migrating at night, birds are apt to collide with brightly lit tall buildings; immature birds on their first journey suffer disproportionately.”

I like the fact that my own street has no lights. I like being able to track the seasonal changes in the night stars, see planets and enjoy the phases of the moon. I like the way some nights are darker than others, that I can see the cloudy path of the Milky Way on a cold, clear winter night, or the occasional aurora.

But then, I live in a quiet, rural area, where crime is not much of an issue and where I feel totally safe walking around in the dark. So I wondered, does safety suffer when urban areas turn off the lights?

It’s hard to find a conclusive study, one not biased by the lighting industry or based solely on residents’ perceptions of “feeling” safer. It’s an emotional issue for residents; for statisticians, it’s unclear.

The police chief of Rockford, Ill., where about 15 percent of the streetlights have been removed, said he’s seen no evidence that crime increased when streetlights were removed. But it’s something the city will keep an eye on. City managers said they worked with the police and engineering departments to study which streetlights should be removed, the Rockford Register Star reported.

Last month in Highland Park, Mich., almost all of the streetlights were removed — repossessed — because the struggling city hadn’t paid its electric bill for years. Energy costs were reduced $62,000 a month to $15,000, according to the Detroit News, which also reported that Mayor Hubert Yopp said there was no increase in crime. “I had the police chief work up the crime stats, and found that most of our burglaries are taking place during the daylight hours,” Yopp said in the paper.

Light-pollution experts say that many cities are overlit. And that some lighting can cause corresponding dark shadows, actually making a place more dangerous by offering hiding places. Or creating the need for more lighting to get rid of the shadows.

No matter what level of lighting a municipality determines it needs, one way to help with costs, energy usage and pollution control is to make sure light is used most efficiently. That means using efficient light bulbs, or even solar-powered lighting where feasible.

And it also means directing the light to where it’s most needed. Capped bulbs direct the light down toward the streets, not up into the air. As charming as the Victorian-style streetlights look in Saratoga Springs and elsewhere, they shine as much light into the sky as down to the streets and sidewalks.

That’s a waste, of both energy and light.

Wholesale removal of streetlights probably isn’t the best answer for our towns and cities. But it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on some of these places where lighting has been reduced for a few years, and tracking whether costs, crime and accidents can be lowered.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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