Our physical abilities, appearance, and past experiences can affect how we move around a city. It influences whether we avoid a certain part of the city, feel comfortable using social amenities like public transport or even leave the house after dark.

Unfortunately, not all city designs provide equal access to encourage full, multi-modal participation in hours of darkness. Being marginalised in society, whether through gender, ethnicity, class, age, sexuality, or ability, can limit and hinder one’s ability to feel safe and comfortably navigate public spaces at night. A lively setting in a town square to one person can be daunting and exclusionary to another.   
The latest OECD Better Life Index found that a third of people do not feel safe when walking alone at night, while half of all female-identifying people do not. While this experience is universal and well known, there has not been a formalised way to address these lived experiences within the design process for cities. Systemic issues that significantly contribute to understanding public spaces, such as harassment, assault, and unease from state-sanctioned surveillance, often go unreported. This has flow on effects on the true value of using official crime statistics for designers to understand whether a space is truly safe or not, let alone come up with designs to address how safe it feels.  
Night-time lighting has the power to transform spatial equity. Providing the appropriate atmospheres from light and increased visibility in public spaces facilitates more crowds and regular use of the space. It also encourages engaged users who are more willing to care for the space and the people around it, fostering a naturally safer community. This process starts with listening to the voices and needs of the community.

Contending with lighting standards

The experiences of safety and comfort in urban spaces are affected by many psychological, social and environmental layers. At night, the presence of electric light ties all these layers together through the provision of sight. In creating spaces for everyone to enjoy and feel safe, the consideration and design of how we experience the night are just as important as designing for the daytime. Too often, designing for the night-time experience is reduced to a simple on/off approach with little consideration to the different people, activities, materiality, built forms and connecting pathways through and around the space.   

While we spend 50% of our time in darkness, lighting standards rarely address or consider how technical specifications of lighting interact with the urban environment to create atmospheres of fear and comfort for the people who use the space. Instead, traditional lighting standards focus only on numbers – the evenness (uniformity) and intensity (lux) of light landing on the ground. Our research has found that understanding local marginalised groups’ needs through a holistic lens of the wider urban context is crucial in developing inherently inclusive urban spaces.   
If not appropriately considered, this can significantly impact people’s mobility habits and feelings of personal amenity – compounding economic and social impacts for communities.  

The time is now for us to contend with and challenge the current design methods for the built environment. Our design decisions can facilitate the change that we seek to see in social attitudes, which can often take decades, if not longer, to shift. To create truly inclusive night-time environments, the design of our cities needs to start from a 24 hour and context-based response founded on listening to the lived experiences and needs of everyone in the local community.

Case study: a new lighting narrative for women and girls 

In 2018, we embarked on a research project with XYX Lab at Monash University to understand how technical expertise can change designs to address the negative experiences of the city from women and girls in Melbourne, Australia.   

We leveraged crowdsourced data from the Free to Be campaign based on over 900 safe and unsafe night-time experiences from women and girls in Melbourne, which found lighting to be the most important built environment factor in creating perceptions of safety at night. This crowdsourced data has allowed us to investigate the technical requirements for lighting to facilitate perceptions of safety in cities, fundamentally changing how we practice urban lighting design – moving away from the one-size-fits-all approach to lighting our streets. As a result, we have developed a unique methodology – the Night-time Vulnerability Assessment (NVA) – which we embed at the beginning of our urban design processes to address night-time spatial inequity.  

The NVA is an evidence-based methodology leveraging analytics to measure and diagnose the social, physical and atmospheric qualities that work together to affect perceptions of safety and design for positive experiences after dark. Developed in collaboration with our Risk, Security & Resilience, and Urban Design colleagues, the NVA formalises a quantification of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), and weaves in the Prospect and Refuge, and Broken Windows Theories alongside best practice urban lighting principles. The methodology inherently involves marginalised voices at the beginning of the design process, bringing together qualitative and quantitative datasets to holistically understand the environmental, economic, and social aspects of a space.

Applying the NVA to an external urban project allows us to diagnose site-specific, technical design requirements to implement impactful design outcomes to address social inclusivity in night-time environments. We then validate these issues through direct engagement with the local community in night-time workshops that create awareness and empower to bring about positive social change.  

The outcome of the NVA process provides asset owners and operators with a holistic overview of the practical and technical lighting infrastructure and design requirements to prioritise when developing a future proof night-time strategy or masterplan. 

Night time vulnerability video cover
Our lighting specialists talk about their approach to lighting our cities after dark and how our Night-time Vulnerability Assessment tool is shaping better design outcomes.

Putting theory into practice 

This methodology can change the way we design in the future and create night-time design outcomes that:  

  • Design light and urban infrastructure to address people’s needs and experiences instead of blanket solutions for urban public spaces. Combining a human-centred approach with new advancements in LED and lighting controls to reduce over-lighting and, ultimately, light pollution. 

  • Leverage smart analytics and GIS data for inclusive city design to create evidence and situational based solutions within smart cities infrastructure and urban digital twin networks for positive social change. 

  • Allows for shared value outcomes that are socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable for future cities.