Bright Lights, Big City

Helsinki—a place that sees just three hours of daylight in winter—embarks on a lighting plan for the entire city.

With the city government’s approval last June, Helsinki became the first place in the world to institute a lighting plan for an entire urban area. Many municipalities have guidelines for downtown or other special sites, but overseeing the lighting of public spaces, streets, and buildings all the way to the city limits is more ambitious. Accordingly the plan will take 15 to 20 years to implement. It is now a conceptual framework based on three years of research by a group that included members of the planning, building control, and public works departments, and Helsinki Energy. “All lighting issues have been handled by different city departments up to now,” says Annukka Lindroos, the planner who chaired the project. “By working together we’re going to have better tools and make better decisions.”

The initiative got kick-started in 2000 when the local utility created 40 special lighting installations to celebrate Helsinki’s designation as a European City of Culture. The projects were so well received that public officials pushed for a citywide program. The plan identifies 13 zoning types within the districts (designated in Helsinki’s 2002 master plan) that will each be treated distinctively. Those principles will be applied to new neighborhoods as they are constructed and older ones as they need repair. Jätkäsaari—a mixed-use development that will replace an industrial harbor downtown beginning in 2008—is the first new neighborhood where lighting specialists will be brought in to help determine exactly what fixtures are needed.

Ambitious as the plan may be, Lindroos insists it doesn’t have to be expensive. “There is no need for more light but for more planning.” Nor does she imagine a city ablaze. “If you look carefully, you will see there are also areas that are supposed to be dark,” she says. “We wanted people to be able to see the sky. We thought that if we had the lighting well planned around good ideas, we could turn that darkness into power.”

The plan looks to lighting not only for the utilitarian functions of safety and visibility but also as an opportunity to improve the urban fabric. It will require hardware that looks beautiful during the day and improves lackluster parts of town at night. “We’re able to emphasize certain things or change their appearance with light,” Lindroos says. “A dull building changes totally because of the way it is lit.”

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