Urban Darkness: Human experience of atmosphere and fear

Research output: Contribution to book/anthology/report/conference proceedingArticle in proceedingResearchpeer-review


The lighting in public outdoor spaces is often associated with the basic assumption that light creates a feeling of safety and darkness is related to danger. Especially around public urban activities, the lighting level is often high, and the distribution of lighting is often uniform. This can cause an unpleasant atmosphere, because of a lacking lighting hierarchy it is difficult to sense distances, materials, and contours of humans and buildings. To create inclusive outdoor spaces where people and surroundings can be experienced in a pleasant light, we need both light and darkness. There is a need to design lighting in relation to site-specific qualities, human behavior and to the lighting level in the surrounding context.
Due to the current energy crisis in Europe, lighting levels in public spaces are turned down and, in some spaces, even turned off to save energy. But the lowering of lighting levels is often done without assessing site-specific human and spatial conditions. To gain a greater understanding of how darkness is experienced, we must conduct field experiments and support people in developing their own vocabulary for the lighting they experience during experiments. We need field experiments where spatial and social conditions are considered when the lighting scenarios are tested. In field experiments, people can be supported in developing their own vocabulary of personal experiences of light and darkness, experiences which can be difficult to articulate because lighting is often something we take for granted.
This paper presents results from a field experiment at an urban tram station. Here the experience of space, surroundings and other people is examined through semi structured interviews with participant produced photos in two lighting scenarios. The vocabulary of words to describe experiences of light, developed by the test participants, is studied to get a closer understanding of the experience of increased darkness.
The results show that in some cases darkness can provide more visibility than light. When contrasts in lighting levels between two lit zones are removed, a visual contact is created between people in a space and people in the surroundings, which leads to an increased feeling of safety. The urban space becomes visible and site-specific qualities emerge. By taking the context into consideration and balancing lighting levels between lit urban zones a more calm and friendly visual environment is established.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationConnectivity and Creativity in times of Conflict : Cumulus Conference Proceedings Antwerp 2023
EditorsKristof Vaes, Jouke Verlinden
Number of pages4
PublisherAcademia Press
Publication date2023
ISBN (Electronic)978-94-0149-676XX
Publication statusPublished - 2023
EventCumulus 2023, Connectivity and Creativity in times of Conflict - Belgien, Antwerp
Duration: 12 Apr 202315 Apr 2023


ConferenceCumulus 2023, Connectivity and Creativity in times of Conflict
SeriesCumulus Conference Proceedings Series

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