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A Brighter Approach For City

March 26, 2006
Commentary By TOM CONDON

Bob Crelin always liked astronomy. So one night in 1994, he decided to take his daughter out in the yard of their Branford home to look at the Milky Way, as he'd done as a boy in town.

They looked up. They could not see the Milky Way. It was gone, lost somewhere behind the artificial sky glow of light pollution. Crelin was angry, disappointed, frustrated - all the emotions that make for a proper epiphany. He began studying outdoor lighting, and quickly concluded that most places were over-lit and poorly lit at night, and wasted vast amounts of energy in the process.

It was one of those things that seemed obvious, once you were aware of it. For well over a decade, he's been making people aware of the problem - indeed, he is the pied piper of smart lighting in Connecticut. Crelin spearheaded an outdoor lighting regulation in Branford, passed in 1997, and has been an adviser to many other communities looking to curb excess lighting. He and fellow activist Leo Smith of Suffield and others have gotten two state laws and a state building code amendment passed requiring fully shielded streetlights and floodlights. The 2003 law curbing floodlights in public areas was the first law of its kind in the country.

Crelin, a designer/illustrator and musician who now lives in Guilford, has also invented a light fixture called the GlareBuster that eliminates glare and "light trespass." He speaks to school groups and has even written an elegant children's book, "There Once Was a Sky Full of Stars," that will be reissued in hardcover this spring.

He is a sturdily built man in his 40s, with blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. On a recent night we drove around Hartford, looking at the lighting.

His first impression: There's too much of it.

He stared at the Lafayette statue on Washington Street near the Capitol for a moment. "Look at this. There's so much ambient light here that the statue is fully illuminated without a light on it."

City hall and Capital Community College, formerly G. Fox department store, are fully washed in frontal light, aimed from down to up. "It says `Look at me!' and a lot of light escapes to the sky." He thinks the lighting on Travelers Tower is luminary overkill, "headlights from hell."

He rather liked the small illuminated logo of the Metropolitan District Commission building, which illustrates the building by understatement, as does St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church by simply illuminating the church doors.

The Old State House looked to Crelin as if the lighting hasn't been finished. It had big hot spots in some areas and virtually no lighting in others. The effect is "very flat, very uneven."

He suggested that lighting it downward from the eaves, instead of upward from the ground, would work better.

There's a conventional assumption that lighting equals safety. Not always. We stopped at an apartment building in the South End with three floodlights on the front of the building aimed at the street. Crelin said someone could stand next to the building behind the lights and be obscured. The goal is visibility, and he said glare lighting often inhibits visibility.

We made our way back to the Capitol. The dome is lit in the manner that several churches light their steeples. (Crelin thought St. Joseph's Cathedral looked like something from Star Wars or Disneyland, with the modernistic steeple seemingly suspended in the sky.)

The high-pressure sodium bulbs, though energy-efficient choice, give the Capitol a slightly orangey look. The State Library across the street, by contrast, looks green.

Color isn't really the issue with Crelin. He's concerned about light pollution and the tremendous waste of resources that goes with it.

The answer is to limit or even stop full-scale decorative illumination of buildings at night.

"It may seem like a bold thing to ask for, but it's really just common sense. Do we really need to light up these buildings? I'm an artist and I understand the artistic appeal, but it comes at too high a cost. "

"We live in a big terrarium and we're polluting the air to do this. We're losing the stars, and causing environmental problems. And it's an enormous waste of money. You have to ask if the cost is justified."

He thinks shutting off the lights would be a hugely positive environmental statement and asks, "What do you lose?" He thinks most people, having seen them, no longer even look at lit buildings at night.

As an example, for many years there was an effort in Middletown to completely light the Arrigoni Bridge over the Connecticut River. Project estimates showed an approximate cost of $10,000 a year for the electricity, yet only 5 percent of the light would actually hit the bridge, the rest drifting into the sky.

The bridge manages to get by with street lights.

Crelin doesn't blame anyone or call names; he still believes this is a matter of making people aware of the problem. "Years ago, we had this beautiful starry sky, and for much of Connecticut it's just been obliterated. That doesn't have to be. We can safely light the streets and sidewalks and have the stars, the beauty of the night, as well."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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