Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

What Are the Practicalities of Improving Lighting?

You will face a number of difficulties in trying to improve street lighting; the more ambitious your project, the greater these difficulties will be. Trimming bushes so that lights are more efficient and replacing damaged or dysfunctional lamps will usually be straightforward, but upgrading the lighting for an entire neighborhood will entail much more difficulty. You will have to grapple with cost issues, technical issues relating to different kinds of lighting, municipal regulatory and zoning schemes, and various objections raised by residents.

How Much Will It Cost and Who Will Pay?

Cost issues will depend upon who has the responsibility for installing, maintaining, and paying for lighting in the area. Many or most municipalities are responsible for street lighting, which is expected to meet citywide standards in different neighborhoods or districts. In these cases, you will be relieved of the need to understand most of the complex technical, financial, and logistical issues of upgrading the lighting. The same is likely to be true if your area is a public housing project, because physical conditions for U.S. Housing and Urban Development properties must comply with state and local codes.

Whatever the regulations governing street lighting, you will still need to work closely with city officials and engineers to persuade them of the need to upgrade the lighting in your neighborhood, or at least to accord priority to the neighborhood. You will need to advise the engineers of the particular places that need special lighting or lighting of a particular kind, although you will need to recognize that—even with the best will in the world—engineers will be limited by lighting standards and budgets in what they can do: they have a delicate balancing act to perform in providing adequate lighting at minimum financial and social cost. Financial decisions must weigh the costs of installation, maintenance, and electricity. The long-term costs of electricity are especially important at a time when some smaller towns are reportedly dimming sections of their streetlights in the face of rising costs and the pressure to be energy efficient.8 Social costs include the unwelcome effects of glare, light trespass, and light pollution, which vary with different kinds of lighting (see below).

† A variety of state and federal programs exist that provide funds for qualifying street lighting projects within cities and municipalities, especially for projects that improve energy efficiency (see NYSERDA, 2002). Your help in identifying these sources might be needed.

You will also have to play a part in keeping the project on track. You should monitor progress closely during the approval and implementation stages, remembering that you can play an important role as liaison between the municipality and the utility company to ensure that unnecessary delays are avoided. However hard you work, you should be prepared for many months to elapse before the project is complete.

The problems might be different, but equally difficult, if your area is located in a suburban or predominantly rural area. In these areas, utility companies sometimes own and maintain the street lighting and under certain budgetary conditions might pay the initial cost of renewal or improvement of the street lighting. In some cases, they might be able to recover the cost from the municipality, but in others they might have to charge residents. This was the case in the Crime Light Partners project described earlier. As in that project, the main difficulty lies in obtaining the agreement of residents to pay for the improved lighting—a difficulty that can be particularly acute in deprived and rundown neighborhoods where lighting has never been adequate or where it has severely deteriorated.

Selecting Appropriate Lighting

As a police officer, you cannot be expected to know what specific type of lighting improvements are needed, nor can you be expected to know all the various standards and requirements of street lighting. But you will be able to communicate better with utility companies and the local engineering department if you have some basic understanding of lighting types and their properties. These are described below.

  1. Lamp types or bulbs: There are six main kinds of lamps (see Table 3), which vary in their initial costs, how long they last, how energy efficient they are, and how well they render color (i.e., the effect of the light produced by the lamp on the perceived color of objects being viewed). Your local utility companies might not supply all these types of bulbs.

    † For fuller information on lamp types, see NYSERDA (2002b).

Table 3: Common Street Lighting Lamp Types

Lamp type Properties
Incandescent (bulbs) Very energy inefficient, short life
Mercury Vapor (MV) Energy inefficient, longer life
High Pressure Sodium (HPS) Energy efficient but virtually no color rendering (orange glow)
Low Pressure Sodium (LPS) Very energy efficient, but only limited color rendering
Metal Halide Energy efficient and good color rendering, especially pulse start or ceramic metal types
Fluorescent Energy efficient and good color quality, but poor optical control

Source: Adapted from NYSERDA (2002a)

  1. Color rendering: Color rendering refers to the effect of light on the perceived color of objects. Good color rendering means that most colors are easily distinguishable and is particularly important when color video cameras are in use. Color rendering should be distinguished from color appearance, which refers to the color of the lamp itself.
  2. Optical control or lighting cut-offs: Optical control refers to the light distribution of different lighting fixtures, of which there are four main types.
    • Non-cutoff optics, typically globes, allow light to be emitted in all directions. Many decorative fixtures are of this type. They are effective at throwing light up into trees, not onto the ground, and they create a large amount of light pollution and glare.
    • Semi-cutoff optics are commonly used in cobra-head style street lighting. They allow most of the light to shine on the ground, but some light is thrown upwards. There is significant glare from these fixtures, but they are often mounted on taller poles to reduce the ill-effects of glare.
    • Cutoff optics are typically rectangular in shape and produce more controlled lighting than semi-cutoff: less than 2.5 percent of the light is allowed to escape upwards. They offer a wider spread of light than a full-cutoff and are commonly used in parking lots where greater spacing between poles is desirable.
    • Full-cutoff optics put light on the ground in a defined, tight pattern; they do not emit any light upwards. To achieve uniformity of lighting, more of these fixtures must be used, or they must be mounted higher off the ground.
  3. Brightness of lighting: Lighting engineers measure either the brightness (luminance) or quantity (illuminance) of light at the illuminated object (e.g., the ground) and also the light emitted from the source (i.e., the lamp).
    • Candlepower is the luminous intensity of a source of light in a given direction. Now expressed in candelas, it was formerly measured in terms of the international candle.
    • Lumens are the metric unit of luminous flux, i.e., the time rate of flow of light from a lamp.
    • Foot-candles are a measurement of the light falling on a specified surface (e.g., the ground). This is illuminance in lumens per square foot.
    • Lux is the metric equivalent of foot-candles: lumens per square meter.
    • Candelas (per square foot or per square meter) is a measurement of brightness or luminance.
  4. Pole spacing and height of lights: It should be clear from the above that the cutoff properties of different light fixtures will partly determine the number and height of street lighting poles that are needed to illuminate a given area. This in turn has implications for costs and for glare, light trespass, and light pollution (see below).
  5. Vertical illumination: Vertical illumination is the measure of light delivered at a sufficient height from the ground so that people can see the faces of other pedestrians. Areas suffering from high levels of street crime and robbery benefit from high values of vertical illuminance.  
  6. Glare, light trespass, and light pollution: Glare, trespass, and pollution are potential dangers from increased lighting. However, careful selection and design of street lighting can minimize their effects.
    • Glare: A well-designed street lighting system directs light to the road surface and pedestrian areas, but not into the eyes of motorists and pedestrians. Glare can be minimized through proper fixture selection, pole placement, and light source selection.
    • Light Trespass: Unwanted trespass of light falling onto adjacent properties can lead to complaints from residents. An effective system limits streetlights from shining light where it is unwanted, such as into windows on private property.
    • Light pollution: Light pollution is defined as unwanted light in the atmosphere that contributes to sky glow. Many localities and states have passed laws to minimize light pollution, and many more laws are pending. Full cutoff fixtures that only direct light downwards to the ground have become popular, although careful design is required to minimize the amount of light reflected off the ground and into the sky (see box).
Outdoore Lighting Fixture

Dealing With Objections Raised by Residents and Others

Improvements in street lighting are much less controversial than are some other crime prevention measures covered in the Response Guides series, such as street closures9 or the installation of video surveillance cameras or CCTV.10 However, a fact of human nature is that we resist change, and thus even improvements in street lighting—which carry many benefits—will be resisted by some community members and public officials.

Residents in your neighborhood. You should expect some neighborhood residents to oppose proposed improvements to street lighting, especially if they are expected to contribute to the cost. But you can also expect a variety of other objections. Some residents might be concerned about glare, light trespass, and light pollution, particularly if a streetlight is to be installed close to their homes. Some might be concerned about the disruption, dirt, and inconvenience that will result from the installation. Others might complain that improvements in lighting are being used as an unsatisfactory alternative to increased police patrols. Yet others might see the improved lighting as a stigmatization of their neighborhood. Finally, some residents involved in street drug dealing might regard the lighting improvements as an effort by officials to disrupt their livelihood. For obvious reasons, this concern will not be voiced, but it might underlie opposition based on other grounds.

† In some instances, new lights are shot out by drug dealers or vandals. Shields to guard lights from gunshots can be purchased.

Dealing with these and other resident concerns is an essential part of consensus building and an essential aspect of your community policing role. You can try to do this through town meetings, one-on-one discussions with residents, meetings with local elected officials, and interviews with the media. Even if the worries seem exaggerated, you must take them seriously and address them directly. You can be helped in this by the neighborhood residents association (if one exists), but expect the process to be time consuming. You might need to meet many times with the association leaders and other community leaders. These and other meetings should be open to all residents.

Without a residents' association, obtaining a general agreement can be even more difficult, as there is likely to be no one group or person who is empowered to make community decisions. You might find local elected politicians helpful, but beware of self-appointed community leaders who might simply be pursuing their own agendas.

It is essential that you are well prepared for meetings. You should present data showing the proportions of crimes of different types committed by day and by night and be prepared to discuss the limitations of alternative ways (such as increased patrols) of dealing with these problems. You will need large maps showing where new lights are needed and where lighting upgrades are required. You should bring along pictures of the types of lights you are planning to install. Finally, you will need to be familiar with the research studies on the effectiveness of improved street lighting and the findings on displacement and diffusion.

Each meeting should have a written agenda and should conclude with a review of the proceedings, including what actions have been agreed upon and who is responsible for implementing them. If possible, you should set the time and place for the next meeting while everyone is still present. Communicating a sense of urgency to all the participants is critical to keeping up project momentum.

You must be very open and clear in your approach. At all costs, avoid giving the impression that all the important decisions have already been made and that consultation is merely a formality. Be open to alternative ideas about the placement of new lights or the type of lights to be installed. Engage stakeholders who are reluctant to participate in the discussions and consider the needs of resident groups such as children and teenagers, who might not be adequately represented at the meetings. Finally, it is very important that you persuade your superiors to let you remain at your post until negotiations are concluded and an agreement has been reached. The success of such a process depends on the trust developed between you and the other stakeholders. Nothing is more fatal to a problem-oriented project than a change of police leadership at a crucial point.

Nearby neighborhoods: Complaints from residents of nearby neighborhoods are like to be of two main types. First, residents will wonder why the lighting in their neighborhoods is not being improved. Second, residents will express concern that crime and hooliganism will be displaced into their neighborhoods. These concerns might be publicized by the local media and echoed by local elected officials. Again, you should meet with residents and local elected officials to find ways of allaying these concerns. In dealing with the media, try to involve local elected officials, provided that they support your proposals. You can be sure that they will welcome the chance to appear on television or in the newspaper.

City Officials: Local officials will need to be satisfied that your proposals to improve street lighting are grounded in data showing that the neighborhood has unusually high rates of crime that can be reduced by improved lighting. Your task will be much more difficult if you do not have the support of local elected officials; thus, you will need to plan carefully to engage their interest and assistance.