How a Few LED Lights Can Change Your Whole City

The Ravens’ journey to the 2013 Super Bowl has cast a purple glow on Baltimore.  Building owners and facilities personnel have found creative ways to illuminate facades, windows, and trees in shades of purple. Regular playoff trips and this year’s Super Bowl compete with Christmas for festive supremacy.

Baltimore harbor

Baltimore harbor glowing in purple preceding the 2013 Superbowl

Photograph source: Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore

In 1828, Paris lit the Champs-Elysees with gas lamps becoming the first European city to widely adopt street lamps. In addition to being the center of education and ideas, the lighting of Parisian streets helped give Paris the nickname “La Ville-Lumiere.”  In describing the lighting of Paris, Nicholas Green in the Spectacle of Nature writes “what a magnificent spectacle this boulevard presents when at dusk the café waiters light the gas lamps and torrents of light instantly flood forth, pure and white as the moon.” Gas lights allowed socialization and the economy out into the open and into the night.

Victorian paris-at-night

Photo source: Victorian Paris

Hundreds of years later, cities are again using lighting in new strategic ways.    Light displays are credited for a big reason in downtown Philadelphia’s resurgence, particularly their “Avenue of the Arts.”  Even in non-playoff times, Baltimore uplights City Hall, The Bromo Seltzer Tower, Penn Station, the 37 story art deco Bank of America Tower and others. Should Baltimore and other cities do more?  When attending an art gallery or museum, lighting will be carefully directed to highlight each piece. Shouldn’t lighting do the same for our best buildings or their architectural details?  Modern buildings can highlight their geometries whereas historic buildings can focus on domes, spires, columns, or façade details. Street trees also add festivity when illuminated.

lighting historic buildings

Historic building features illuminated
Church in Bath, England Photograph source: Enlightened Lighting Ltd

Why let our best buildings be enshrouded in darkness when the sun goes down?  Lighting is more than design. It is about vibrancy. Light is energy and provides energy.  It can help to resuscitate places that may be tired and disinvested.  It can highlight craftsmanship and prideful work. More people might invest, spend money, and appreciate buildings that are newly energized with light. High tech illumination can help invigorate older beautiful churches, traditional downtowns, and main streets.

Kelley Bell, a graphic designer and professor at UMBC, uses a projector to showcase her art by beaming projections onto buildings in Baltimore. Recently, she has created an exhibit that illuminates blue bubbles onto the clock faces of the iconic Bromo Seltzer Tower.

Can lighting be overdone? Yes.  In an age when the world should be reducing our carbon footprints, lighting takes energy. However, LED lighting is significantly more efficient than earlier types of lighting. If lighting helps to “reuse and recycle” the embedded energy of our existing cities, its trade-off is worthwhile.

Do you have an urban feature or building that is a good candidate for illumination?  or have a picture of a strategically lighted building? If yes, send a jpeg less than 1MB to  Please include an address for the building.


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Naming the blog-Comeback City

Post #1

Almost all cities that have been around a long time have had boom years and troughs. Very few have been wiped away for good and some have been decimated by fire, war, or famine, and come back.

New York City lost the world’s largest textile industry completely. It suffered a crack epidemic and a very dark decade in the eighties. New York City has come roaring back.

Many of America’s cities and neighborhoods are not and have not been in a boom. They are in need of a comeback.  This platform is not about dwelling on decay or labeling places as down and out. It is about sharing ideas from different places and building on strength.

Being a throwaway society is not America’s strength.  Some economists suggest people move where the jobs are.  The emptying of some cities in favor of others or distant suburbs, leaves a wake of human distress. Abandoning legions of buildings wastes embedded energy and cultural history.  Jobs can be any place there is human ingenuity. Sun and sand contribute to some jobs, but other human factors are far more important and are not bound by climate or geography.

Throw away cities should not be an American value.  Americans are very generous about helping US cities that have been hit by hurricane, earthquake, or terrorism, (until Sandy) However, Americans can become dismissive when discussing the slower decline of a city. Buildings were falling down and poverty was prevalent before Katrina hit New Orleans, but national focus on the city’s problems only rushed in with the storm. Some cities are poorly managed and its leaders have had misplaced priorities.  They should not be bailed out or rewarded for this.  However, as an American society, we do not win overall, when there is such disparity in the health and opportunity between our cities.

I hope as a reader you will enjoy Comeback City and it will provide content to think about and maybe even spark specific projects.  Much of the future content will be Baltimore centric.  Other content will draw from other places. Baltimore is a city that might be on the precipice of recovery. There are positive sprouts in many places. Its momentum is fragile and the pace of rebound is slow.

America and the world have witnessed comeback cities.  We have a role in helping some of the cities we care about rebound. Thanks for reading!


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