Highland Park, Mich., New Orleans, La., and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Not three cities you might expect to see grouped together, and yet they all share one thing in common: They are grappling with outdoor-lighting issues.

The case of Highland Park, a suburb of Detroit, might be the most extreme. As reported in a Dec. 29, 2011, article in The New York Times, due to budgetary constraints and the resulting need to save money, two-thirds of the city's streetlights were not just turned off, but removed completely. In a city that once had 1,600 streetlights, there are now only 500.

This dilemma—a municipality's struggle to balance its budget while maintaining its basic city infrastructure—is not a new one. Other cities and towns across the U.S. have been facing this problem in the last few years, as I discussed in my Sept/Oct 2010 Comment “Lights Out.” Our darkening streets illustrate the magnitude of our ongoing fiscal crisis.

One has to wonder: Are city and town managers aware of the recent crop of streetlighting options and control technologies (available at different price points) that make greater energy efficiency, and thereby cost savings, achievable? How is it that some cities go dark, while others are promoting their switch to new LED streetlighting? Is there no alternative to the extreme measure of removing streetlights?

    “What is the lighting community's—designers' and manufacturers'—responsibility in helping not just to shape the lit environment, but to help inform those who make the day-to-day decisions: city managers, building owners, and planners?”

New Orleans is no stranger to grappling with serious urban issues, especially in its efforts to regroup and rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. One of the centerpieces of the city's downtown, the Superdome, is part of the renewal efforts and it received a lighting makeover in October. A ring of 26,000 LED lights now projects a carousel of colors on the dome's façade, along with massive logos for Mercedes-Benz (the company who bought the Superdome's naming rights). This new lighting is part of a larger $85 million renovation to the arena, and it is getting mixed reviews. The combination of the color-changing lights along with the overt sponsorship has many in the local press questioning its merits. It makes you ask the question: Just because you can light something, should you?

Then there is Fort Lauderdale, where a streetlighting replacement is under way along the city's beachfront route, A1A. This type of project is not uncommon, but what is new is that it complements the existing signage that calls attention to sea-turtle nesting season (March through October), making locals and visitors aware of electric light's sensitive adjacency to natural breeding grounds. Man's proximity to nature and interference with it, is a reminder of the consequences that our footprint has. Is such attention to the environmental effects of outdoor lighting something that all cities should be thinking about to a certain degree?

Each scenario highlights the care with which we must address the lighting of our outdoor environments. And all three represent, perhaps, the main issues that outdoor lighting challenges us to think about: the value of civic amenities such as streetlighting, the overuse of lighting for public displays, and the proximity with which lighting must coexist with natural habitats.

Ultimately, we must ask ourselves: What is the lighting community's—designers' and manufacturers'—responsibility in helping not just to shape the lit environment, but to help inform those who make the day-to-day decisions: city managers, building owners, and planners? How can we work toward creating a quality illuminated world even when a lighting designer might not be part of the discussion, as is so often the case?

To be sure, there is a great tradition of urban-lighting master plans, where light is used as a catalyst for renewal and growth. The challenge, as I see it for this year, is how to make the importance of quality outdoor lighting understood by all, not as an expendable choice, but as an absolute necessity.