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by Peter Moskos

April 16, 2008

Bright light! Bright light!

Bright lights don’t reduce crime. Good lighting might. Too often people reflexively think that the brighter the street light, the safer the streets. I don’t buy it.

Lighting sets the tone. Street lighting is no different. If you light the streets well at night (not just bright, but well), people will go out and, without even knowing it, help keep things safe.

In Holland, they call the concept of creating a nice environment gezelligheid. I wish we would take this concept into account when planning lighting and public safety in our public spaces. Candles are gezellig. Florescent lights aren’t.

Horribly bright orange sodium vapor lights are probably just as bad as having no light as all. You can’t have a romantic stroll under orange lights. You’ll never want to sip a drink under bad street lighting. Bad lighting makes people look ugly and tells them to go inside. Fewer eyes on the street make the streets less safe. Good lighting sooths people and lets you see the street, the stars, and the moon. Good lighting makes you want to take an evening stroll and kanoodle.

This came to mind while reading Eric Jay Dolin’s gripping Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. Ever since I first read Moby Dick (like 4 months ago), I’ve been fascinated with whaling. In Dolin’s wonderful book, he quotes John Adams making what must be one of the earliest references linking dark streets to crime.

In 1783, 46 years before Sir Robert Peel established the first metropolitan police force in London, Britain passed a tax that effectively banned American whale products. In 1785, John Adams made his appeal to the British to lift this ban:
The fat of the spermaceti whale gives the clearest and most beautiful flame of any substance that is known in nature, and we are all surprised that you prefer darkness, and consequent robberies, burglaries, and murders in your streets, to the receiving, as a remittance, our spermaceti oil. The lamps around Grosvenor Square, I know, and in Downing Street, too, I suppose, are dim by midnight and extinguished by two o’clock; whereas our oil would burn bright till 9 o’clock in the morning, and chase away, before the watchmen, all the villains, and save you the trouble and danger of introducing a new police into the city. (Dolin 2007, p. 168)

The appeal failed. Britain retained its protectionist policies. It’s interesting to think of the role whale oil (or the lack thereof) contributed to street crime and the establishment of modern-day police.

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