CITIES

Soft lights and a soft sell seduce a city

ALEXANDER ROSS January 1 1974
CITIES

Soft lights and a soft sell seduce a city

ALEXANDER ROSS January 1 1974

Soft lights and a soft sell seduce a city

CITIES

ALEXANDER ROSS

At first, the meeting at Toronto City Hall looked like a case of massive political overkill. On one side was Frederick (Big Daddy) Gardiner, the virtual inventor of Toronto’s metropolitan form of government and Metro’s first chairman — a figure of awesome prestige, a sort of municipal Churchill, one of the few living Canadians to have an expressway named after him. Flanking Gardiner, who is now chairman of Toronto Hydro, was a high-powered collection of experts: lighting engineers, the deputy chief of police, representatives of several businessmen’s groups. They hovered around the great man’s wheelchair like groupies at a rock concert.

On the other side sat Ralf Kelman, a wispy-looking 25-year-old Vancouver artist who wore an opennecked shirt and a small fringe of beard. For the past 15 months, Kelman has been hitchhiking or busing around the country, staying with friends or at YMCAs, making a personal study of how Canadian cities light their streets — and how the virtually unnoticed shift to bigger, brighter streetlights is subtly corrupting the urban environment.

Gardiner and his shoal of experts, and the solitary Ralf Kelman, constituted opposing delegations before the city’s Public Works Committee. The question: what kind of lights should be installed on a northern stretch of Yonge Street, Toronto’s main drag?

Only a year or so ago, in almost any Canadian city, this question would scarcely have been debated at all. Anonymous engineers would have simply ordered whatever form of lighting, in their judgment, gives the most illumination at the least cost — usually this means sodium or mercury vapor — and city council, routinely, would have approved their decision.

This process has been going on, in its quiet way, for decades. But the fact that the nighttime look and feel of our cities has been changing didn’t dawn on Kelman until last year. As an artist, he'd been building environmental sculptures and had become fascinated with neon signs and with the Art Deco styles of the 1930s. Then, strolling one night through the highrise thicket of Vancouver’s West End, he suddenly realized that the friendly streets of his youth, lit by incandescent streetlamps, were turning blue. Engineers had replaced the West End’s incandescent streetlights with uncorrected mercury vapor, a light source that bleeds the color out of everything, turning people and streetscapes a sepulchral bluey-grey.

Since he wanted to see the country anyway, Kelman got a bank loan and caught a train heading east. He’d decided to find out what was happening to light environments in every major Canadian city. In more than a year of wandering, he interviewed lighting engineers in most big Canadian cities, artists, National Research Council scientists, American environmentalists, manufacturers, lighting designers. He became an expert on a subject that the public is hardly aware of in Canada, and a saddened observer of Canadian nightscapes.

What he found across the country mostly depressed him. Calgary and Edmonton: “The most Americanized cities in Canada, competing to outdo each other in quantity of light.” Regina was yellow and blue, a mixture of incandescent and mercury vapor. Ottawa was encouragingly incandescent. Montreal was getting worse but, in Kelman’s view, redeemed by the hundreds of neon signs designed by craftsmen of the 1930s and 1940s. Then last November, he arrived in Toronto, and discovered “the last incandescent city in North America.”

“It goes with the streetcars and the Victorian architecture,” he says, “mellow and funky. It gives the place a quality that’s becoming irreplaceable. Some of the lighting is 20 years old, but already the engineers are calling it ‘old-fashioned.’ ” Basking in all that incandescence, Kelman decided to stick around for a while.

Perhaps because he wasn’t selling anything or being paid by anybody, Kelman turned out to be a superb lobbyist. Within a few months he’d been on nearly every interview show in town, and had succeeded in turning on several members of Toronto’s reform-minded council, including Mayor David Crombie, to the subject of streetlights-as-environment. Kelman’s basic point is that all public lighting, both indoors and out, should approximate as closely as possible the spectrum of natural sunlight. He has a briefcase full of scientific studies which indicate that uncorrected light affects people and animals in odd and disquieting ways (one U.S. experiment, for instance, found that rats reared under coolspectrum fluorescent light had undersized gonads — which may explain to a number of wives why their officeworker husbands are less than ardent at bedtime).

At last September’s meeting, the experts presented impressive evidence. High-pressure sodium lamps, an engineer testified, would use less power and cost only one-third as much as incandescent. Jack Ackroyd, the deputy police chief, told the councillors that brighter illumination levels on Yonge Street would cut crime — and cited statistics indicating that, on sections of the street where the lighting had already been upgraded, street crime had lessened.

Then Kelman gave his quiet pitch. It was based on aesthetics and the environment, but he cited economic reasons too. For one thing, he said, the incandescent lamps were already there. He argued that the higher illumination levels the engineering community is constantly striving for can be traced to the interests of a few U.S. manufacturers.

The decision wasn’t even close. The committee, after four hours of debate, agreed with Kelman six to three. City Council endorsed the committee’s vote a few weeks later. Yonge Street will stay the way it is — illuminated by an obsolete and wasteful light source, according to many experts, but awfully pleasant to walk around in.