By Mark Loeffler, IALD, IES, LEED Fellow and Edward Bartholomew, IALD, IES, LEED AP

Lighting is an essential, but often overlooked element of the revitalization of cities, towns, and neighborhoods. Well-designed, well-maintained lighting is welcoming and reassuring. Everyone deserves good lighting: visually appealing, environmentally responsible, and socially beneficial. However, historically neglected communities usually suffer bad and often excessive lighting, which is socially and environmentally unjust.

“Light Justice” is an idea rooted in the ongoing conversation between lighting designers Edward Bartholomew and Mark Loeffler about their mutual recognition of harmful disparities of lighting quality and inequality in the public realm. Edward, based in Cambridge, MA and Mark, located in the New Haven area, could simply look at their own cities to see the obvious and remarkable disparity of lighting quality between affluent and lower income neighborhoods. In an attempt to reduce crime, a misguided belief that “more light is safer” has gripped many municipalities. It is clearly visible in neighborhoods that were redlined in the early 20th century – often adjacent to downtown districts with attractively upgraded lighting – and that still endure infrastructural racism and neglect. The all-night glare of unshielded industrial lighting on buildings and utility poles is as ubiquitous as potholes, missing sidewalks, and poor drainage. Weaponized lighting for surveillance prioritizes property over people. Studies have revealed that exposure to excessive nighttime lighting is concentrated in communities of color. This has measurable impacts on human and environmental wellbeing. The rapid proliferation of overly-bright, cool white LED outdoor lighting has worsened global light pollution, damaging natural circadian patterns for animals. For people, it disrupts sleep patterns, harms psychological health, and lighting over-exposure has been shown to increase cancer rates in these impacted communities. Negligent lighting discourages enjoyable nighttime activities and beneficial social gatherings that build community identity and worth.

“Light Justice” is the practice of planning, designing, implementing, and investing in good lighting for under-resourced neighborhoods through a process of stakeholder engagement and community-supported placemaking. It closely correlates with the principles of the Design Justice Network which “rethinks design processes, centers people who are normally marginalized by design, and uses collaborative, creative practices to address the deepest challenges our communities face.” It also fits very well with Main Street America’s Four Point Approach to organization, promotion, design, and economic restructuring.

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The remedy will require a change in how lighting is valued and prioritized by municipal planners and policy makers. Good lighting does not just happen, it has to be thoughtfully planned, designed, installed, and maintained. The Design Justice movement points the way to a new approach to inclusive engagement of community members as “citizen designers” to advise planning and design teams. The lighting industry has an enormous opportunity to provide expertise and knowledge to help municipalities understand the wisdom of investing in good lighting for everyone. Lighting designers need to be part of the initial planning process, not just as an expert, but as a listener and facilitator of stakeholder gatherings. The best public works, including the lighting, are inspired by a full understanding of the concerns and desires of the people who will live with the results.

There are excellent examples of partnerships that are improving lighting justice and the visual experience for previously badly lighted communities. The Chicago Smart Lighting Program upgraded more than 300,000 street and sidewalk luminaires, starting in South Chicago, employing local, minority-owned contractors. Baltimore’s Signal Station North project has developed a community engagement program that enables residents to play with light and express preferences that the design team has integrated into their plans and recommendations. New Haven’s Town Green District teamed with a local lighting design firm to plan lighting upgrades for urban pocket parks and underused pedestrian corridors, based on workshops with neighborhood residents to learn their concerns and questions. As funding becomes available, these improvements will focus on warmth, glare-prevention, and sparkle at pedestrian scale –   qualities of nighttime light preferred by neighborhood stakeholders. Good and equitable lighting is a worthy and valuable investment, especially when it benefits people who have always endured bad and unjust lighting.


About the Authors

Edward Bartholomew, IALD, IES, LEED AP is the principal of Bartholomew Lighting, a Black-owned design consultancy located in Cambridge, MA.  A lighting designer and educator for more than thirty years, he is a professional member of the International Association of Lighting Designers, a member of the Illuminating Engineering Society, and a LEED Accredited Professional. Currently, he serves on the IES Diversity, Equality, Inclusiveness, and Respect Committee as a founding member. Edward is an invited speaker on lighting technology, energy efficiency strategies, and social justice at regional, national, and international conferences. He also co-teaches graduate lighting classes at Morgan State University and at the Rhode Island School of Design.  In his practice and advocacy, Edward promotes Light Justice.


Mark Loeffler, IALD, IES, LEED Fellow is based near New Haven, CT with more than thirty five years of experience in lighting and sustainable design for projects across the US and around the world. A member of the International Association of Lighting Designers, a member of the Illuminating Engineering Society, and a LEED Fellow, Mark retired from consulting at the end of 2021. In his career, Mark has written, taught, and lectured widely which he plans to continue, especially in his advocacy for lighting’s role in social and environmental justice.