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Why do placemakers stop placemaking after the sun goes down?

Exhibition road credit paul riddle
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Today’s 24-hour lifestyle calls for subtler and better planned lighting in the public realm, says Paul Nulty

According to reports, evening spending accounts for £70 billion of the UK’s economy. Changes in working practices and advances in technology and communication mean our traditional body clock is adapting to a far more round-the-clock timeframe, with activities spanning 24 hours and no longer constrained by daylight. So why do placemakers stop placemaking after the sun goes down, treating the aesthetics of lighting and the opportunities it brings for night-time activities as a bolt-on to masterplans?

One theory is that placemaking is retail-led, rather than people-led. Placemaking has become a buzzword since the advent of online shopping, with retailers needing ‘place’ and experience to lure people back to the shops. Today’s shopping centres and high streets are peppered with restaurants, cafés and bars, but with no coherent lighting plan directing how they will contribute to the overall aesthetic, these places become a cacophony of light after hours. Visually, as a result, there is very little flow or lucidity from one space, place, town, area or borough to another and daylight design is often cheapened by gaudily-lit facades that cascade onto the external environment at night. Rather than inviting people to stroll through an area after dark, the aggressive nature of multiple colours of lighting aggravates the nerves and forces people to move on.

Developers feel unwilling to create informal spaces that would encourage people out of their homes on evenings

The UK also has a social issue with what is perceived to be a binge-drinking culture taking place during night-time hours. Mindful of the scrutiny of local authorities, developers feel unwilling to create informal spaces that would encourage people out of their homes on evenings to relax and congregate. Add to this the reluctance of many architects to attach lighting fixtures to office or retail buildings, pockets of self-contained bright light around bars are created and the periphery of in-between spaces feels like a neglected part of any plan: uninviting, badly lit and unsafe. With little thought given to the wider environment after hours, architects focus on the juxtaposition of each site and building in the context of those adjacent to it during the day.

But the global nature of how we live now means the night-time economy is far more accessible and, with the relative decline of bricks and mortar retail, it is also becoming increasingly important. Artificial lighting, aesthetically and carefully considered and planned, can increase footfall, aid orientation and boost the night-time economy by keeping people out of their homes for longer.

Some developers and architects are adopting strategies which implement external illumination in a considered way. Garish colours are being replaced by more sophisticated solutions. Many developers and consultants are also starting to create schemes that present public space as a 24-hour composition. These designs propose buildings as backdrops of ‘places’, turning dark spaces through which people circulate into ones that encourage them to dwell and enjoy.

This approach is subtle, with far more thought given to the experience of people using the overall space. There are many technical, sustainable and sympathetic considerations involved in taking a lighting scheme from day to night and in complementing facade, retail and street furniture lighting to create a welcoming night-time environment. 

And, with £70 billion a year to tap into, it is surely worth the while of planners, local authorities, developers and consultants to collaborate to achieve this.

Paul Nulty is founder of Nulty+

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Another factor that should be encouraging the provision of better outdoor lighting is the revolution that has brought LED technology to mass production so fast, with enormous reductions in energy costs - this can already be seen in highway lighting, with the chains of orange sodium lighting steadily vanishing from the 'nightscape', the illumination now being directed only on the roads themselves, being hardly discernible from any distance. Tasklighting on the grand scale.

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