Light Pollution and the “Buildings as Sign” Problem

By Dom Nozzi

There is an “invisible” — yet nevertheless important — quality-of-life issue: light pollution. Invisible because it is rarely discussed as a problem. In my opinion, light pollution has become an epidemic in our communities because, increasingly, retailers discover that excessive lighting is a handy way to attract the attention of the 40,000 motorists driving by each day on arterials. It is also a convenient way to evade those pesky sign ordinances because excessive lighting allows the retailer to make her/his entire building a sign at night. This, then, is the “building as sign” problem that we often see in our towns — especially with chain retailers, who also like to use “icon architecture” to make their building a sign during the day. Solar-Gas-Sation

Light pollution problem has accelerated in recent years as a result of many cities engaging in more effective enforcement of their sign ordinance.

A number of newer gas stations will use a high canopy over the fueling stations. The bright, glaring lights underneath the canopy makes the place look, in the words of Jim Kunstler, like a “UFO Landing Strip” which can be seen from miles around. Other retailers like to line their exterior walls or parking lots with lights that spill upward and across property lines.

Of course, retailers like to grab the moral high ground on this issue by claiming that the sole purpose of all this excessive lighting is for “public safety,” or the “safety of customers.” As a result, citizens and decision-makers often look upon those concerned about light pollution as people who are insensitive to public safety. We often forget, however, that bright lights can make shadows darker, thereby creating better places for criminals to hide, or that glaring lights can cause traffic accidents.

It is only a pleasant coincidence for the retailer that this “safety” lighting happens to make the entire building a glaring billboard to attract customers.

Controlling light pollution is an important element in retaining a pleasant ambiance for our community, not to mention the needs of our wildlife and star-gazing public.

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