With little public funding or interest, few American cities incorporate lighting design into their urban planning schemes. Not so for Philadelphia, where public and private support combined with the vision and leadership of the Center City District (CCD)—a business improvement district—have facilitated innovative lighting programs that are garnering attention worldwide.

Today, Philadelphia is one of the few American cities engaging light's potential to transform the urban environment, drawing together the city's varied, occasionally disparate facets that, as a whole, create a vibrant environment. Through its lighting plan, the CCD has used light as both a medium through which to illuminate the cultural assets of Philadelphia, and as a signifier of the vital, diverse metropolitan character of the city itself.

When the CCD was formed in the early 1990s, harnessing the possibilities of lighting as a social and cultural force was not part of its mandate. In fact, in its first years, the organization—which is chartered by the city and funded through mandatory property assessments, private donations, and some state funds—simply sought to increase foot traffic by creating a cleaner and safer environment, transforming it from a nine-to-five district to a vibrant 24-hour one. It was not until the CCD, under the direction of Paul Levy, secured a $26 million bond issue to tackle capital improvements that the possibilities of light to revitalize the urban environment emerged.

Focusing on creating an environment hospitable to pedestrians, the CCD sought to revitalize the district through streetlighting. Levy explains, “We really did not have a perception of uniformly well-lit sidewalks. Strategically, the most important investment that came out of that capital budget was a process of convincing the city to take down all the fixtures that only lit the roadway and replacing them with 16–foot–high, pedestrian-scale light fixtures that are much more closely spaced together.” This new, pedestrian-friendly lighting helped draw shoppers, theater–goers, and new residents into Philadelphia's city center.

Today, the CCD boasts more than 2,100 new pedestrian-friendly lamp-posts across 152 city blocks. Not only have these lights increased the sense of safety on the sidewalks, but they also help create a visual continuity—evoking the past without mimicking it—within the aesthetically diverse fabric of downtown Philadelphia. As Levy says, “At nighttime, you know when you enter our district.”

With the success of the initial streetlighting project, the CCD decided to engage with urban lighting on a larger scale. In 2001, with grant money from the Pew Charitable Trust and other sources, the CCD drew up a master plan for Benjamin Franklin Parkway, one of Philadelphia's grand boulevards to link the city's cultural and civic landmarks conceived in the City Beautiful-style (an approach to architecture and urban planning in North America in the 1890s and 1900s that relied on beautification and monumental grandeur to transform destitute urban places), but never fully executed. This marked a new era in the CCD's perception of the possibilities of light as a transforming agent. As Levy says, “We had a really interesting experience, starting to use light for more than purely functional purposes, but using it to light architecture and sculpture.“

Continuing its efforts to return the downtown to pedestrians, the boulevard was completely relamped with new, historically appropriate pedestrian and vehicular lights. In 2003, for the first time, the CCD retained a lighting design firm, Philadelphia–based The Lighting Practice (TLP), which is now the CCD's principal lighting firm. Lighting designers Al Borden and Julie Panassow of TLP devised a plan to light the parkway, creating a visual, illuminated link between City Hall and the Philadelphia Art Museum. Additionally, the façades of 12 buildings, including the art museum, the Free Library, and the Rodin Museum, along with more than one dozen sculptures along the parkway were illuminated by fixtures outfitted with 70W to 150W metal halide sources. In attempting to connect these buildings and works of public art, Borden says, “We looked at the area as a district and how we could make the travel route and objects along the pedestrian pathways more interesting, more attractive. We looked at all aspects of the parkway.”

Inspired by some of the large-scale lighting initiatives in cities across Europe, Levy was committed to take the concept of lighting Philadelphia's urban cityscape even further. After participating in the Lighting Urban Community International (LUCI) conference in Lyon, France, in 2004, the CCD subsequently called on TLP to illuminate the University of the Arts' Terra Hall, in the heart of Philadelphia's art and culture district. Using an LED-based fixture—LEDLine, TLP created a dynamic two-minute light show, occurring every 30 minutes on the hour and half hour, on the Terra's façade. With plans to light another 12 structures on South Broad Street by early next summer, TLP are designing a program to highlight the individual character of each building, while, as Panassow explains, “making the lighting vocabulary consistent throughout the district.” This program will include both color-changing LEDs and static metal halide illuminations.

In December 2007, New York–city based producer Lucette de Rugy of Artlumière, a firm specializing in theatrical and artistic lighting productions, crafted temporary illuminated projections for a series of Avenue of the Arts buildings: the Philadelphia Ritz-Carlton, and the University of the Arts' Merriam Theater and Dorrance Hamilton Hall, with the Hamilton Hall projections done in collaboration with the university‘s lighting design students. De Rugy was no stranger to illuminating Philadelphia's cityscape; she was responsible for the CCD's initiative of light projections onto City Hall in 2005.

De Rugy, whose firm has created artistic light projections throughout Europe and Asia, and here in the United States in cities such as New York, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia, is a strong advocate of the power of light, explaining, “Large cities in the world need to use light to stimulate events in the city, to attract the public, and especially to revitalize older districts. In the end, light is life. Color is life.”

In discussing CCD's unique emphasis on light as a key catalyst for a vibrant downtown Philadelphia, Levy acknowledges the many challenges his organization is facing. “I guess this is where we are, in a new territory, because as we see in Europe, it is almost entirely a public initiative. It is turning out to be a wonderful challenge to negotiate the many private and public interests involved in supporting lighting initiatives.” Going forward, the CCD will continue to incorporate innovative lighting programs. And, as the success of the lighting initiatives to date have proved, lighting has the remarkable capacity to rebuild connections and reweave the city's urban fabric.

Alexandra Griffith Winton is a freelance writer and design historian living in Brooklyn, New York.


PROJECTS | Center City Lighting Initiatives, Philadelphia—Benjamin Franklin Parkway, City Hall Illumination, Avenue of the Arts
CLIENT | Center City District (CCD), Philadelphia
LIGHTING DESIGNERS | The Lighting Practice, Philadelphia; Artlumière, New York
PHOTOGRAPHERS | J.B. Abbott, Tom Crane, Friedrich Foerster, Jason Smith (as noted)
MANUFACTURERS | Arc Lighting Systems, BK Lighting, Color Kinetics, Delray, Elliptipar, Indy Lighting, Panasonic, Pani, Philips, We-ef, Winona