‘A full moon every 50 metres down the road’: Urban night sky parks to curb light pollution

By Angela Heathcote 7 March 2019
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The Northern Beaches may be home to Australia’s first urban night sky park. But why aren’t we applying good lighting principles everywhere?

IN 2016, Marnie Ogg and Siding Spring Observatory astronomers successfully campaigned for Australia’s first dark sky park in Australia in the Warrumbungles National Park. But she’s since set her sights on Australia’s most light- polluted cities: Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

What may seem like strange locations for good views of the night sky, are actually ideal candidates for what the Dark Sky Association calls ‘urban night sky parks’ – areas that are ‘“night sky friendly’”, rather than pristine.

“The Dark Sky Association realised that while places like the Warrumbungles are great, they’re typically a five- to- six hour drive from any majorly populated area,” Marnie says. “It’s important that we give examples of good lighting principles in cities as well.”

Last year, Marnie approached the Northern Beaches Council with the idea of an urban night sky park and a fortnight ago, they unanimously agreed to investigate its potential. The park would extend from Governor Phillip Park to Palm Beach.

According to Marnie, there are four requirements to fulfil to create a urban night sky park:

  • Lights must be night sky friendly, meaning they are warm in colour, used only when there is a need and are fully shielded.
  • There must be a commitment to public outreach and education about good lighting principles.
  • There must be a commitment from local governments and local communities to night sky friendly lighting.
  • An ongoing commitment to good lighting, including regular inventory of the lights being used in a particular area, when they’re used and how much they emit.

In 2017, it was reported that Sydney Observatory may become the first urban night sky park in Australia; however, it’s taken some time to get the appropriate approvals.  

Why not have good lighting everywhere?

It’s a question Marnie hears a lot, but she says it’s a complex matter. “Lighting in most councils is owned by the Roads and Maritime Services, and are privately outsourced to engineering companies who then supply the lights.

“Several councils have begun to write lighting management plans to be considered for an urban night sky park, but they don’t have much control over what kind of lights are used.”

Marnie says, however, that there is very little support for good lighting management from those who call the shots. “There is no support on a federal level or from an engineering body that’s committing to night sky friendly lights, in fact they can be the strongest opponents.”

While Marnie says she will continue to seek support from these areas, she’s focussing on getting the attention of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), who can assess the health and environmental impacts of light pollution and create regulatory guidelines.

In 2016, the American Medical Association established guidelines around high-intensity lighting after it was revealed to be affecting human circadian rhythms, animal reproduction and pollination.

“They recognised that streetlights globally are increasingly more energy-efficient and fully shielded, but the increased intensity, or brightness, brings the equivalent of daylight into a night time environment,” Marnie says..

France has recently introduced a nationwide standard for warm coloured lights of just 2700 kelvin – the measurement used to determine the hue of a light. The higher the Kelvin value, the closer the light’s colour will be to sunlight. In contrast to France, Sydney lights measure at up to 4000 kelvins. “It’s like having a full moon every 50 metres down the road,” Marnie says.

Recognising unnecessary light as light pollution

Light pollution, despite having similar health and environmental impacts as noise pollution, isn’t recognised by the EPA. According to Marnie, every element of the Noise Pollution Act could be applied to light pollution. “If you take out noise and replace it with light. You basically wouldn’t need to rewrite it,” she says.

The first step to improving the lighting principles in cities is creating a set of guidelines.

When  the standards around outdoor lighting were recently updated following a review by Standards Australia, engineers advised there were no regulatory guidelines for high-intensity lighting to adhere to, which Marnie would like to change.

There’s also a role for the public to play. “The public need to be aware that light pollution is like a plastic bag. You have to think, ‘Do I need the light on? How am I using it? Could I use it a better way?’

“When you purchase light bulbs from your local hardware stores or supermarkets, ask for warm coloured lights that are night sky and eco-friendly, then stores will have to supply them.”