Rebecca Huxley

Skyglow over Clapton, London. 12 February 2021, 01:28. Moon at approx. 0.2% illumination.

Prior to my residency with LOCDI, I had been researching the knowledge produced by artificial skyglow in urban locations. How often do you take a walk out at dusk, night or dawn? If you live in an urban location and walk out of your home after dusk, you are likely to meet a sky glowing with artificial light, both in your immediate vicinity and enveloping a wider area. Artificial skyglow is caused by light pollution from overly bright, unshielded or incessant sources – homes, street lights and signage, advertising screens, sports grounds, retail parks, transport and industrial sites – which gets scattered by dust and gas molecules in the atmosphere, producing a brightly illuminated night sky. This can be perceived on an overcast night, when clouds brightly render visible the light pollution of the city. Artificial skyglow in clouds seems to embody the carbonisation of the city, casting back to us our dependence on illumination over a deeper time period than we might recognise, through the realisation of its journey of lighting components extraction, exploitation and manufacture. The politics of the photon in the case of artificial skyglow lies in this embodied carbon. 

Over the past year, the zenith viewpoint in my garden became a primary place of reference for observational studies in this research, in relation to diffraction in its multiple and collective meanings. From the garden I observed the skyglow, distracted by security lights that trace the movements of foxes, the intermittent ambulance flashes against brick, and a block of flats illuminated orange throughout the night. As the city’s illumination is weaving and shifting horizontally, looking up and studying the skyglow whilst actively listening to the sounds at night, I considered what other light emissions are imperceptible to me whilst sensed and potentially disrupting by other species in this locality.

Red street lighting near Warndon Road Nature Reserve. Credit: Worcestershire County Council

An absence or disruption of darkness by artificial light intervenes in the circadian cycle of many animals. Nocturnal insect and bird species are at risk, as are 70% of mammals such as numerous bat species. Horizontal polarized light on asphalt roads lures night-swarming mayflies to lay eggs on what they think is a wet surface, but is actually a ‘shiny’ black road (Egri et al. 2017). Some 160,000 species of moths have a critical role in ecosystems as pollinators, herbivores and prey for many avian and mammalian predators (Plummer et al. 2016). Use of white-coated NUV-LED in streetlights – what impact will this have on nocturnal bees and their pollination activity in or around the city? 

Implications of light pollution for bat conservation are huge, particularly for rarer species existing in the city that researchers struggle to track. During the LocDI residency I participated in a family bat walk at Walthamstow Wetlands. Looking across Reservoir No.4 towards Blackhorse Road, I wondered how much the surrounding illumination played a part in the feeding of different bat species or routes between breeding, mating and hibernation sites, such as the wetlands, but also towards the site of a forthcoming group research project, Abney Cemetery Park in Hackney. Hackney Council operates around 11350 streetlights and over the next 3 years are upgrading over 6600 high pressure sodium lamps to (non-dimmable) LED with a 3000k warm white rating. Over-illumination around roadways and on ‘edgelands’ between gardens and parks can interfere with insect predation. Researchers at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology in Wageningen(Spoelstra et al. 2017) have shown that some bat species are light shy and will not cross roads illuminated by white or green lights, which can impede them in sourcing food and water. Brighter street lights also attract the insects the bats feed on and so reduce the food available for bats in usual feeding areas. The Wageningen researchers helped implement red lighting in Nieuwkoop, a sustainable community in the Netherlands, created a ‘safer’ night sky for specific species in that locality. Following this trial, Worcestershire County Council also implemented red light on the A440 near Warndon Road Nature Reserve (see below). As part of forthcoming research, I hope to consider the potential for this lighting at or near reserve locations across Hackney.

Studies carried out during the past year in and near Berlin (Jechow and Hölker 2020) demonstrate a reduction in skyglow based upon an assumption around restricted road and air traffic, which improved air quality. How this has impacted nocturnal animal species in addition to plant species, has yet to be fully realised and understood. If urban biodiversity relies on a ‘nature takes precedence’ approach and interconnected sites to improve species density, pollination and food webs, what does this mean for city lighting? Can we overcome our diurnal bias to improve ecosystem studies at night and how can this be incorporated into green infrastructure plans to support both human and more-than-human experience? 

In response to the residency and recent research, guiding principles and commitments in forthcoming work for ‘thinking-with nighttime’ in Hackney will focus on:

  • Democratising academic research to increase its accessibility across disciplines, backgrounds and cultures – and more specifically, finding ways to speak plainly about light pollution. This involves working collaboratively on cross-discipline (Kyba et al. 2020) issues such as night transit, shift working and ‘green infrastructure’.
  • ‘Knowledge Thickening’ (Hulme 2018) through situated practices of a place and in turn developing different ontologies for addressing environmental change. Local community insight into nighttime ecologies around and within a site, should be the starting point of understanding rather than a means to fill an academic gap.
  • Thinking about time differently – beyond a human-centred scale, deep time understanding of place offers a means of resisting erasure of nighttime ecosystem function that is already at risk due to diurnal bias in research and delayed action. It also contributes to resisting a return to a normal which has structured our worlds in an inequitable and systemically racist way.
  • Meaningful way to walk-with plurality of night experience – feeling safe within night is a privilege. In encouraging practices and experiences of ‘rewilding the self’, we must find ways to create a safe experience for all bodies. How do we address these gaps and narrow uncertainties around the night?
  • Developing sound practices of care in response to how technologies and processes are used to quantify and find value in biodiversity and subsequent claims for and on ‘wild’ land, considering how technocratic approaches can invisibilise or make vulnerable certain species in the process of their study.

References:

Egri, Ádám, Dénes Száz, Alexandra Farkas, Ádám Pereszlényi, Gábor Horváth, and György Kriska. 2017. ‘Method to Improve the Survival of Night-Swarming Mayflies near Bridges in Areas of Distracting Light Pollution’. Royal Society Open Science 4 (11): 171166. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.171166.

Hulme, Mike. 2018. ‘“Gaps” in Climate Change KnowledgeDo They Exist? Can They Be Filled?’ Environmental Humanities 10 (1): 330–37. https://doi.org/10.1215/22011919-4385599.

Kyba, Christopher C.M., Sara B. Pritchard, A. Roger Ekirch, Adam Eldridge, Andreas Jechow, Christine Preiser, Dieter Kunz, et al. 2020. ‘Night Matters—Why the Interdisciplinary Field of “Night Studies” Is Needed’. J — Multidisciplinary Scientific Journal 3 (1): 1–6. https://doi.org/10.3390/j3010001.

Plummer, Kate E., James D. Hale, Matthew J. O’Callaghan, Jon P. Sadler, and Gavin M. Siriwardena. 2016. ‘Investigating the Impact of Street Lighting Changes on Garden Moth Communities’. Journal of Urban Ecology 2 (1): juw004. https://doi.org/10.1093/jue/juw004.

Spoelstra, Kamiel, Roy H. A. van Grunsven, Jip J. C. Ramakers, Kim B. Ferguson, Thomas Raap, Maurice Donners, Elmar M. Veenendaal, and Marcel E. Visser. 2017. ‘Response of Bats to Light with Different Spectra: Light-Shy and Agile Bat Presence Is Affected by White and Green, but Not Red Light’. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 284 (1855): 20170075. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.0075.

Rebecca Huxley

Rebecca Huxley is an Artist and Researcher from Stoke-on-Trent, based in London.  Rebecca was recently commissioned by Eastside Projects and University of Birmingham to research notions of safety in urban spaces at nighttime, as part of the UrbTerr research programme.

Contact

rhuxley.com