Let There Be Dark

How Smart Lighting Design Increases Security, Performance and Night-Time Aesthetics

By Emily Tipping

hether you operate a baseball field in a local park or a 50,000-square-foot recreation facility with indoor and outdoor amenities, a high school football stadium or a natural preserve with a place to park, a shelter and a couple of restrooms for wildlife viewers, you have probably given some consideration to lighting.

It's not enough anymore to simply throw up the same old lighting systems that have been used for years on sports fields, or install a barnyard-style security light next to your restrooms. Concerns about everything from cost efficiency to the environment are raising new questions when it comes to lighting choices: Can you reduce your facility's energy costs? Can you provide better-quality lighting for patrons, players or spectators so they can feel safe in your park or get a better eye on the ball on your sports fields? Can you reduce your facility's carbon footprint to help address concerns about global warming? Can you help reduce light pollution?

Technological advances in lighting technology are helping facility managers address all of these concerns—and in doing so, they're providing intelligently lit facilities that are safer, more cost-efficient and more pleasing to the eye.

Starry, Starry Night

When it comes to exterior lighting, most facilities' top concerns are safety and aesthetics. However, another issue has been gaining more prominence, and should be a concern as you consider lighting design for your facility: light pollution. In fact, more and more local governments are passing regulations that address this issue—and protect their citizens, usually homeowners, from the negative impact of glare from over-lit facilities—by requiring specific types and levels of light.

According to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), light pollution has many harmful effects. It wastes energy and natural resources. It is harmful to human health, as well as nocturnal wildlife and natural ecosystems. It actually reduces safety and security, and leads to poor nighttime visibility. And, as we all know, it makes for poor nighttime ambience as the glare from poor lighting impacts our view of the night sky.

The National Park Service reports that approximately two-thirds of Americans can't see the Milky Way from their back yard. Just 1 percent of the population is living in areas that are not considered light-polluted. At the rate we're lighting up the night, there will be virtually no truly dark skies in the contiguous United States by the year 2025.

That means that, even now, you can probably walk outside your door after dark and see the negative effects of light pollution. If you're in a rural location, unless you're in one of the darkest spots in the country (lucky you), you can probably see the lights from the nearest town on the horizon. In a typical suburb, you might be able to see a couple hundred stars. If you're in the city, you can probably count the visible stars on your fingers.

Besides its impact on the aesthetics of the night, light pollution has a lot of harmful effects on our planet's life, including our own. Migrating birds get confused as they try to navigate by artificial lights instead of the stars. Sea turtles are disoriented by bright lights of coastal development. And we've all witnessed a moth's tragic dance with death in the glare of an artificial bulb.

And it's not just non-human life that's affected. Studies have shown results as dire as a link between artificial light and certain forms of cancer, but you don't even have to dig that far to feel the impact. We've lost the nighttime skies of our species' youth, and that's unfortunate. If you've ever visited a place that's truly dark at night, you likely can appreciate the magnitude of this loss. Now imagine that there are people who will never get to see more than a few dozen stars at night.

OK, but recreation and sports facilities still need to rely on artificial lighting to provide for evening-hour use by citizens and members. We can't play baseball in the dark, right?

Usually, the problem isn't that we're using artificial lights on our sports fields, parking lots and pathways to the restrooms. It's the fact that we're lighting up everything else, as well.

As they design new facilities, many architects and lighting consultants are addressing these issues by relying on newer lighting technologies that provide shielded fixtures that direct light where it's needed, in addition to other approaches.

In the community of Harmony in Osceola County, Fla., for example, the entire community has been master-planned to be dark-sky-friendly. Started in the mid-1990s, the 11,000-acre environmentally friendly town is now home to approximately 1,000 families and has a strong commitment to protecting local ecologies, as well as the night sky. Because of this, it attracts local astronomers for nighttime observing, as well as simply encouraging residents to go out for an evening stroll.

"A cornerstone Harmony principle is the recognition that nature is best enjoyed when within easy walking distance of home," the town states on its Web site. Because of this principle, residents have easy access to parks and recreational areas, including pocket parks and dog parks, playgrounds and other unique outdoor attractions, such as the human sundial. There are also miles of hiking trails, as well as over 1,000 acres of freshwater lakes. In addition, the community was designed from the start to be dark-sky-compliant, so the entire community is well-lit, but with fixtures that don't put light where it's not wanted.

On a smaller scale, the Aspen Recreation Center in Aspen, Colo., offers many of the typical amenities one would expect from a Rocky Mountain recreation facility. Opened to the public in April 2003, the facility includes an indoor lap pool and a lazy river, a fitness center, a youth center, a 35-foot climbing wall and even an NHL-scale ice rink. But one amenity that sets the facility apart is the careful attention given to lighting during the design process.

Rising Sun Enterprises, a Basalt, Colo.-based lighting designer, provided the lighting design for what turned out to be a rather challenging project. Recognized as a leader in energy-sensitive lighting design and new technology assessment, as well as traditional architectural lighting design, the team at Rising Sun was challenged to develop high-quality, energy-efficiency lighting on a budget.

"The diverse strategies, multiple lighting layers and creative integration with the architecture resulted in a dramatically, yet discreetly, illuminated facility that is welcoming, playful and appears 'bright' or 'subdued' where it needs to be," the firm states on its Web site. To help meet the cost constraints of the project, Rising Sun designed many of the facility's light fixtures from scratch and then built them or adapted utilitarian fixtures to meet the design.

In the end, the payoff of these careful design considerations came in the form of an award from the International Dark-Sky Association. The Aspen Recreation Center was a co-winner of the International Dark-Sky Award for Quality Lighting Design in 2004.

Security Doesn't Always Mean More Light

Many of us consider lighting essential to a feeling of security at night. But that doesn't necessarily mean more light is better. What we want to ensure is that people actually are safe in our facilities—not just that they feel safe. And that means more than lighting up every single square inch of space inside and out.

In fact, according to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), most crime actually occurs during daylight hours or inside buildings.

"What we do need," the organization states, "is effective lighting, lighting that puts light where we need it (and nowhere else) and where it will help visibility. That means: no glare, no light trespass, no harsh shadows, no steep transitions from dark to light, etc."

Too much light can actually mess up our ability to adapt as we walk into areas that are less well-lit at night, according to the IDA, an effect called "transient adaptation." In addition, the extra light is often lost into the sky or is lost horizontally, rather than targeting the areas we actually need to see—the sidewalk, the doorway, etc.

Poor-quality security lighting may make people think they're safe, but in some cases, it can actually make people less safe. Examples cited by the IDA of poor-quality security lighting include 175-watt dusk-to-dawn security light fixtures and barnyard-style lights left on all night long; globes, which may look good in the daytime but produce a lot of glare, making it difficult to see the ground; poorly shielded "wall packs" and poorly designed flood lights.

Good-quality security lights put light where it is needed, reducing glare and helping patrons see what needs to be seen. Examples cited by the IDA of good-quality security lights include well-shielded low-pressure sodium fixtures or similar-cutoff high-pressure sodium or metal halide fixtures; well-controlled and smartly installed flood lights or spot lights; and infrared sensor spot lights that only come on when someone walks into the field of view of the sensor. Motion-controlled lights are smart because they provide good visibility when it's needed, but also can scare away the bad guys.

In addition to lighting, we can rely on other methods of increasing security, like security cameras or even dummy security cameras, and neighborhood watches.

Step by Step

If you're not working on a brand-new facility, you can still do a lot to address light pollution. Simple solutions, such as shielded fixtures that direct light downward to reduce glare, lower-wattage bulbs, motion detectors and more efficient lamps can make a big difference. And you don't even need to overhaul your entire site at once to make a difference.

As the NPS states on its own Web site, "Lighting retrofits can be relatively easy and inexpensive, and can also be accomplished on an individual basis. When a light blows out, it is a good opportunity to replace the bulb with a lower-intensity bulb or change the fixture to a full cut-off fixture, which directs all the used light downward. Retrofitting outdoor lighting not only helps restore the night sky, but also is environmentally friendly, energy-efficient and provides more security."

In one major project, the NPS modified over 80 percent of the fixtures in Natural Bridges National Monument, making them dark-sky-friendly. Most of the fixtures now use 13-watt compact fluorescent bulbs, which provide plenty of light but prevent stray light from buildings such as the visitors center and park ranger residences from interfering with campgrounds and backcountry.

The work paid off in April 2007, when Natural Bridges was named the world's first international dark-sky park by the IDA. The beauty of the night sky, the lack of light pollution and NPS' commitment to night skies as a natural resource helped the park earn the designation.

Ralph Jones, the park's chief ranger, said the monument is "one of the darkest national parks in the country."

Taking its dedication to the nighttime sky one step further than fixtures, the park has also dedicated itself to educating the public and sharing the beautiful vistas of night sky with at least some of the 100,000 people who visit each year. During the summer, visitors can take part in astronomy ranger programs. Other ways to "share the night" cited by the NPS include full moon walks and nocturnal wildlife viewing.

"Parks are great places to experience a natural lightscape, and the experience can be even more enjoyable with professional interpretation," the service reports.

The impact of the changes made at the park have spread beyond the stars. "Natural Bridges has reduced its operational costs and energy use by upgrading its outdoor lighting, creating a better habitat for nocturnal wildlife and improving visibility and safety at night," said Park Superintendent Corky Hays. "I hope our national parks can continue to provide a clear view of the heavens that so many of us have lost from our backyards."

Can't imagine doing things on such a grand scale? That's alright. As the saying goes, "Think globally, act locally." You can take the example of Natural Bridges and reduce the scale of the lighting overhaul to meet the needs of your own, smaller facility.

That's just what happened at Potawatami Wildlife Park, a nonprofit 320-acre preserve in Tippecanoe, Ind. Now recognized as Indiana's first Dark-Sky Preserve by the Indiana Council on Lighting Education, the IDA and the Indiana State Senate, the preserve only made minor changes to address light scatter.

The change was instigated when the current executive director, who is a member of the Warsaw Astronomical Society, invited members of the club to use the property in the mid-1990s. The parks' management understood the value of the observing opportunities and took steps to manage the site as a dark-sky preserve. Barnyard-style security lights were removed, and a shelter light was adapted with a shield to reduce glare. The only current dusk-to-dawn lighting on the property now is a fully shielded security fixture that lights the restroom area. Sofit lighting lines one sidewalk with minimal wattage, and a memorial is lit with two spot lights on a dimmer switch, so that only the three flags—not the sky—are illuminated. All of these lights are hooked up to a breaker panel that trips all exterior lighting when observing is conducted. In addition, the executive director's on-site residence employs blinds to reduce the impact of interior light on the outside environment, and includes an outdoor security light with a motion detector.

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

Sports fields present a unique situation. Lots of light is needed, and because of that, many cite sports and other outdoor recreation facilities as having a major impact on not only the night sky, but on neighbors of the facility as well. According to the IDA, "Lighted sports facilities are the most commonly mentioned systems when people discuss light pollution in the nighttime environment." And many planned facilities get held up by angry neighbors who want to ensure that the impact of sports field lighting doesn't end up keeping them up at night—literally.

The IDA recommends taking several steps to help minimize the impact your sports lighting has off-site. Mounting luminaires at proper heights is one major consideration. While many believe that lower mounting heights are better, the IDA states that in reality, lowering the mounting height has exactly the opposite of its intended effect. "The lower the mounting height, the higher the aiming angle and the more light that is delivered off-site."

Hiring a professional to plan your facility's lighting is the key to ensuring you get a well-lit facility with minimal impact on the neighborhood. Inside the facility, you need to consider your goals. What types of sports will be played there? What does that mean in terms of the lighting needed? For sports like baseball and football, you need to ensure that players won't look up into the glare of the lights and lose track of the ball. But you also need to consider how the environment within your facility contributes to the contrast of the ball, the players and the background. "Good design takes into consideration direct and reflected glare, color rendering and color contrast," reports the IDA.

Traditional lighting used for sports facilities includes high-intensity discharge (HID) and fluorescent. Both of these types of lighting come with benefits and drawbacks. HID lamps, which are usually metal halide or high-pressure sodium, have long lives and are effective, but there is a time delay when you turn them on, and the light builds up slowly. Fluorescent lamps are also long-lived and effective, and also provide good color rendering and low brightness. However, the IDA says, their length gives poorer optical control and they are temperature-sensitive.

New advances from several manufacturers of luminaires for sports applications have led to well-shielded—sometimes even fully-shielded—sports lighting. These designs have a major impact on reducing the spill of light off-site and can at least reduce—and sometimes even eliminate—light lost to the sky.

Once lights are installed, proper management will help further reduce the impact of this type of facility on the neighborhood.

In Leon County, Fla., for example, the parks and recreation department recently added field lighting to its softball fields at Canopy Oaks Park. The new lighting system was designed to be environmentally friendly, as well as sensitive to the surrounding neighborhood.

The lights are controlled through a computer system, and turn off no later than 10 p.m. at night. When no events are scheduled, the lights are not turned on at all. The light is aimed downward onto the field, reducing spill into the surrounding area, and energy savings are realized through the system's environmentally friendly design.

Light and Dark Defined

BORTLE CLASS: A qualitative method of rating night skies based on visual observations. Developed by John Bortle, the scale ranges from Class 1 (pristine) to Class 9 (strongly light polluted).

FULLY SHIELDED: A lighting fixture that directs all light downward (below the horizontal) except for incidental reflections from supports or other structures.

GLARE: A common condition of natural and artificial lighting causes by excessive contrast between a bright source or brightly lit area and a dark surrounding area. Glare can cause viewers to look away, squint, be annoyed or compromise their ability to perform vital visual tasks.

GUIDANCE LIGHTING: Lighting that provides for navigation and safety via very low brightness lamps to mark a path, edge or roadway instead of the traditional approach of illuminating surfaces.

ILLUMINATION: The amount of light falling onto a surface measured in lumens per unit area. The footcandle is equal to one lumen per square foot. A lux is 1 lumen per square meter, approximately 1/10th of a footcandle.

LANDSCAPE LIGHTING: Luminaries mounted in or at grade (but not more than 3 feet above grade) and used solely for landscape rather than any area lighting.

LUMEN: The unit used to describe the amount of light radiated by a source.

LUMINAIRE (LIGHT FIXTURE): A complete lighting unit consisting of one or more electric lamps, the lamp holder, any reflector or lens, ballast (if any) and any other components and accessories

OBTRUSIVE LIGHT: Spill light that causes glare, annoyance, discomfort or loss of visual ability. Light pollution.

SPILL LIGHT: Light from a lighting installation that falls outside of the boundaries of the property on which it is located. Usually results in obtrusive light.

Source: International Dark-Sky Association

The Light Inside

Once you're inside, lighting requirements change yet again. You no longer need to be as concerned about light pollution (though this still can be a factor), but you do need to make careful choices depending on the use of the space.

Indoor lighting systems are generally of two types—direct or indirect. Direct lighting puts the light directly onto the floor, while indirect lighting is aimed somewhere else, usually the walls or the ceiling. The light is then reflected, reducing glare. Whichever type of light is used, the main key in a gym or indoor court is to ensure uniform light on the playing surface, reducing glare and random shadows, which make play more challenging.

Another key consideration in gyms and indoor racquet courts is the possibility that balls will fly up into the lights. For gyms where volleyball and basketball are played, you'll need fixtures that can handle the impact of balls flying into them. In indoor tennis and racquetball courts, the lights will need to be shielded to ensure small, potentially flammable, balls don't get stuck in the fixture.

Other areas call for other considerations. Entryways are often designed with beautiful lighting schemes to help attract patrons into the facility. In certain workout areas, such as studios used for yoga or Spinning classes, lighting should be subdued or dramatic. In studios used for multiple types of classes, it's good to give instructors the options of dimmer or brighter lights.

The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks utilizes many different approaches to lighting its new Wellness Center, a 107,964-square-foot recreation facility that opened in August 2006. The main entrance, for example, is beautifully lit outside and in. Expansive windows in the lobby area let in natural light all day long. The spin studio not only employs a state-of-the-art sound system, but also a projector and drop-down screen, a disco ball and light show, black lights, rope lights and even a haze machine. All of these lighting choices make the spin studio feel more like what might be found in a high-end health club than a university recreation center. By contrast, exercise rooms in the center can be adapted to various activities and make use of various lighting choices for students doing yoga or Pilates workouts. The quiet lounge with its labyrinth makes use of more subdued lighting to suit the contemplative nature of the space. And the gymnasiums include more functional, less aesthetic lighting.

Many modern facilities are being designed to take advantage of natural light, which can help reduce operational costs, as well as beautifying the indoor space. The major concern with natural light is glare. Windows facing east or west will sometimes invite direct sun into players' and patrons' eyes, while north- and south-facing windows do a better job of letting indirect sunlight into a facility.

Aquatic facilities present their own unique challenges. Natural light is obviously an ideal solution in aquatic areas, but it's not always possible. Reducing glare is a major factor in pools to ensure swimmers' safety. Underwater lighting can help improve visibility under the water.

In some cases, site lighting and interior lighting combine to create a beautiful aesthetic.

At the Greeley Family FunPlex & Twin Rivers Community Park in Greeley, Colo., a lit walking path winds through the park connecting to the FunPlex. In addition, lighting becomes art in four beautifully lit landscape elements. Also outside is a lit 18-hole miniature golf course, outdoor amphitheater and state-of-the-art softball complex.

The FunPlex itself was carefully designed to allow the light to come in and shower the interior with daylight, and the eye to wander outside to the short-range views of the park and long-range views of the mountains. More functional lighting is found in the multi-purpose fieldhouse.

All of the different parts of the facility combine to create a welcoming feel, inviting patrons to take part in the myriad activities outside and in.

And in the end, that's what lighting should help accomplish. It should be inviting. It should feel safe. And in the right amounts in the right places, it can be a stunning accompaniment to the nighttime sky.

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.