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Light Research @ MMU

Public controversy over public lighting – a unique opportunity to study light in space

nona - electrician

An electrician wiring a newly installed electric luminaire, despite the heated public debate

Studying city lights in Berlin is quite exciting these days. Sometimes I switch on my computer and find e-mails with the subject line ‘Tomorrow’s Protest’. They are sent by the friends of the Berlin gas lights and contain detailed information about where and when gas luminaires are going to be replaced by electric lighting. There are calls for action: ‘Be there by 7.30 a.m. Bring as many friends as possible!’ The protesters aim to stop the excavators from digging holes, the civil engineers from laying out the connections for the new electric lighting and the installers from removing the old luminaires.At the moment, the ground is still frozen. But spring will come and the contractor firm, which was commissioned by the Berlin Senate in 2011 to replace 8,000 gas luminaires by 2016, will continue its controversial work. The post-war luminaires, which are now being removed, form the smaller part of the remaining 42,500 gas powered light points in West Berlin. Most of the other lantern models are supposed to be electrified soon. The civic movement for gas light keeps mobilising new allies.

nona - gas luminaire

One of 8,000 gas luminaires that will disappear, burning inefficiently in bright daylight

Irreconcilable positions

The conflict seems unsolvable: The friends of the gas light and many residents of gas lit streets argue that this outdated lighting technology creates a unique atmosphere and should therefore be considered a cultural heritage. The Berlin Senate and the administrative staff have good reasons to vote against the gas powered city lights. Frequent fall outs cause high maintenance costs. The electrification of the lighting infrastructure will cut the public energy costs considerably and reduce the city’s CO2 emissions. According to official calculations, the electrification of the 8,000 luminaires will bring down the energy consumption from annually 48.7 to 1.4 gigawatt hours – more than 30 times less.

The objectives of those who live under the light and those who pay for it, install, operate and maintain the public lights of Berlin thus look quite incompatible. In the course of my research project I have studied the case and found that the opponents’ irreconcilable positions result from the actors’ different ways of engaging with the urban lightscape of Berlin. In my analysis I distinguish experts’ and amateurs’ engagements. While the latter refer to their immediate multi-sensory experience of the gas lit nocturnal street, policy makers and lighting experts built their argumentation on calculations and estimations. From their rational and distanced perspective on the techniques and resources that produce the beloved atmosphere the result does not justify the means. While the primary focus of the amateurs is on the visible urban space, the experts (also) focus on the invisible urban infrastructures.

nona - historicised LED

Retro look: A historicised LED retrofit replaces a modern gas model

  The “retro look” solution

However, there is a ray of hope for a compromise: In order to relax the situation, the Berlin Senate has commissioned the development of a LED solution that should imitate the light and looks of the remaining 30,000 historic gas lanterns. The result is quite satisfactory.  Although gas light friends can still tell the difference, the LEDs mimic the historic models almost indistinguishably. Yet, whether Berlin can afford an extensive LED renewal is another question. Meanwhile, I wonder about two side-effects of the proposed technical compromise. 1) The goal to imitate the gas lantern has produced a LED product that does not fully exploit the innovative potential of the new technology. One advantage of LED products is that their light output can be controlled and directed to where it is needed, which improves the energy efficiency of LED luminaires. In Berlin, the LED retrofits are designed to imitate the non-efficient light distribution of gas lanterns, including the light clutter on house facades. I take this as a piece of evidence for the socio-cultural co-production of the LED innovation. 2) In some places, ‘modern’ gas light luminaires are replaced by ‘historic’ LED lanterns. Paradoxically, the success of the “retro look” innovation thus facilitates a historicising urban renewal in some parts of Berlin. With these two observations I end my non-comprehensive overview for now and will be happy to respond to comments and questions. 

For an English report on the conflict click here.

April 22nd, 2013 - 09:51am

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