Enlightened approach needed for cities of the future

Michael Downie, general manager Philips Lighting New Zealand and Australia, comments on the recent World Cities Summit and the role of lighting in making cities more liveable. 

The world’s cities are growing quickly. By 2020 the planet’s urban population is set to soar to around four billion, placing more pressure on cities that are already struggling to cope with their existing populations. 

New Zealand is no exception. Auckland city grows by about 20 people every day. Based on census statistics, over the next 18 years Auckland could gain over 140,000 people – a population about the size of Wellington. 

With this kind of growth, the quality of our urban environments will increasingly be a major determinant of our quality of life. And by a number of accounts New Zealand cities are doing well on this front. International surveys routinely rate Auckland and Wellington among the world’s most liveable. 

But how do you keep a city liveable as rapid population growth puts a massive strain on services and infrastructure that may already have outlived its used-by date? What’s more, how do you make it more liveable? 

These were the questions that mayors and urban planners from over 60 countries around the world grappled with at the World Cities Summit in Singapore in June, where Philips urged leaders to take concrete steps to enhance urban health and wellbeing. While contributing to conversations on a range of issues, we also put a clear focus on an essential component of urban design with the potential to have a major impact on a city’s liveability: lighting. 

There is an obvious case for putting lighting high on every civic leader’s agenda. New energy efficient digital lighting technology can reinvigorate local community, reduce crime, improve pedestrian and road safety, manage and significantly reduce energy consumption, and provide citizens with a sense of belonging and pride in their city. Better lit, more liveable cities also attract more business investment and tourism. Creative lighting solutions help to define the iconic landmarks that brand a city. 

The financial case is also compelling. Internationally, up to 50 percent of a municipality’s energy spending goes to lighting. Public and commercial buildings represent 60 percent of lighting electricity consumption globally. Through urban renovation programmes, a switch to new, energy efficient lighting technologies could help to achieve energy savings of up to  75 percent. With the right contractual arrangements in place with electricity providers the associated cost savings can be tremendous. 

From an environmental perspective, it is estimated that making buildings energy efficient could save more carbon dioxide than the entire emissions of the transport sector. 

But in spite of these benefits the current global rate of renovation of existing infrastructure, based on old lighting technology, is much too slow. For office lighting for instance, it is only about 6-7 percent per year. In city lighting, it’s just 3 percent. At this pace, it will take over 30 years before the environmental, economic, and quality of life benefits of newer energy efficient lighting technology will be realised. 

The continued use of inefficient lighting infrastructure is not restricted to public buildings and structures. Industry data indicates that globally one third of local roads and motorways are lit using cheap, inefficient technology. In New Zealand we are working with city councils to change this, with trials of energy efficient road lighting and controls currently underway in Christchurch, Waitakere City and elsewhere. 

Of course, a key reason why uptake of better lighting technologies is not taking place more quickly is that they have to compete with the many other demands on the public purse. One way of addressing this is for civic leaders to consider alternative procurement methods. 

One option is public private partnerships (PPPs), where new infrastructure is provided by a private sector partner and paid for at a fixed cost under a long-term service contract. International experience has shown that PPPs can be very successful in delivering win-win outcomes for public and private sector partners. 

Other procurement options allow the upfront cost of new lighting to be paid for directly out of ongoing shared savings from greater energy efficiency and reduced maintenance costs. Importantly, as well as helping to make the new infrastructure available sooner, these different procurement approaches provide strong incentives to deliver the best long-term value to councils – and ratepayers. 

More broadly, the different procurement options available give councils a greater level of choice in terms of the degree to which they wish to focus on infrastructure ownership or on managing for specific outcomes in terms of quality, cost and sustainability.

With the availability of both the technology and a private sector willing to work closely with local government to explore innovative delivery methods, the only remaining factor necessary to drive the uptake of better city lighting and the benefits it offers is political will. As one civic leader remarked at the World Cities Summit, only local government has the mandate to chart the future and provide the climate for the private sector to do its part. 

As the world’s cities continue to grow, strong vision and leadership will be critical to ensuring that growth happens in a way that improves the lives of their inhabitants. The development of every aspect of the urban environment will need to be carefully scrutinised to ensure it enhances rather than compromises liveability. In this context it’s clear: You can’t have a vision for your city without lighting.

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