The city, today, extends itself beyond the physical borders to become a perceptual, communicative, relational and social interactive landscape: the urban space is a mix of perceptions, gestures and events that urban lighting celebrates shaping the perception of the individual experience of the night and the relationship between inhabitants and the urban space. The design of urban nightlife has recently gained a major importance, both due to the change in night lifestyle of public spaces and also for the development of the night image of the city from a social and economic point of view. As a consequence, also the design process is searching a deeper quality in order to reflect more about the relationship between man and the city with tools and methods of social studies, behavioral science and environmental psychology [1]. This multidisciplinary approach, based on the centrality of the individual and his relationship with the city, wants to limit the risk of a kind urban lighting design that takes  into account only the technology through the imposition of the pole and standardized functional light that obscures the inner meanings of urban development focusing mainly on energy saving. Since light is primarily intended for people of the city, a project of light should focus on other meanings such as:

• Communication, encoding messages, supporting information and simplifying the reading of the space with a cognitive, aesthetic and symbolic role[2].

•Ambiance, redefines the image and identity and contributes to the overall aesthetic quality of the area by acting actively on the meaning of “urban beautification”, “pleasantness” and “amenity” [3].

 • Social Connection, the city returns to collective use and enjoyment to a participatory interactive, immersive and experiential phenomena; rebuild relations of trust between individuals and from the space city [4].

The social role of the lighting designer

The lighting design of the urban space must therefore focus on the specificity of places and the centrality of the user (needs, perceptions, activities, behaviors), from a macroscopic investigation (lighting masterplan) to a  survey of micro-city environments or contexts of study in human scale. This bottom-up perspective is crucial to understand the relationship between the residents and the city itself. An environment can be defined by physical properties but also psychological and symbolic ones that are often conflicting and divergent with respect to functionality and the physical state  of the city. The observed environment is not necessarily the seen one but more often it is the perceived one by each individuals through the lens of expectations, affections and desires: these individual divergent points of view and individual, can be much more significant in changing the use of city space compared to the real physical features. [5] For this reason, the designer must assume a social role before being a creative artifex: the aim is to playing as an the inhabitant of the city, going down to the street and observing closely the physical and socio-relational space, involving also the communities into the project. The lighting designer should become a:

• Flaneur, the observer who, wandering through the city, investigates the urban space and lighting systems throughout history and examines the relationship between spaces, functions, activities and behaviors. This is focused on understanding the evolution and the correlation between the morphology of the context and activities, habits, needs and expectations of city’s  inhabitants. [6]

• Social Engineer, a social technician that analyzes the affective, perceptual, cognitive and behavioral relationship between people and places [7] or the degree of perceived knowledge of the place and the emotional reaction aroused in people in order to determines behaviors. Particularly interesting, in this preliminary investigation, is the direct involvement of micro-urban communities in the diagnostic light of their own space: the citizen are motivated to incorporate the environment into a more conscious way, and they are called to become more aware of their perceptions for contributing  to the improvement of active and reflective quality of life in urban space. [8]

An experiment of mediated involvement to urban lighting: ELSE

Participation in the project view of the city can be “mediated” or include the use of questionnaires, interviews and collection mechanisms of perceptions, emotions, and evaluations of people: an example is ELSE, Experience of Lighting  Sustainability in the Environment. This is a first experiment in social research whose goal is to understand the social and experiential impact of light in the city, or what are the visual, perceptual and emotional effect enhanced by different several lighting scenarios of urban space and how they act on the environmental experience of an individual or on his behavior and his relationship to the cognitive space.


 ELSE questionnaire on lighting Urban Active participation in mediated online

ELSE questions the relationship between man, environment and urban lighting in order to understand how light can not only change the space and human behavior, but define new expectations and values in relation to urban space: in short, create a new culture of the city. ELSE investigates the new possible emerging strategies of human scale lighting of the city: a stimulating and socially enhancing kind of lighting not only can define a new set of behaviors, such as the incentive to get out and meet  people in the nocturnal city, but also it can create a new dialectical relationship between man and the city.

The research, in the form of a questionnaire to a wide international audience is available online [9] and wants to include evaluation and expectation with respect to the performance of public lighting: what are the preferred scenarios and considered more attractive by observers and what attributes enlightenment are associated with them? How can you define the actual sustainability of urban lighting?

Whether the topic of research is the method of investigation have raised interest and a good participation especially at the national scale: a first partial processing of data of about 150 observers, there is a general interest in the socio-cultural value of illumination of the city, an increasing need for interaction, participation and socialization through lighting settings that are not only functional but are less structured and more aimed  to “customize” and humanize the city through energy-efficient systems.

Conclusions and future steps

The research about the contemporary lighting of the city questions the need of a lighting design process customized for the city shaped by the people living in the spaces, and not for the one designed according to the directives of the authorities and regulations: what new knowledge, tools and methods are required by  the designer of the light? According to the several scholars, the time is mature to start a new reflective  approach toward lighting projects starting from the observation of the city through the eyes of its inhabitants, comprehending the character and investigating the perceived and actual needs of urban microenvironments in order to promote  innovative design through a shared and plural, interdisciplinary and active process around the theme of light. A social and participatory approach to design is certainly more complex and challenging than a simple process of lighting design without any contribution from the bottom side of the city. Conversely, there are several easier and participative ways that can be used in order to achieve a mediate participation through virtual tools such as ELSE. This first approach of investigation provides a preliminary base of discussion of some aspects of lighting that are particularly significant and interesting in the experience of people in order to deep the  reflection for a more complete mapping of the urban night-light experience.  This approach, useful for the construction of a set of guidelines or design criteria, needs a second deeper participative and direct experience of urban lighting , inviting designers, citizens, public administrations to take an active part in design a more sustainable and social related urban lighting.


[1] Bordonaro, E., Aghemo, C. (2006), An environmental psychology approach to urban lighting, International Conference Proceedings (2006), The Urban Nightscape 2006 International Conference, Atene, Grecia

[2] Kepes, G. (1966) Light as a creative medium, in Arts and Architecture, October 1966

[3] Raynham, P. (2007) Public Lighting in Cities. International Conference Illuminat 2007. Cluj-Napoca, Romania. 2007

[4] Tillet, L. (2011) Grounding Practice: Speculations on Affect and Environment, PLDC Madrid, Ottobre 2011

[5] Burkahardt, F. (1998) Editoriale, Uno spazio comune, Domus 802 Marzo 1998

[6] Tester, K., (1994) The Flaneur, Routledge, 1994

[7] Amendola,  G. (2009) Il progettista riflessivo, Scienze sociali e progettazione architettonica, Laterza, 2009

[8] Bonaiuto M., Fornara F. (2003), La consulenza psicologico-ambientale nella progettazione architettonica: due casi studio, in A.M. Nenci (a cura di), Profili di ricerca e intervento psicologico sociale nella gestione ambientale, FrancoAngeli, Milano, 2003

[9] ELSE, Environmental Lighting Sustainability in the urban Environment,, accesso al sito il 13/02/2011

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s