Public Works: Turning Out the Lights in the Big Apple
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Public Works: Turning Out the Lights in the Big Apple

Why a New York City councillor wants commercial buildings in the city to go dark at night.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by  Fraser Mummery, from Flickr

Photo by Fraser Mummery, from Flickr.

New York City’s skyline may soon look a bit dimmer. On December 8, city councillor Donovan Richards, chair of New York’s Environmental Protection Committee, proposed the Lights Out Bill—a piece of legislation that would make it mandatory for commercial buildings to go dark when workers go home. The proposed penalty for keeping the lights on after hours is a fine of up to $1,000.

About 40,000 buildings would be effected by the bill, according to City estimates. There would be special exemptions for buildings that require nighttime lighting for safety purposes, and buildings more than 20 storeys tall that can be considered “landmarks,” such as the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, can get permission to light up, too.

The municipal government says nearly 75 per cent of carbon emissions in New York come from powering local buildings’ heating, cooling, and electrical systems. Richards has called the Lights Out Bill an “integral part” of the city’s fight to reduce carbon emissions.

This year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged that, by 2050, greenhouse emissions in New York would be 80 per cent lower than they were in 2005—a target that the United Nations has set for application around the world. New York’s policy wonks call it “80 by 50.” And to help the city achieve that goal, de Blasio launched a 10-year plan to lower carbon emissions from buildings by 30 per cent by 2025.

Toronto has its own anti-lights activists, but they are less vocal about reducing our carbon footprint than they are about protecting our feathered friends. The Fatal Light Awareness Program Canada (or FLAP), has spent years advocating for lights-out policies that would stop local birds from flying into buildings. They say bright city lights attract birds, who end up killing themselves when they collide with windows.

In 2006, FLAP collaborated with then-mayor David Miller, Toronto Hydro Corporation Environment Canada, and others to launch Lights Out Toronto, an awareness campaign encouraging Torontonians to turn off their lights at night. In 2010, the City implemented the Toronto Green Standard, which included bird-friendly building restrictions and energy efficiency measures. Likewise, Toronto’s Green Building Guide promotes efficient lighting by maximizing natural light access, and encouraging controlled lighting practices.

Toronto doesn’t have the strict policy of enforced darkness that Richards wants in New York. But if the Big Apple is open to a radical green initiative, surely we can be, too.

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