By Jerry Retford
Published in INsite, December 2003 – January 2004
“Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” -[Chinese Proverb]
Human beings are creatures of light and like moths to a light bulb we tend to gravitate towards light in darkness; indeed our Chinese proverb summarises popular thought on our response to the treatment of darkness, but are we correct in following this line of thought?
Artificial lighting has many uses: for comfort, identification, navigation and security to name a few and yet so often lighting is installed as an afterthought with little consideration for its design, implementation and operation.
Common sense suggests that lighting the darkness would be the ideal solution to preventing crime and improving security yet the evidence suggests that the answer is not such a simple one. In many cases the use of lighting can have the opposite effect – where it is installed to prevent crime it may actually increase its prevalence. Similarly, the very absence of light can have a deterrent affect on criminal activity. As a case in point, in 1998 when Auckland was suffering under a long-term power blackout it was reported that “even criminals have deserted the darkened streets of downtown Auckland… it’s been almost a crime free zone… the normal level of muggings, violence, fights, burglary and robbery have just not happened.”
Many studies have been carried out to determine whether an increase in the quantity and quality of lighting can reduce criminal activity. An early study in the late 1970’s by the American Justice Dept. revealed “there is no statistically significant evidence that street lighting impacts the level of crime, especially if crime displacement is taken into account”. This was supported by a further study by the British Home Office when, in 1985 in the London Borough of Wandsworth, 3500 new street lights were installed in an effort to reduce the incidences of street crime. Their report concluded, “No evidence could be found to support the hypothesis that improved street lighting reduces reported crime.”
In contrast, a more recent British Home Office study in August 2002 found that improved street lighting accounted for a 30% reduction in crime and in two of the five test areas the financial savings made from this reduction in crime greatly exceeded the cost of the lighting improvements.
One important issue that seems to be universally affected by effective lighting is the significant reduction in the ‘fear of crime’ and perception of risk; a quantifiable effect of an increase in the quality of nighttime lighting for security purposes.
Thus the use of night-time lighting for the purposes of security needs to be assessed carefully and with reference to many factors including existing patterns of criminal behaviour, existence and methods of passive and active surveillance, surrounding ambient light levels, etc. Security lighting is frequently installed reactively as a ‘quick-fix’ and often with little in-depth thought or assessment for its ramifications and affects. It is often the case that poorly designed lighting can be worse than no lighting at all – incorrect lamp sources and light fittings, poor glare control, inefficient energy management, poor colour rendering and colour temperature can all contribute to a security risk.
In some instances well-designed lighting can certainly aid in reducing the likelihood of criminal activity especially when combined with an increased likelihood of surveillance. However, security lighting must be designed to meet the specific needs of individual sites and not just reactively installed as a panacea to darkness.
As with any area of security (safety) design it is important that the services of a security design specialist with experience and understanding of the relationship between lighting and crime, should be part of the design team.
Harris Crime Prevention Services provides on an occasional basis articles by other Industry experts, such as: How Airports apply designing out crime principles