Lights Out For Darker Skies: Is Liverpool Too Illuminated?

Liverpool City Centre 1

My God. It’s full of stars. Well, it is if you get yourself out of the glare of downtown. And, last week, wasn’t the moon looking amazing? It’s on the wane now, but there’s still the perplexing matter of that bright star in the east, beckoning us to follow it.

Save your Ugg leather. You’d have to walk 630 million miles: to Jupiter. For that’s the culprit – shining its seasonal light on our back gardens and city parks.

We mention this because it takes a particularly bright object to punch through the perma-glow of our city.

Liverpool is getting lighter. You might not have realised it, but this month sees the completion of a five year lighting strategy: we’ve spent £2.5 million making Liverpool one of ‘Europe’s Lit Cities’ (whatever that means) and, in turn, blocking out our view of the heavens.

The five year plan has seen Liverpool lighting designers Graham Festenstein and Sutton Vane, with Liverpool Vision, work on a major lighting programme to illuminate of 60 of our most important buildings, including both cathedrals and the Town Hall, and new schemes such as the Pier Head.

The strategy was developed ahead of Capital of Culture and UNESCO, but it’s continued until this winter with the Pier Head, monuments, notable buildings along Dale, Castle and Water street, and Liverpool ONE all in the spotlight. Literally.

The aim? To make a brighter, safer, richer city.

At the time, the Northwest Development Agency, which contributed part of the funding, said that illuminating the city’s waterfront and cultural buildings would ‘significantly transform the view of the city at night’ bringing in both visitors and business – and adding £3.5million a year to the city’s economy.

How the bejeezus do they arrive at figures like this? We’ll never know, now that they’ve turned the lights off, permanently, at the extravagant NWDA HQ in a field, just outside Warrington.

‘It’s an innovative scheme which celebrates one of Liverpool’s greatest assets: its architecture,’ the NWDA’s Paul Lakin said at its big switch on.

The programme’s aims, to create a cluster of ‘beacons’ around the city centre, sat at odds with the Council’s other promise: to tackle Liverpool’s light pollution levels – which are among the highest in the country.

“The control of glare and light spill are essential criteria with any lighting scheme,” Liverpool Vision said of the strategy. “Schemes are designed so that lights, when properly focused, keep pollution and unwanted light spill to a minimum.”

The Council also, wisely, objected to the use of coloured lights: preferring to stick to white light. The principle aim was to draw subtle focus towards certain architectural features. Colour, control and life expectancy were controlled by ‘state of the art’ tech.

But the combined exposure of these million new spotlights (not to mention Europe’s biggest digital screen, at Lime Street) has left us, as a city, as over-exposed as Harry Styles in Heat.

Liverpool, of late, has been floodlit with new commercial developments, their orange sodium glare and fluorescent shimmer casting a phosphorescent glow over the sleeping city. Every new hotel, late night gym, midnight Tesco and 24 hour car-park a scorched cube exposing everything within 50 yards.

A walk back from the Echo Arena the other night showed Liverpool to be as multi-coloured and dazzling as Blackpool illuminations (and we’re not talking about the Christmas lights – but the year round glow of the Hilton, Chaopraya, One Park West and the Hilton tower.)

In fact, in its own promotional material, Liverpool ONE’s lighting engineers, BDP Lighting boasts:

“The Galleria lift (in Chavasse Park) has a glowing light feature integrated into the top and bottom of the glazing with coloured lighting mounted onto the lift cars to provide animation and an eruption of light.”

When it signed up to the Campaign For Dark Skies’ drive to lower the amount of light pollution in our cities, Liverpool committed to invest in full ‘cut-off’ lighting (lights designed not to glare out horizontally) and to remove all unwanted lights in unused buildings. Take a look around next time you’re out after dark, and count the empty buildings: their lights illuminating no-one.

Light pollution and light trespass mightn’t be as sexy an issue for Councillor Munby and his noise police, but it is an issue: studies show all this useless light can affect our Circadian rhythms, and have a noticeable effect on our sleep, our mood and our health.

And as for the stars, you can forget all about them. Take a look at this ingenious online light pollution meter – punch in your home, and see the stars go out.

This summer Cumbria and rural Lancashire saw a dazzling display of the Northern Lights – as did parts of Derbyshire, south from here. We’d have seen it too, if we’d not installed our own constellation of lights over the past half decade.

With concentrations of new lighting in key zones from The Waterfront to The Cultural Quarter, The Commercial District to Hope Street, and with landmark new lighting schemes at Liverpool University’s Active Learning Lab, and Port of Liverpool building, the future’s bright. The future’s orange.

It’s true – we need more light. Liverpool is now a late night city. Liverpool ONE blazes until 9pm – later if you count the entertainment options. But have we, caught like rabbits in the headlights, lost sight of the role lighting should play in our city?

Paris knows how to do illumination – pinpointing out only the very best. The Eiffel tower, the Louvre, the Arc d’Triomphe glowing beacons against the dark matter of the city.

Do we really have 60 buildings that demand to bask in their own hi-watt glory? Surely, if you shine a spotlight on everything, nothing stands out at all? Liverpool – have you gone a touch over the top, under the sunlamp?

Wouldn’t it be great if we genuinely had just the one Light Night every year?

In the meantime, to show you what you’re missing, try this brilliant (sic) astronomical online advent calendar – a deep space shot every day. Gorgeous.

  • g.hodge

    why not turn off the street lights too,lovely buildings should be lit up and shown off. if you want dark skies go to the countryside,if you want city lights go to the city.

  • david

    Not saying turn them off. Just use them with care – point them directionally, not glaring out to the side and above.

  • paul

    Totally agree far too over the top where lights are concerned.That Led screen at Lime street needs sorting out. I live on Breck Road and you can see the glare from it light up the sky from my bedroom window

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David Lloyd

    Yeah, that’s a hazard to traffic as well – especially when they’re showing film trailers with explosions and stuff!

  • DocDaneeka

    While I do agree there is a far too much light pollution but focusing on the tiny amount of architectural lighting is like me blaming Joe Anderson for pot holes in Dale street because he’s over weight. Street lighting and offices with permentantly on lighting are a much greater cause of light pollution than a few buildings in the city centre an area which will never actually be dark in any city. Do agree about that god awful screen at Lime st though.
    Oh and why is that when an NWDA funded project like this is disliked its their project and when all goes well (or indeed when they have to step in and rescue it from the kak handed council like Capital of Culture) their role is immediately ignored. In general NWDA merely funded project like this architectural lighting which was submitted to them. The blame lies with the applicant in this case the council or TMP.

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David Lloyd

    Yeah, a valid point, but I do wonder about the general trend more than the specifics. And are you *absolutely* sure there’s no connection between our Mayor’s ample girth and the potholes?