Light guides our behavior within a city in many subtle ways. Lights influences our movements and our perceptions and most of the time we don't even notice it. Don Slater, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, studies the relationship between lighting in urban spaces and social practices. Together with Joanne Entwistle and Elettra Bordonaro, he runs the research program Configuring Light / Staging the Social
, that for years has been working with urban communities all over the world to raise the awareness needed to understand, criticize and reimagine the lighting in which we are all immersed. The team collaborated with iGuzzini on the occasion of Social Lightscapes
, a series of workshops in six countries that aimed to explore the role of lighting design in relation to the lives of individuals and communities.
Professor. Slater does not only deal with poor or "difficult" areas, although it is true that the quality of light is often worse in areas that are already disadvantaged. Lighting thus reveals itself as a piece in the mosaic of one of the great social themes of our time, that of inequalities.
Pic taken during the Social Lightscapes Workshops at Acland Burghley, UK
Inequalities in the lighting scheme of public spaces reflect economic inequalities?
It depends on a lot of things. Obviously money is always an issue. However, lighting inequalities both reflect and reproduce wider forms of inequality. A classic example is the way in which housing estates and social housing tend to be treated as problem areas, so they’re simply seen in terms of how there might be a public disorder or crime. They’re therefore marked out as places for surveillance and in that way a place which is already marginalised becomes even worse. The obvious contrast is with heritage centers, commercial centers in inner cities, middle class housing, where the expectation is that there should be atmosphere, there should be luxury, there’s wealth and they’re civilised people who behave themselves.
For those who design public spaces, lighting is not a priority, isn't it?
Lighting is usually way down the list of priorities. They also often know almost nothing about lighting, don’t care, and also see it at best as a purely functional thing.
Don Slater, Associate Professor (Reader) of Sociology at the LSE
Is this the reason why in certain cases light is poorly designed?
There are lots of reasons, but a lot of these come down to people not caring and not understanding lighting. As long as they, as public authorities, seem to be abying by the standards and laws, they feel they’ve done their job. There are a lot of different forms of ignorance about light: the policy maker who doesn’t care or doesn’t have the budget, the resident that knows nothing about light except “its bright” or “it’s dim”… lighting is a bizarre material because it’s everywhere and yet people understand very little about it. It's really quite a long process to get people to start thinking about these things and to have a language associated with it. We wonder in our group what is the basis for having politics for light.
In which sense is this a political theme?
A major issue in technology is just to open up spaces in which people can identify issues and debate them. We do it with things like genetically modified food or the trade in human body parts, a whole range of drugs, materials and technology in everyday life which have very complex politics around them. Light does not, and yet it is a very important material and a very important technology. However, it hasn't really produced the level of controversy that you would expect. Politics is also how we get people to actually respect places enough to learn about them and then do the lighting
Pic taken during the Social Lightscapes Workshops in Muscat, Oman
I was doing research in southern India, in Kerala, in an informal settlement, a very, very poor settlement, and I interviewed someone from the city and he proudly showed me a whole bunch of standards for lighting which would be used to develop what he called smart lighting in Kerala. I asked “where did you get these standards?”, he said from Delhi, I asked “where did they get it from?”, and they got it from Switzerland, and we then explored how these lighting standards had nothing to do with the kind of space we were actually looking at. They presumed certain kinds of streets that didn’t exist in the settlement, certain kinds of vehicles that couldn’t get in the settlement.
Pic taken during the Social Lightscapes Workshops in Paris, France
There is an interesting thing going on in London at the moment: the Greater London Council produced a major 500-page London plan, governing the development of London up to 2030, and the lighting community is just furious because in those 500 pages there are only 6 mentions of light. Three of those are about the lighting of local football pitches and parks, what time should they be turned off. We’re all saying “hang on a second, in a city like London shouldn’t public authorities think a little bit more about the ways in which public space is configured for half the day?” that’s generating quite a public controversy, and I think its growing. it’s become a bit of a political issue
How do people need to be included in the designing phase for a space?
Social research is about going out to actively find out about an issue, in our case, people’s use of city spaces. We interview people, we try as far as possible to interview people in situ, actually walking down the streets with them to see what they are doing, to prompt them to tell us stories about their use of light, to see what they notice, sometimes about lighting, sometimes we talk about light only at the very end and we just talk about how does it feel to walk down the street, how and when and if they do. We also do a lot of photo documentation, actually taking photos of whole areas at different times. We do a lot of observation also just hanging out in spaces, seeing who is there, finding out who is not there, which is often the most important thing, and why.