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Light Research @ MMU

Urban Lighting, Light Pollution and Society

urban lighting, light pollution and societyA recently published book, Urban Lighting, Light Pollution and Society, has been edited by Josiane Meier, Ute Hasenöhrl, Katharina Krause and Merle Pottharst. All four were members of the interdisciplinary Loss of the Night research collaboration, and are based at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the Technical University of Berlin and at the Leibniz-Institute for Regional Development and Structural Planning in Erkner. This fabulous volume focuses upon urban lighting and light pollution from a social sciences and humanities perspective. It highlights current debates, among them ways in which light pollution might be defined and may be alleviated by emergent technologies and policies. Highly recommended.

January 16th, 2015 - 16:37pm

Picturing the dynamics of urban lightscapes

Posted by Josiane Meier

Urban lighting generally seems to be a rather static affair: When night falls, the lights are switched on – and when dawn rises, they go off. However, given that there is not only one switch for a city’s lights, but rather a whole array of larger and smaller switches and dials, it’s worth asking whether this simple and synchronised “on-off-on-off” is really what’s happening. Are there differences in rhythm and schedule between public and private lighting, between street lights, architectural illuminations and neon signs, between the lights in different parts of a city? And, if so: What determines their dynamics?

In order to gain insights into this largely uncharted territory, we are assembling and analysing a growing collection of time lapse videos. Each video portrays one night in one of Berlin’s urban centres – places that are hotspots of day- and night-time activity and that are typically expected & accepted to be especially bright. Composed of over 1.000 individual images each, and furnished with time stamps, the videos make it possible to observe what happens with individual light sources as the night progresses. The camera’s positioning and settings are kept identical, thereby allowing for the comparison of levels of brightness within and between locations.time lapse Breitscheidplatz

time lapse Alexanderplatz

Three of the locations have been portrayed in early summer nights – Alexanderplatz, Potsdamer Platz and Hackescher Markt – to allow for comparability, while one – Breitscheidplatz – is shown in the winter holiday season, providing a glimpse at the special case of festive lighting.

One thing quickly becomes very clear when viewing the videos: Urban lightscapes are not static at all – they change significantly throughout the night. It is interesting to note that there are places with a considerably more or less pronounced dynamic. The lights at Hackescher Markt, in particular, don’t change much at all in comparison to those of Alexanderplatz or Potsdamer Platz. Remarkably, the level of brightness at Hackescher Markt also appears to be significantly lower than at the other two locations – both in our videos and in a bird’s eye view of Berlin at night – despite various indicators pointing toward it being the place in this comparison that sees the most activity during the night.

time lapse Hackescher-Mkt  time lapse Potsdamer-Platz

Differences between various types of light sources are also becoming apparent. For example, public street lights and the illumination of public transport stations stay on throughout the night in all cases. Architectural illumination and lit advertisements, on the other hand, often go out in the small hours – some remain off, while others relight in the early morning. There are, however, significant exceptions: The dome of the IMAX cinema at Potsdamer Platz or the steeple of the Memorial Church at Breitscheidplatz remain brightly lit all night long. The assortment of seasonal lights visible in the Breitscheidplatz time lapse follows a variety of rhythms: While the Christmas market’s lights go off at around 10:15 pm, the adornments along the street only go out at 12:15 am, and the construction crane’s decoration remains lit all night.

Overall, it has become very evident that the how, when and why of our illuminated nights is not at all clear-cut: Far from being static or homogenous, they are an amalgamation of many different actors’ actions and logics, and their dynamics are worth investigating as much as the motives behind them.

December 18th, 2014 - 13:51pm

Queueing for the dark

Posted by Katharina Gabriel

Institut für Public Health und Pflegeforschung, Universität Bremen,

In this day and age there are hardly any places in our neighbourhood unaffected by artificial light at night. Whenever in need we turn light on as a matter of course. Darkness has become rare in our everyday life but as we don’t miss it we don’t realize.

Within the interdisciplinary research project “Verlust der Nacht” (“Loss of the Night” –, we investigated the reasons for brightening the night by artificial light, as well as its consequences for animals and humans. As a project coordinator, one of my tasks was to raise people’s awareness about light pollution.Logo_VdN_neg

For the project’s open day we developed a ‘Room of Darkness’ to solicit experiences of senses other than vision for visitors. We prepared boxes for touching and boxes for smelling. Those for touching provided material of different textures such as pebbles, balloons, the bark of a horse chestnut tree, screw nuts and flakes of polystyrene. Those for smelling provided scents of coffee, lemon, basil and nutmeg. We excluded anything wet, ugly or potentially allergenic. We eliminated all sources of light with the exception of one single faint light source for security – enough for scotopic vision. After two of us had adapted our eyes to the gloom, groups of 10 to 15 people: – families, friends, couples – entered. After finding a place within the room, the door was closed and they were welcomed with a short speech about humans being day active creatures whose strongest sense for orientation is vision. In the absence of light we feel unsure and thus tend to brighten the night. However, we have other senses that can be deployed for orientation, such as hearing. Instinctively, visitors followed the speaker’s voice with their head, and sharing this observation surprised them! We then invited them to test their other senses.

In the boxes for smelling, coffee was obvious; even little children identified the right box when asked to point it out. Nutmeg and basil, however, could conjure up associated foods. Instead of ‘basil’, visitors referred to ‘tomato and mozzarella’, and instead of ‘nutmeg’, they identified ‘mashed potatoes’ – both dishes commonly flavoured with these herbs and spices! In the boxes for touching, the first challenge was to overcome the timidity that restrained people from plunging their hands inside. Most of the contents were easy to distinguish. For the screw nuts we accepted ‘pearls’ as correct answer from children, though men often answered “M8” – the correct name of the item in terms of the size of diameter, testifying to the habitual, sensual knowledge of the handyman!L

After a while the children started to run around – their eyes able to adapt more quickly to the darkness than those of the adults. However, most visitors’ eyesight adapted towards the end of the session (after 10 to 12 minutes). Occasionally, we were asked, whether we had switched on some light. Only seniors lacked the ability to visually adapt. Conversation arose about eye physiology with its rods and cones, resulting in photopic and scotopic vision. Sometimes blindness and the natural options for orientation were discussed as well as options in the built environment.

We offered the ‘Room of Darkness’ over three years and it was always well attended. I learned that in peak times people had waited in line for two rounds – to experience of darkness again they had queued for more than half an hour…


November 12th, 2014 - 12:49pm

Light Discipline: Bodies and Power on the Battlefield

I recently presented a paper at the Sensing War conference in London entitled ‘The Meaning of Light: Seeing and Being on the Battlefield’.  Based around a poem I wrote about my time as a soldier during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the paper attempts to articulate the ambiguous power of light which I experienced on my particular part of the battlefield. The poem is called Light Discipline, which is a military term for one of the precautionary procedures deployed and enforced during the hours of darkness to conceal the location of personnel and equipment, and includes a strict ban on all recreational, functional and operational use of light – for example torchlight and cigarette smoking. These tactical blackouts not only made the already arduous but imperative task of staying safe, sane and keeping your body functioning infinitely more difficult, but also served to foreground and confuse other senses, sensibilities, emotions and relationships. Without light, the vast geographies of the desert suddenly shrink, fingertips mean more than maps, or as Derek Gregory might put it, the ‘cartographic’ becomes the ‘corpographic’.

On the other end of the scale, these nightly periods of enforced blindness were ‘relieved’ by the often spectacular artillery barrages to which the city of Basra was subjected during the initial ‘Shock and Awe’ stage of the invasion. As well as high explosives, the artillery unit to which I was attached also fired illumination rounds, known as ‘lumes’, a kind of giant firework on a parachute which hung in the air above the city and usually signalled an imminent attack. Having been caught one night in the beam of an illuminating round myself, I was always struck by their affective power, and how they seemed to make the ensuing high explosive ‘bomblet’ rounds almost unnecessary,  the objective of spatial control and psychological damage having already been achieved with aggressive illumination. Operation Maritime Raider 09

My poem covers the power of light as a potentially biopolitical and affective tactic, and as a disciplinary tool on a far more personal level:





In a blackout we adjust our sights

by touch and cup our smoke against

the desert : waiting for the light.

At long last the barrel scrapes

into place and the night is instantly

exposed. I cover my ears and watch.

In the distance a fitful city crouches,

seared eyes raised to the floating                                                                                                                     

arc above:  waiting for the strike.

              (Light Discipline : 2013)

 The research I have done so far has led to many other fascinating debates, from the authority of vision / knowledge, ‘flesh’ versus ‘eye’ witnessing, to battlefield technologies and the agency of the war poet. Any questions, comments, ideas or contributions would be very welcome. The abstract for the conference paper is available here. By Pip Thornton. (Pip is a PhD student in Geopolitics & Cybersecurity at Royal Holloway. Her research interests are in representations, perceptions and constructions of the figure of the soldier in geopolitical and cyberspaces. A former police officer and reservist soldier, she is also Poetry Editor for The Next Review magazine.  She can be contacted at or @Pip_T )

June 11th, 2014 - 02:07am

Exploring the Virtual Darkened Landscape: Light and Dark in Alan Wake

Video game designers work in light and dark. In a medium in which all actions are ultimately represented in pixels of light, what to brighten and what to darken is central to the decision making process. Over the last few years, games such as The Last Of Us, L.A. Noire, The Walking Dead, Silent Hill and BioShock have paid increased attention to creating stories which derive from the atmosphere generated by this interplay of dark and light across a virtual landscape. The clearest example of this is the 2010 release Alan Wake. A Stephen King-inspired homage to American literary and film horror, Alan Wake is the story of a novelist who travels with his wife to the remote New England town of ‘Bright Falls’ in order to try and overcome his writer’s block. After his wife disappears, the protagonist – Alan Wake – becomes involved in a supernatural adventure in order to save her.

It’s here that light and dark enter into the game. During the day Bright Falls is a normal, if slightly eerie, small American town. But at night the town, and the wooded landscape around it, becomes haunted with the ‘Dark Presence’, a ghostly spirit which inhabits people, objects and buildings. Wake defends himself with a series of ‘light’ weapons: torches of varying strengths, flare guns and flash-bangs.  These lights, when focused on a possessed body, damage the Dark Presence and allow Wake to progress in his search for his wife. Street-lights and brightly lit buildings – often powered by small generators that the player has to start as part of the gameplay – are areas of safety, in which Wake’s health is restored and in which he is protected from attack.

Alan Wake 1






In Alan Wake, the landscape at night is a dark, threatening expanse, from which danger and demons emerge – sometimes slowly shifting out of the background, other times charging quickly from nearby. The gameplay mainly takes place in dark forested landscapes, with the moon and artificial illumination providing limited lighting. Phenomenologist Eugene Minkowski argues that in darkness, as we can’t see people and objects around us, we cannot as easily make the distinction between the self and the Other, between the internal and external. We are therefore rendered more vulnerable and open to other bodies, with our sense of self reduced. To quote Minkowski, darkness “does not spread out before me but touches me directly, envelops me, embraces me, even penetrates me, completely, passes through me, so that one could almost say that while the ego is permeable by darkness it is not permeable by light. The ego does not affirm itself in relation to darkness but becomes confused by it” (E. Minkowski, Lived Time, 1970: p429)

Similarly, the game is often unclear as to whether events that are taking place should be as interpreted as real, or a fiction of Wake’s mind. Alan Wake’s creative designer Sam Lake sets out this relationship:“In Alan Wake’s world, the monsters that your imagination conjures up in the dark come true, but they are still destroyed when the lights are turned on. Darkness equals madness and terror, nightmares and death.” To experience the darkened landscape of Bright Falls is to experience an atmosphere of perpetual threat, never knowing where the self ends and where the dangers of the dark begin.

Alan Wake 2






By contrast, light in Alan Wake takes on multiple protective roles. The light of the moon is often all that guides the player, with reflections on lakes, buildings and wispy clouds helping light the way. In the beam from Alan’s torch, or bright shine of the flash-bangs, light becomes the game’s primary weapon. Then in the protective glow of streetlights, or in lit rooms, light acts as a forcefield, a cone within which both Wake and the player can briefly rest, safe from the intensity of the dark landscape surrounding them. Here, the games designers set out to explore how the presence of light builds protective atmospheres: “We wanted the player to really feel different emotions depending on the amount of light that was present – safety, fear, insecurity, resolution – and to have the feeling of being either totally lost or having a sense of direction by following light.”

Again the experience created reflects Minkowski’s argument that to experience light is often to experience protection. In light, objects and people are ‘held’ safely at a distance: light acts as a protective field, allowing us to create a sense of bounded, independent self. The players in Alan Wake finds themselves pausing under lights, enjoying the experience of safety and comfort before plunging themselves into the gaming action of the dark again.

While the story of Alan Wake might draw from a contemporary alienation from the night, in which darkness is always presumed to be negative in relation to light, it also builds on longstanding literary and narrative tropes. It then ties these into the established architectural and design practices of using light and dark to create atmospheres in physical spaces. By doing this in the context of a video game, the designers are able to create and discover a new series of possibilities for experiencing atmospheres and landscapes in which the player’s emotional responses to the game reflect the varying levels of light and dark.

Posted by Dr Robert Shaw, Durham University:

December 11th, 2013 - 10:32am