Feature Article - October 2003
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Good Light Balance

Juggling performance vs. pollution when it comes to sports field lighting

By Mitch Martin

At the end of 1989's Field of Dreams, the dazzlingly bright lights of Ray Kinsella's cornfield baseball diamond brought a zigzagging stream of eager customers. In 2003, those lights might instead bring angry astronomers and loon-loving environmentalists.

A bright field and a dark sky equal happiness for the recreational facility manager.

Recreational facility managers seeking to provide quality outdoor lighting must balance the standards of light pollution activists against the demands of athletes and clogged recreational schedules. The problem becomes even more complex when budget constraints come into play, not to mention subjective interpretations of the qualities of light.

Glare is often at the heart of this debate. Glare, a qualitative term, refers to the way a light source interferes with vision and cannot be measured. In contrast, spill light generally refers to measurable light outside the defined area a fixture is intended to illuminate.

Dark is good when it's off the field. Recent improvements in lighting technology have allowed facility managers to contain much of the light to the playing field.

A study for a Seattle Parks lighting plan concluded the industry lacks a consensus on a solution for glare. Just as laymen perceive lighting differently, so do the lighting engineers and company reps in charge of installing top-flight lighting systems, says Scott Davis, a former lighting manufacturer employee who now serves as technical manager for the Tucson, Ariz.-based International Dark-Sky Association.

"I think it is very possible that if you gave a particular lighting project to 10 different people, what you would get in return would be 10 different lighting designs," Davis says.

The International Dark-Sky Association represents an increasing number of people who want to ban or limit outdoor recreational lighting. Lighted stadiums and other sports facilities, particularly in relatively rural areas, represent one of the biggest concerns for dark-sky advocates and the single largest source of neighborhood lighting tensions, according to Davis. It may be of some small comfort for facility managers to hear that Davis says car dealerships are just about as troublesome.

Despite technical improvements, it is difficult to imagine that light pollution concerns will subside any time soon. Neither is it likely that facility managers will face waning demand for field time or budgets with surplus cash. However, by making restrained, intelligent choices, facility managers can reduce their share of light-induced headaches.