THE NEW YORKER: OOne of Bill de Blasio’s first acts as Mayor, in 2014, was to bring a hundred and fifty high-intensity floodlights to fifteen public-housing developments that had some of the highest rates of violent crime, as part of an N.Y.P.D. strategy called “Omnipresence.” The installations, he said, would “light up the areas that have previously been obscure and problematic, and make it easier for the N.Y.P.D. to do its job.” In 2016, the Mayor’s office, the New York City Housing Authority, and the N.Y.P.D. deployed additional lights at forty public-housing developments across the city. An assessment by social scientists at the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, over a six-month period, “the provision of street lights led, at a minimum, to a 36 percent reduction in nighttime outdoor index crimes,” including assault, robbery, and motor-vehicle theft. The data were in; the lights were here to stay, and the city would install more.
For the filmmaker Nadia Hallgren
, who grew up in the Bronx, the impact of the lights on crime is not the entire story. “In my work, I think a lot about the way lights affect us,” she told me recently. “What’s the color temperature? What’s the intensity? What associations does it conjure?” Like the young woman at the center of her documentary, Hallgren is ambivalent about the nycha floodlamps. “I appreciate a well-lit street as much as anybody,” Hallgren said, “but that white-hot light puts me in mind of a hospital or a military zone, something either sterile or dangerous.” Hallgren filmed at night, at Edenwald Houses, the largest nycha complex in the Bronx. Every outdoor shot is bright as day, but the film crew did not need lighting of its own; the scenes were illuminated by the candescence of the surveillance lights.
New Yorkers value well-designed and functional street lighting. Between 2010 and 2016, lamppost outages were the third-most common complaint logged in the city’s 311 system. But, in propping up big, noisy, diesel-powered light towers across nycha developments, the city has not only implemented a safety policy but also made an aesthetic choice. Buried in the forty-five-page N.B.E.R. working paper is a single sentence providing rationale for that aesthetic: because the flood lamps “are not a natural feature of the urban landscape, the intervention may fold in substantial demonstration effects that may not accrue from a more organic intervention.” In plain English: the gentle, warm street lighting in affluent neighborhoods may not be as effective in deterring crime as the abrasive glow cast over the city’s poor might be. A strange claim to make, since the city did not test a “more organic intervention” in a single public-housing development.
The N.B.E.R. paper variously describes the nycha floodlights as “low-cost,” “cost-effective,” and “cost-beneficial.” One wonders whether residents of Chelsea or Boerum Hill would put up with cost-effective street lights that shine directly into their windows. “In a wealthy community, you make a complaint and it gets taken care of the next day,” Hallgren said. “Here, the lights beam into children’s bedrooms, and the noise from the generator is really loud, and people can’t sleep—and no one cares.” Each tower emits some six hundred thousand lumens, or about two hundred times the brightness of a car headlight. (The Center for Victims of Torture considers “sensory over-stimulation”—including “powerful lights” and “constant noise”—a form of torture.)
Not long after the first light towers rolled in, physicians at the American Medical Association issued guidelines concerning “the detrimental effects of poorly-designed, high-intensity LED lighting,” noting that “brighter residential nighttime lighting is associated with reduced sleep times, dissatisfaction with sleep quality, excessive sleepiness, impaired daytime functioning and obesity.” The color temperature of light, from invitingly warm to daylight crisp, is expressed in Kelvin. The physicians warned that outdoor lighting should not exceed three thousand kelvins, far below the color temperature to which many nycha residents are subjected. Moreover, if the lights project onto traffic, the “discomfort and disability glare can decrease visual acuity, decreasing safety and creating a road hazard.” The A.M.A.’s overarching recommendation to policymakers: reduce high-intensity streetlights in residential neighborhoods.
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