Up until a few years ago, the lighting system for the Specola tower in Padua was an environmental problem and a cause for embarrassment. Today, however, it is an example of ecological and economical sustainability. On the first of March, the Padua Astronomical Observatory (based in the Specola tower) will take part in the M’illumino di meno (I use less lighting) event by turning its lights off. This is a symbolic gesture rather than a necessity, as the system designed by the architect Antonio Stevan was created to avoid light pollution while enhancing the tower in its urban context. “We are convinced we have done a good job and we believe that the design behind the new system is a model of cooperation between public and private entities,” commented Massimo Turatto, Director of the Observatory and the INAF Research Centre.
The Specola Tower in Padua lit up during the 2017 Researchers’ Night event
Director Turatto, why did the Specola Tower lighting system need to be redesigned?
In 2010, the ARPAV [Veneto Regional Environmental Protection Agency] sent us an angry letter pointing out that the building’s lighting system did not comply with current standards. It made us think, because we operated in close contact with the ARPAV, and we had never realised we were breaking the law. The tower was lit by an external beacon, operated by the Municipality, that created an unacceptable degree of luminescence all around it. Moreover, it illuminated only one side of the tower, which meant it couldn’t be seen from the centre of town.
Light pollution is an issue you are particularly aware of.
Yes, because it hinders astronomical observations; but it’s not just the fixation of a handful of researchers and sky gazers. It is a particularly insidious form of pollution that affects the behaviour of animals, the human body and our day-night cycle, as well as causing an unjustifiable waste of energy. Receiving that letter from the ARPAV knocked us for six.
How did you solve the problem?
We immediately lowered the beacon, but that meant it lit only the base of the tower and not the top, which is the finest part. We asked the Municipality to redesign the system, but there were organisational difficulties and not enough funds, so we had to give up. Then, in 2017, when we celebrated the 250th anniversary of the foundation of the Padua Observatory - an event that was important for both us and the history of Italian science generally - we asked the local authorities to work with us and give the Specola Tower a new lighting system.
What were your aims?
We were ambitious: in addition to creating an efficient and economical lighting system, we also wanted to enhance the monument. The Specola is a thirteenth century tower and an important Padua landmark, as it stands right in the heart of the town. It is both a historic building and the home of our active research institute, so hundreds of people go in and out of it every day. For this reason, we decided to set up a small project group, that turned out not to be small at all.
Who else was involved?
The Municipality, obviously; the University of Padua, our “neighbour” and the ARPAV, as the competent inspection body. We also thought it was right and appropriate to involve the AcegasApsAmga, the municipal company that administers public lighting in the town. Then we needed a partner to actually construct the systems, so the Municipality put us in contact with iGuzzini, who were already working on the Scrovegni Chapel. Lastly, it was essential to include the Special Arts, Landscape and Archaeology Heritage Authorities too, as the Specola Tower is part of the Padua Castle complex. Everyone was extremely amenable, enthusiastic in fact, so completing the project was a real pleasure at a human level too.
What difficulties did you encounter?
To be honest, there weren’t any. Right from the start we showed everyone who was involved what we had in mind - what we wanted and we wanted to avoid. It had to be a cultural project and not just a technical one. The winning factor was our design approach: doing things the right way, thinking carefully about them and not simply installing four light points and switching them on.
The new lighting system allows the light colour to be changed for civic events, like festivals, anniversaries or special days for raising awareness of specific issues.
With the old lighting system, at night the tower literally could not be seen in one part of the town. Has the relationship between the local people and the Specola Tower changed?
We unveiled the new lighting system at the end of September 2017, at the Researchers’ Night event, a European initiative that we take part in every year along with the university. About 3500 people came and it was amazing, we never expected such a huge turnout. I believe that in Italy people appreciate projects like ours, when they are presented in the right way. And I still meet people who remember he Researchers’ Night and congratulate me on the lighting system.
Has your experience at the Specola Tower inspired other projects?
Yes, many people have contacted us to find out how the scheme was organised. I don’t know if the Specola project has directly inspired anyone else, but I think it has had a significant impact and I hope it has affected the mentality of public and private administrators. The former manage numerous light points, but a significant part of light pollution is also due to private lighting. For example, in our area, the fear of theft or damage has led to many factory and company forecourts being lit in a way that is exaggerated, scrappy and useless.