The Security of Light: Streetlights and Criminal Darkness
This month a new streetlight was installed in Indianapolis, Indiana to surprising fanfare. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett presided over a ceremony on Nowland Avenue, celebrating the city’s first new streetlight since 1981 and proclaiming that it and another 100 new lights would bring “light to neighborhoods that have been dark for far too long.” Thirty-five years ago Mayor William Hudnut announced a moratorium on new streetlights that was continued by the three subsequent Mayors. Hudnut’s policy was fundamentally a cost-cutting move to decrease the city’s electricity expenses and direct the city’s public works spending toward roads, sidewalks, and concrete infrastructure.
Streetlights were once prosaic objects we never contemplated, but now they have secured the status of things; that is, they have entered our consciousness because they are part of an urban fabric perceived to be malfunctioning. Most of the civic material landscape is utterly outside our consciousness until it fails in literal terms: for instance, a street is not part of our reflection until a pothole mars our motion, or only the absence of a maintained sidewalk compels us to articulate our pedestrian experience. Yet street lights and luminosity itself address a host of breakdowns in cities like Indianapolis that reach well beyond the functional purpose of lighting streets for foot and auto traffic. Light and visibility are viewed and experienced in distinctive social ways across the city: street lights are cast by various observers as symbols of government’s public service obligations, ideological mechanisms of urban surveillance, instruments of persistent racism and class prejudice, nocturnal pollution, and confirmation of apparently rampant criminality.
The contemporary discussion over street lighting and luminosity frames how we see and imagine places, things, and people (compare Mikkel Bille and Tim Flohr SØrenson’s 2007 study of luminosity [PDF]). Streetlights emerge as rhetorical mechanisms that shape how we perceive urban places and darkness, especially their connections to criminality, often along class and color lines. Luminosity aspires to counter a distinctive contemporary anxiety of cities’ criminal darkness that Mayor Hogsett invoked when he proclaimed “No longer will we allow criminals to lurk in the shadows of our great neighborhoods. No longer will we be afraid to walk down the streets at night.” Regardless of whether that fear of public space is accurate or somewhat overstated Mayoral rhetoric, officials like Indianapolis’ Mayor worry that apprehension of urban crime will thwart their ambitions to attract consumers and residents to transformed 21st-century cities.
Public safety advocates routinely presume that light reduces crime, and that perception of urban light has a long heritage. In August, 1900, for example, the Indianapolis Journal lamented that the city was cutting off lights as a cost-cutting move, arguing that “thieves and marauders will hail this cutting off of street lights as a reform for their special benefit.” In 1945 the Indianapolis Recorder lobbied for new streetlights to combat crime near the city’s segregated African-American housing community Lockefield Gardens. The paper argued that the Lockefield neighborhood, “scene of numerous attacks and sluggings, is darker than hades at night, and we marvel at the fact that more women are not attacked in this district.”
The argument that lights inevitably curtail crime is not especially well-supported by research. For example, a 1991 study of London streetlights [PDF] argued that “better street lighting has had little or no effect on crime”; a 2015 study reached similar conclusions that there was no correlation between crime and lighting; and a 2002 study comparing Britain and the US [PDF] reached a more measured conclusion that increased lighting benefitted some neighborhoods. Nevertheless, street lights may have a genuine effect on our imagined sense of security, especially where people are apprehensive of particular public spaces and communities. In an ethnographic study in Utrecht, Jelle Brands, Tim Schwanen and Irina van Aalst found that interview subjects believed light “`normalised’ a site by deterring potential wrongdoers and produced safety in numbers as it meant more intensive use of streets after dark.” It is perhaps irrelevant if that fear of unknown threats concealed in the dark is unfounded; light in some peoples’ imaginations provides a way to anticipate the unknown. Yet what the Utrecht study underscored was that the sense of light’s security was directly linked to a strong notion of “undesired others”; that is, darkness tends to mobilize stereotypes that may lurk in the unlit city. Indianapolis’ Mayor invoked such anxieties of the unseen (yet strategically undefined) Other when he argued that the city’s new streetlights will “let us illuminate that which causes fear and trepidation in our neighborhoods.”
For some neighborhoods, simply successfully securing street lights from city hall may be as consequential as the luminosity they will provide. In 1983 Indianapolis Recorder columnist Donald Carpenter complained that an especially busy stretch of North West Street in the predominately African-American community had no street lights, but “get through one of the historic districts and you’ll find more lights in the alleys than in many black residential communities.” In 1959 a community group had complained about street lighting on that very same stretch of North West Street, when “concern over the increase in robberies, purse grabbings, muggings and other crimes of violence” prompted 22 householders to petition the city to install four street lights. The residents’ request indicated that “it is very dark in this block … and also dangerous because of thieves, drunkards, and robbers. We have little children and teenagers whose lives are in danger whenever they go outside or on the streets after dark.”
The perception that street lights deter crime probably hyperbolizes the power of visibility, but it also simplifies the complex ways that light is experienced in a host of neighborhoods and by a wide range of people. For some neighborhoods in Indianapolis, light has been simply one of many persistently denied civil privileges, and advocacy for streetlights is part of a broader demand for a full range of fundamental city services (e.g., sewer, trash pickup, schools, etc). Streetlights provide a sense of genuine security to many people, and it is not unlikely that streetlights and similar infrastructural maintenance can have a positive galvanizing effect on neighborhood cohesion and pride. Nevertheless, at the same time they risk masking the ways that darkness evokes deep-seated anxieties of the city and our neighbors. That apprehension has some basis in the sober realities of urban criminality; however, it is fueled by xenophobic media and popular cultural caricatures of criminality, the city, and urbanites that Indianapolis’ streetlight campaign risks reproducing.
Stephen Atkins, Sohail Husain and Angele Storey
1991 The Influence of Street Lighting on Crime and Fear of Crime. Crime Prevention Unit Papers, No. 28. Home Office, London.
Mikkel Bille and Tim Flohr SØrenson
2007 An Anthropology of Luminosity: The Agency of Light. Journal of Material Culture 12(3): 263–284.
Jelle Brands, Tim Schwanen and Irina van Aalst
2015 Fear of crime and affective ambiguities in the night-time economy. Urban Studies 52(3) 439–455. (subscription access)
2015 The gloomy city: Rethinking the relationship between light and dark. Urban Studies 52(3): 422-438. (subscription access)
David P. Farrington and Brandon C. Welsh
2002 Effects of improved street lighting on crime: a systematic review. Home Office Research Study No. 251. Home Office, London.
Rebecca Steinbach, Chloe Perkins, Lisa Tompson, Shane Johnson, Ben Armstrong, Judith Green, Chris Grundy, Paul Wilkinson, and Phil Edwards
2015 The effect of reduced street lighting on road casualties and crime in England and Wales: controlled interrupted time series analysis. Journal of epidemiology and community health 69(11): 1118-1124. (open access)