Lessons from Sandy: Tactics for Lighting Cities Without Electricity

The blackout after Hurricane Sandy showed New Yorkers the way their perception of their surroundings was affected by lights.

The recent hurricane-induced blackout, and the loss of light — both in our homes and in our permanent street lighting system — plunged us into a chaotic and unpredictable environment. It was, at an emotional level, frightening, bewildering, and incredibly stressful. Indoors, it created inconvenience (where are my clothes? where are the kids’ toys?), danger (where are my pills?, how do I manage 18 flights of stairs in the dark?), and the disruption of habitual activities that focus our evenings (cooking, reading, playing games). Outdoors, the looming darkness escalated anxiety. We feared stumbling, bumping into walls; falling into manholes; that a car or cyclist might hit us; loss of orientation (what street am I on?). We feared strangers. And then there was the loss of what I call “glow.” It’s the social experience of light: I see you, you see me, look at everyone around us. “Glow” provides comfort and ease as we go about our nighttime routines amid the delights and enchantments a city offers, abuzz and alive after dark.

When a street lighting system goes down, we may not be able to replace each element, but we can look for useful and imaginative responses that might ease some of our very real ‘functional’ fears, and bring back some of the social dimensions of light. We might consider the blackout as a time machine transporting us back to a Dark Age before we were so dependent on technologies that we can’t personally control. We forget that, for all but a recent moment in human history, we have, as a species, lived without a state-supplied artificial light system. Yet at night we maneuvered around our homes, negotiated stairs, went outside and navigated pathways.  We traveled across counties, indeed, entire countries, and explored all the continents available to explore, using the technologies we had at hand, harvesting the potential of starlight, the Milky Way, and the moon.


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We need to mine this Dark Age technology, not just because another blackout might occur, but because it helps us to imagine other less electric alternatives for a future in which we may well want to use less light.  So here are a few simple principles gleaned from a review of pre-industrial cutting edge technology. “White has a tendency to make things visible,” according to painter Robert Ryman.  Our ancestors used white chalk and paint to mark the sides of pathways. They painted stones by the edge of the water to denote the danger line. Whitewashed tree bases acted as sign posts; piles of chalk caught the moonlight and Milky Way and amplified the effects of hand-held lanterns.


Piles of chalky soil glowed in the moonlight and served as wayfinders.


We painted stones at water’s edge to catch stray light, so we could see boundaries.


Tree trunks painted white became road markers.

Nowadays we don’t have to mix chalk and lime; we can use new highly reflective paints, indoors, to call attention to entryways, stair edges, and sills. Outdoors, these same reflecting paints, or a cutting edge version containing phosphorous, can mark curbs, curb cuts, manholes and vertical elements such as lamp- and sign posts. We can apply shiny paints to the undersides of passageways and bridges. Every bike should be painted in reflective paint (some already are).   While we need to increase light in the biking environment, it is better placed on the cyclist (in wearable LED strings, or clearly visible clothing) and at key intersections, rather than trying to develop a new bicycle lighting system. Beacons mounted high up as signaling devices have historically been fundamental for orientation and safety.  Contemporary solar-powered beacon lights, using low-wattage, high-output LEDs, may be added to the streetscape and to street lamps themselves. Though not a replacement for electric lights, they can have a forceful presence when other light sources are inactive or on low settings to save on power consumption. This year on Halloween, costumed children carried illuminated pumpkins and sported wings implanted with LEDs. These small lights traveling along with them provided enchantment and relaxation for all of us who trooped alongside, undaunted by the blackout. Our differing experiences of the night — those who were fearful on darkened streets, vs. those enjoying the magical atmosphere conjured by the trick-or-treaters, raised the question: Why aren’t we all carrying lanterns? Somewhere along the historical way adult Americans stopped using lanterns and switched to flashlights.


Early lanterns were hollowed-out turnips illuminated with a drop of burning oil.

Flashlights have their uses; they are great for preventing stumbling on a mountain path, and help us find keys in the dark. But as a tool for social life, flashlights are no replacement for lanterns: no “glow,” no ambiance, no warmth. A flashlight lets me see you, but you can’t see me. It works as a policing strategy, but we need lanterns to create a social environment. Lanterns’ soft balls of light (LED driven, solar or battery powered) held in the hand, raised on a pole, hung over a doorway or strung in multiples across a street, capture faces and illuminate the carriers in groups of two or three or fifty at a time. They create the spaces for us to see each other when we really need to.  And a social environment — one that “glows” and enchants –is the best antidote to fear. White paint, reflective surfaces, beacons and lanterns: Small lessons from the time machine that create ease of movement in the dark may just illuminate our thinking of a new urban system that uses less light without sacrificing utility or delight.

Linnaea Tillett, Ph.D., IESNA is an environmental psychologist and lighting designer.  She is principal of Tillett Lighting, lighting consultants for waterfront landscapes, infrastructure, parks, public art, and private interiors.

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