We tend naturally to associate large cities with bright lights. There is Times Square, of course, and the Great White Way (Broadway Avenue), in New York City before that. There is Paris, of course, the City of Lights (though this may have more to do with the city as an intellectual center). A little over a century ago we started down the path of lighting (and lighting-up) our cities and towns, a relatively small speck of time in the evolutionary history of species and planet. We’ve reached a point today where most of have a difficult time seeing stars, or discerning much of their spectacular brilliance, if we even think to look skyward. The profligate blightness of our cities carries with it many ecological and health costs, but most importantly robs us a chance to tap into an immense and majestic wildness.
In our discussions about nature in cities, we often forget about the universe delivered the skies above us each evening. The night sky fits every possible definition of wildness–profoundly other, immense and vast and mysterious, largely still unknown and unknowable, and certainly beyond our human control. It has been, until recently, a ubiquitous and nightly connection with the natural world. A way of marking time, the source of cosmology and meaning, and a delightful communal past time.
Recapturing and connecting with some of that urban wildness should be a goal for every city.
What can cities do to foster deeper connections with this wild night sky? I think there is a tendency for fatalistic thinking when it comes to cities. The task of effectively controlling the spread of light seems too large and difficult. But there are plenty of people and cities working hard to blanche the spread of light pollution, and many things that can be done. Full-cutoff lights and smarter lighting strategies (overcoming the brighter must be safer) would be a good start, and would help to advance a number of urban goals at the same time (reduction of energy consumption, climate change). Stronger Lighting codes and programs to
subsidize efforts at retrofitting would be sensible and pay many dividends.
Ironically, Paris has become a leader here, having adopted 2013 one of the strongest sets of lighting regulations anywhere. Among other things, the Paris law requires that interior lights of offices be switched off after a certain hour. The economic and environmental benefits are clear–it has been estimated by one group that the law will save more than 2 million megawatts of energy per year (enough to power 750,000 French homes, it is reported). A similar law is under consideration by New York City.
More radical solutions might also be considered. It is ironic that re-connecting to the night sky seems only a power-outage away for most cities. Events like the power 1994 outage that hit southern California, or the loss electricity in parts of New York City following Hurricane Sandy, have provided glimpses of the possible. They often become indelible personal memories for those who live through such episodes. Photographer Thierry Cohen has produced some beautiful images of what the night sky might look like in cities around the world, if not for their light pollution. They are startling images of a vibrant wondrous urban night sky (see some of them here).
Not that we wish for more Hurricane Sandy’s of course, but they perhaps suggest the value of “planned” outages. A number of cities now have “lights-out” programs, which encourage city offices to turn off their lights at the height of bird migration (see, for instance, the Chicago Lights Out program here: ). And the global initiative Earth Hour happens on a Saturday evening each year–a challenge to turn out the lights in one’s home for an hour, and to celebrate the time with friends and family and community. A seemingly small gesture, it has been growing in popularity, and during the most recent Earth Hour (March 28, 2015) there were more than 40,000 celebrations in 172 countries (see Earth Hour 2015 highlights here).
How much of a difference these efforts make in terms of urbanites seeing the night sky is not clear, but any improvement, and for any period of time is a positive step.
We should also understand that any reduction in urban light pollution, will benefits suburban and outlying locations. A nightly dose of dark sky may still elude us in cities, but it might help to make these more pristine views of the night sky possible on weekends, or during occasional visits to outlying natural areas in a metropolitan region.
Cities might take other creative steps to foster awareness and connections. This might take the form of organizing the occasional star-gazing party, or helping neighborhoods to organize such events. Making available high-quality telescopes, perhaps through setting us some form of telescope-share (like bike share or car share), or making them available through lending libraries, would be helpful. Support for local astronomy clubs (and help in establishing these where they don’t exist) would be another positive step and help to establish an army of local experts on the night sky.
It is also likely necessary for cities, and their residents, to find ways to re-imagine their relationship to the night. It is half the day, after all, and a time when many fascinating fauna are moving and active. We don’t know much about what goes on at night and the wildness that lurks around us. The nocturnal nature can be discovered if we give folks the chance–moth and bat walks, are one way. The availability of low-cost commercial camera-traps (now with some models costing as a little as $60) can help to uncover and make visible the magical lives that exist around us during those times when our human eyes and life patterns make it less likely to “see” them.
Why not take a minute this evening to peak at the night sky, to imagine human and non-human life illuminated for millennia by this scene, and to tap into, at least for a moment, the timeless and enveloping wildness of this nature that is at once so close but so impossibly far-away.