Lighting Parks at Night

A recent piece in the Sunday Star-Times (SST) has criticised a decision of the Waitematā Local Board, of which I am the Parks portfolio lead, to consider not replacing light bulbs as they fail along the paths through Western Park between Ponsonby and Freemans Bay in advance of a full public consultation early next year on removing the lighting in that section of the park.

In a nutshell, this is because lighting can create a false sense of safety which can lead people into dangerous situations if there are not adequate sightlines into the park from the street and surrounding houses. As governors of the park, we have to ask ourselves, “are we giving people a false sense of security?” If no one can see what’s under the lights, are they actually making the space safer?

In any event, the section of the park that runs alongside Ponsonby Road will remain lit.

From the Ponsonby Road entrance.

From the Ponsonby Road entrance. Note the steep drop-off.

CPTED: An Evidence-based Approach

The rationale is based on Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles on the recommendation of Council’s Community Safety team and Police. CPTED is a multi-disciplinary area of study and research, applied internationally, which aims to prevent crime through urban and landscape design. A very useful summary of the seven qualities of safer places as summarised by the New Zealand Ministry of Justice can be found here. The principle underpinning the decision in Western Park is that when a path is lit at night there is an implicit guarantee, or at the very least a strong implication, that an area is safe to walk through. But lighting is only one part of the equation. There must also be people looking on to see what is lit. To quote from the Ministry of Justice guidelines:

[properly-used lighting] ‘does not lead people into potential areas of entrapment or concealment such as dead-ends (such areas should not be lit).’

This is an approach that has been successfully used in Wellington with lights removed in Central Park and from a path in the Botanic Gardens.

In an excellent piece by Brian Rudman written in 2000, he cites a report to the Auckland City Council Parks and Recreation Committee from then-Parks Manager, Jim Doidge, on lighting in parks.

The report says that a clear message from overseas research is that “lighting alone is not the best course of action. For example, if a park is well lit at night but is not intended for use at night, or is unsafe (for design or other reasons), then lighting can encourage people to walk through an unsafe space at night.” Additionally, lighting just one route encourages use of this route by pedestrians, providing the mugger with an ideal and predictable ambush site.

“There are strong arguments for lighting paths that are well-used. However, lighting should be discouraged on isolated paths or in parks where there is no surveillance of the space from nearby houses or activities that provide passive surveillance.”

A Site-Specific Decision

Western Park is a classic Victorian park, first opened in 1879 but it must be said that if we were to design and plant a park on the same site in the present day it would be designed very differently. The park is on a long, steep-sided gully and is heavily planted throughout with trees, ferns and bushes that create many areas of concealment. The bottom of the gully follows the meandering path of the old Tunamau stream bed and is planted in tall grasses and ferns. The Ponsonby Road end has a flat plateau that extends about 40 metres into the park before abruptly dropping away in a steep slope meaning that everything that is behind the flat area cannot be seen from the street. The height and nature of the planting at the sides of the park blocks the view from houses on either side of the park and there are dips and hollows throughout the park that cannot be seen into. It is a prime example of an area that does not have the CPTED qualities of ‘surveillance and sightlines’.

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These decisions are highly context dependent. It was a personal commitment of mine from day one of being elected to the Local Board not to make a decision about a park site that I have not visited in person. So what is right in a park sitting along a route that is used by a lot of people who are going to walk through it whether it is well-lit or not is not right for a park that runs to a suburban street. The approach of opting not to light part of a park is only effective if a park is not on a pedestrian commuter route. If people are going to walk through a park at night because it is the shortest or most convenient path between two areas that are highly populated then more work needs to be done to light and surveil the area. So, for instance, in Myers Park in the central city (running between K Rd and Queen Street) the Local Board is funding improved lighting and CCTV crime prevention cameras. Albert Park (between the University of Auckland and the city centre) is also in line to have its lighting upgraded. These are both very different cases to Western Park which leads from Ponsonby Road to the back end of suburban Freemans Bay. It barely counts as a shortcut as there is a safe, well-lit road, Howe Street, just around the corner. Given this, on balance, it is prudent to discourage use after dark.

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It is clear from reading the SST article that some of the commentators cited have not visited Western Park or even looked at it on a map. The reporter writes that the park is ‘between two popular entertainment areas’ meaning ‘Ponsonby Road and Karangahape Road’. But the paths under consideration do not lead to anywhere near Karangahape Road, they actually run from Ponsonby Road to Beresford Street West – severed from the Beresford Square that connects to K Rd by 13 lanes of impassable tarmac leading into Spaghetti Junction (see map). One commentator suggested that the park be closed at night. Anyone who has walked past the park will know that there is no way to do this without constructing a fence around the 300-metre long frontage onto Ponsonby Road. This is neither a desirable nor a necessary outcome. More likely, it suggests that the comment is being made without knowing the actual site.

From the lookout at Hopetoun Street. Even from  this commanding position, visibility into the park is very poor due to dense planting. Lighting will not fix this.

From the lookout at Hopetoun Street. Even from this commanding position, visibility into the park is very poor due to dense planting. Lighting will not fix this.

The story gives an account of an incident in 2010 when a local man was assaulted and seriously injured. This is a terrible thing for anyone to go through and it should never have happened but the circumstances are worth recounting here. It was about 3AM, the man had been out drinking with his friends and was ‘lured’ about 50 metres into the park by the light from a laser pointer. He was then set upon by a group of men and beaten. To make a rational assessment of what can be done to prevent such incidents happening again, it is worth pointing out a few things: 1. the park was lit at the time, 2. the man had not planned or needed to walk through the park, and 3. his attackers had taken advantage of the steeply-sloping heavily planted nature of the park to use as cover. I’m not sure any amount of lighting would have helped in this situation. Overseas experiments suggests that this is the case.

Lighting Can Actually Increase Crime

Last year in Seattle in the US, a city council experimented with brightly illuminating a park all night with high-powered lights. Police reported that call-outs actually increased for crime and disturbances as more people were attracted into the area at night. It was also observed that criminal activity took place in the same secluded corners that it did in daylight hours.

There is no changing the fact that there is no-one watching or easily able to see into the site and it is full of spots where people can be taken without being visible to passers-by. Lighting only along specific pathways ‘provides opportunities for offenders to watch potential victims in the illuminated areas, whilst remaining unseen in the darker surrounding areas’, according to Australian advice (see pp. 3-4).

In The Guardian:

Over-anxious Britons are placing a blind, almost medieval, faith in brighter streetlamps and security lighting as crime deterrents, according to a statistical analysis … [in] a study to be published in the British Journal of Criminology.

In the words of Martin Morgan-Taylor, of the Law Department of de Montfort University:

Lights in secluded areas are just that: nobody can see what the criminal is doing, and he has a courtesy light to illuminate his activities. So consider whether highlighting an area with light will cause more harm than good. Consider a completely dark environment; someone flashing a torch around will create far more suspicion in the minds of witnesses than someone moving in a lit environment.

If you want to read more, there is a useful summary of research in the area here.

This is a challenging topic to discuss as there has been an historic approach to respond to perceived danger by automatically installing lighting. I can understand the initial intuitive response that more lighting must mean an area is safer. But evidence does not support that conclusion. As elected representatives we need to consider the evidence, read the research, listen to experts, visit the site and carefully balance the options. Doing this myself has led me to the conclusion that there is no single correct solution that works for every park. Sometimes lighting is the right approach, sometimes it can actually put people in harm’s way. It is only one element in a complicated equation. Lighting parks creates a perception of safety but if that perception is an illusion, we are doing the wrong thing by park users.

In any event, there will be a full public consultation on this proposal early next year and no final decisions will be made until that consultation is complete.

About Vernon Tava

Barrister. Lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
This entry was posted in Auckland Council and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Lighting Parks at Night

  1. Bryce P says:

    Great article Vernon. I agree. I’ve long had an issue with the density of planting in urban parks. They don’t need to match the Waitakere Ranges. Also, paths follow terrain as they were usually done on a budget. Introduce bridges where necessary to even things out. Thin out the planting. Create sight lines etc. widen the paths – 3 m. Keep shrubs away from the paths but leave large trees but light the trees. Many ideas.

  2. Pingback: Interview on bFM about Lighting in Western Park | Vernon Tava

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