Columnist: Lit-up Philadelphia: American City Model?

January 22, 2013

By Neal Peirce

PHILADELPHIA -- Paris has historically been the world's celebrated "City of Light." New York glitters in the dark, its Times Square literally drenched in light. Nighttime scenes glitter from London to San Francisco to Shanghai.

But Philadelphia, America's birthplace city, now shines with an ingenious mix of lights designed to please and inspire citizens and visitors alike. Center-city street lights have been rescaled for pedestrians' pleasure and safety. Buildings and statuary along the grand Benjamin Franklin Parkway, stretching from City Hall to the Philadelphia Art Museum, are now bathed in carefully crafted, state-of-the-art illumination.

And running southward from City Hall, along South Broad, the city's "Avenue of the Arts," several theaters and private buildings are now illuminated every half hour each evening by ingeniously programmed LED lights. The form is far from static: the LEDs, their projections constantly shifting color and form, play on and celebrate the architectural features of each building, even while they're coordinated with each other to create a single inspiring "show."

The man chiefly responsible for this nighttime wonder is Paul Levy, founding chief executive of Philadelphia's Center City District. It's the business improvement district for downtown, founded in 1991 and funded by mandatory property assessments on businesses. Back then, the center city was in sad shape: glass from broken car windows glittered in gutters, graffiti defaced buildings, crime was a serious concern, and people complained of street dirt and winds throwing up virtual "trash storms."

The district made a clean and safe, people-friendly downtown its top priority. It quickly deployed a 100-person corps to sweep and vacuum sidewalks, plus it brought in several dozen "community service representatives" to walk the streets, provide escorts, and help anyone in trouble.

Street lighting was a priority -- convincing the city to replace 30-foot high "cobra-headed" fixtures designed for cars, separated so far they left pools of darkness between them. The substitute: slender, elegant 16-foot lampposts spaced just 60 feet apart, which provide a uniform canopy of pleasing light to benefit pedestrians.

Today the district is far past what Levy calls the "City Drop Dead" era of the 1960s to '80s. The downtown is thriving with 40 million square feet of office space, 3,200-plus retail shops, and 713 restaurants. There were no outdoor cafes in 1991; today there are 273. Center city population is up 27 percent since 1990. Young professionals have flooded in: preschools and kindergartens are over-enrolled. Since 2000, 23,000 children have been born to center city parents.

Did advanced lighting "make" the plan for Center City Philadelphia rejuvenation? No -- basic safety and order came first. But Levy became intrigued with modern high-tech lighting. In 2004, City Hall was illuminated with lights from seven nearby buildings, and seasonally lit in bright holiday season colors. The same year, Levy learned of techniques then virtually unknown in the United States when he attended the world's top city lighting event -- the Lighting Urban Community International conference in Lyon, France.

Soon thereafter, he arranged for French lighting experts to counsel Philadelphia. To experiment and gain support, Terra Hall (University of the Arts) was fitted out with changeable LED lights in 2007. The lights actually dance in varied colors from one architectural feature to another in tune with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Photoshop was used to show other nearby building owners and managers how the LED lighting could be customized to celebrate their building facades. Big opening night parties were held, one in 2008 as a dozen buildings lit up in a coordinated light show in tune with Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite."

Some criticism was heard, especially that the lights consume power (and thus add to global carbon emissions). Levy's rejoinder: sustainability -- that LED lights are highly energy efficient, so that illuminating a good-sized building consumes no more power in an hour than a household clothes dryer.
But there's a barrier: the Central City District has to "sell" building owners on being LED-lit. And it's not always easy: the owner has to bear most of the design and cost of installing the lights, plus the power they consume. Yet landlords must also agree to outside control of when buildings in the area will be illuminated. Without the Central District's years of working collaboratively with building owners, Levy notes, the coordination job might be undoable.

Plus, varieties of arts, historic and street use permissions have to be obtained. It's not like Europe, where most lighting is on public buildings -- and simply paid for and managed by city halls.

Still, the value to any city in building its business brand, but even more in building citizen appreciation and enjoyment, the feeling one lives in a very special place, is hard to overestimate. The city is light, it's animation, it's dramatized, eye-catching architecture. Simultaneously, it's a show -- and a place -- for everyone.

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.