Chicago is known for its bright orange glow at night, thanks to its ubiquitous high pressure sodium vapor lamps. It’s a local detail that many associate viscerally with the city, including Chicago native Mike Mesterham, who spoke with local public radio station WBEZ about the iconic quality of the lamps. In response, Reporter Logan Jaffe chronicles artwork and poetry, from as early as the late 1940s, that document the amber cast of the Chicago night sky. But it won’t be long until the Chicago night sky changes dramatically. LED lights, set to be phased in by 2020, will leave the streets brightly lit, and the night sky clear and dark.
The Chicago Smart Lighting Project, developed by the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, the City of Chicago, and the Chicago Park District, will replace the roughly 348,500 sodium vapor lamps in the city with an energy-efficient LED lighting system. The new system will be highly customizable, allowing for different light levels and colors in alleyways and residential and commercial areas. It will also provide real-time updates regarding outages. Because the new lamps are much more efficient and last three times longer than the old ones, the city plans to fund the project with the projected savings from the new system.
The old lamps present multiple downsides. Most glaringly, they create ample light pollution at night. A 2011 University of Colorado study named Chicago the most light polluted city in the United States. Light pollution has been shown to negatively affect both the rhythms of ecosystems and the quality of our sleep, as well as contributing to ozone breakdown. Additionally, the lamps are massively energy inefficient compared to LED lights. This is in part because the light of high pressure sodium vapor lamps tends to go in all directions. Since LED lamps can be much more directional, less lighting needs to be used to make up for the inefficient coverage, thus less energy is used.
The project has already begun along Lake Shore Drive and Western Avenue. According to a press release from the city, there have been no negative effects seen in these areas. In fact, public safety has improved due to improved visibility. The remainder of the project is now in the Request for Quotation stage (which precedes the Request for Proposals), asking for bids from various manufacturers, including ComEd and various sustainability-oriented organizations such as Ameresco and Silver Spring Networks. Once a primary provider is chosen, the project will go into further planning and be implemented over the next three and a half years. Chicagoans will then see a change in their culture – from being proud of the orange-purple cast of the night sky to seeking out the best stargazing spots in the city.
Does your city prioritize the night sky? Has light pollution had a negative affect where you live? Do you think a clear night sky is important or feasible in an urban environment? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.
Credit: Images by Hannah Flynn. Data linked to sources.