The Ryerson Astronomical Society at the University of Chicago is petitioning the University Administration to rethink its campus lighting strategy because the current outdoor lighting is inadequate and ineffective. This page explains why you should care about this issue and why you should sign the petition.
What is light pollution, and why is there so much light pollution on campus?
Light pollution is a term that describes stray light that does not accomplish its intended purpose. Much of our light pollution here on campus is caused by poorly-designed and poorly-implemented outdoor lighting fixtures. The light from these fixtures pours straight up into the sky or glares into people's eyes as they walk through campus, negatively affecting our observatory on the roof of Ryerson, wasting enormous amounts of energy, and diminishing nighttime safety on campus.
During the past year, the University installed a set of 40 new 200-watt wall-washer lights that illuminate the sides of buildings on the quads. We estimate that about 30% of the light from these fixtures misses the buildings entirely, pouring into the sky. Additionally, because they are not properly shielded, they produce a horrendous glare for passing pedestrians, which makes it harder to see at night on campus. Although the Administration intends these lights to increase campus safety, their glare and intense brightness means that they actually do exactly the opposite.
Additionally, much of the rest of the outdoor lighting fixture on campus cause significant light pollution because they are poorly designed. The quad lanterns and the lollipop fixtures outside the Regenstein Library shine over half of their light upwards and directly outwards on all sides into the eyes of passersby, instead of down towards the ground.
Why should I care that there is light pollution on campus?
Light pollution is bad for astronomy
Since the University has installed the new wall-washer lights on the quads, our observatory has been noticeably affected. It has become harder and harder to see all but the brightest objects in the night sky, and even what we can see looks much less spectacular than it used to. Our weekly observing sessions are less enjoyable and less educational because of light pollution.
One might think that because the city of Chicago is so bright, a little extra light on campus wouldn't hurt our observatory on the roof of Ryerson significantly. However, because light intensity falls off as the inverse square of the distance from the light source, lights extremely close to an observatory cause the much more damage than lights farther away.
Light pollution is bad for the environment
Poorly designed lighting wastes an enormous amount of energy. Our club estimates that the University wastes about $40,000 per year or 400,000 kWh/year with light that simply shine into the sky. For comparison, the Green Campus Initiative's Battle of the Bulbs has challenged Burton-Judson Dorm to reduce its weekly energy usage by 10%. If the dorm were to meet this goal every week for the whole year, it would save only about 100,000 kWh, four times less energy than the amount that could be saved by using less wasteful outdoor lighting on campus. Energy is a precious commodity, and with the threat of global warming, such wastefulness must not be allowed.
Light pollution is bad for your safety
Poorly designed lighting threatens your safety at night because glare and contrasting light levels make it more difficult to see. The human eye cannot adjust quickly between sharply contrasting levels of brightness and darkness, and although it can deal with a huge range of brightness (an object in bright sunlight may be one million times brighter than a perfectly visible but dimly-lit object at night), it cannot do so at the same time. At any given moment, your eye can only handle light levels that differ by a factor of 1000.
Light/dark contrast makes a huge difference in lighting quality, and because some parts of campus are overly lit, other areas appear very dark. The new wall washer lights on the quads force your eyes to adjust to their incredible brightness. Consequently, because of your eyes' natural limitations, you lose the ability to process information from relatively darker areas that previously seemed adequately lit. Dim but even lighting is much more effective than having some areas lit very brightly.
Additionally, lights on campus create a lot of glare. The powerful 200-watt bulbs on the new wall-washer lights are visible from many points on the quads, and the glare is utterly blinding. If you cannot see properly, you cannot be safe walking at night. It becomes that much easier to slip on a patch of ice, and it would be nearly impossible to see a mugger approaching from the direction of the light.
How can the University reduce light pollution on campus?
The University can reduce light pollution by adopting a better lighting strategy. They should replace the lights that point upwards and outwards with lights that are properly aimed and shielded and point downwards toward the ground. They should carefully place the lights so that they light only the areas that need to be lit and they do so evenly and without glare.
Unfortunately, the University has recently made a very poor decision in installing the new wall-washer lights on the quads. If the University is as concerned about its students' safety as it claims to be, the Administration desperately needs to rethink its lighting strategy.
If you care about astronomy or the environment, and, most importantly, if you care about your safety on campus, please sign our petition urging the University to adopt a better lighting plan that reduces light pollution. Sign the Petition!