‘There’s too much light!’ Another LightWalk in Berlin

‘There’s too much light!’ Another LightWalk in Berlin

Everyday we move through our city, enwrapped in light. We are so used to this lightscape that we usually don’t think about how the light affects us or if we really need it. But this was exactly what I went out to do last week with 20 volunteers from social and ecological projects on a LightWalk at Potsdamer Platz, right in the center of Berlin.

To prepare my group for the walk, we had come together for a three hour seminar on the basics of light pollution. We talked about birds, bats, and humans, about safety, light design, and about the question whether light can be a nuisance and how we can use it in a smart way. Lots of theory to start with when we finally entered the twilight of this winter day.

Start of our tour is Potsdamer Straße, and although it is still early twilight, somebody immediately spots the blinking neon lights of a casino. ‘It’s annoying’, he says. ‘You get used to it’, counters a young man. And this is exactly what happens: we get used to irritations, no matter if it’s light or noise, accept them as part of our daily life and forget entirely how life was without them. Many people never experiences a dark night and few understand what light at night can do to your health. And since we’re missing the comparison between city nights and real darkness, we see no reason to change the lights and improved our quality of life. Because we think what we have is normal and okay.

Sony-Center seen from Potsdamer Straße. The tent-like, partly-open roof is illuminated from within, so light shines straight into the sky. There is also a line of very bright beamers on the left part of the roof.

But it is this feeling of normality I want to break up, and so I lead my group to one of the brightest parts of Berlin. While it gets darker around us, we stand at Matthäikirchplatz and watch the lights of Berliner Philharmonie, Sony Center and Potsdamer Straße.

One woman points out a line of beamers on top of Sony-Center. ‘They really bother me! What are they illuminating anyway?’ Definitely not the roof of Sony-Center, because this is illuminated in changing colours from the inside. Through the partly open roof, light shines straight into the sky. Seen from above, Potsdamer Platz is one of the brightest spots in Berlin.

Berliner Philharmonie

Next to Sony-Center is the Berliner Philharmonie and the Matthäi Church, both covered in yellow light. Here we can nicely see what is so common for buildings of interest:  flood lights direct the light from below towards the building, spilling lots of light around the actual object of interest. As a result, the entire area is brightly lit. ‘Why do they still have street lights here?’ a woman asks. The yellow lights are well received by everyone for their soft light, but it is so bright that they don’t seem to be necessary.

Matthäi Church

This comment turns the attention to the car’s headlights. ‘They are so bright today’, the oldest participant claims, ‘that street lights can’t keep up with them anymore. They need to get brighter to outshine the cars.’ A young woman says the many moving lights would confuse her. She doesn’t know where to look. This is especially difficult, when the car’s lights are reflected in the many windows of the buildings. Not an easy situation for road users.

Christmas lights at Leipziger Platz and Mall of Berlin

We leave Matthäikirchplatz towards the big Berlin Casino. Here, the small street is covered in Christmas lights. The leafless trees are full of moving lights that seem to rain down on us. ‘It feels like air-to-ground-missiles’ the oldest in our group comments dryly. Nobody gets a Christmas feeling and nobody wants to walk between the many brightly lit booths of the Weihnachtsmarkt. So we stay on the darker side of the road and make a discovery: glowing benches invite passerbys to sit down and relax. Cameras are taken out, two young women try a bench, but the green light is not comfortable enough to stay.

Inside Sony-Center

After a short peak on Leipziger Platz and the Mall of Berlin with their Christmas lights we enter Sony-Center. A huge, sparkling-blue bell swings above our heads, fairy-tale light creatures hide in the dark. There are lots of people around, it sparkles everywhere, but compared to the bright fake snow flakes of Alte Potsdamer Straße there is an almost calm atmosphere here.

We look back once more to the two skyscrapers that flank the entrance of Sony-Center: DB-Tower and Kollhoff-Tower. DB-Tower reminds of the bow of a huge ocean liner, its glass front brightly lit from within. ‘This kills hundreds of birds every year’, somebody says. In the background looms the dark brick front of Kollhoff-Tower.

Kollhoff-Tower (left) and DB-Tower (right) seen from Potsdamer Platz

They are both not beautiful, so everyone agrees, but Kollhoff-Tower’s mostly dark front offers an interesting combination of light accents and dark contrasts. DB-Tower, on comparison, is impressively bright, but boring.

It’s high time to leave the light and experience the darkness of Berlin. We stop at the entrance of Großer Tiergarten, one of the biggest and darkest parks in Berlin. It’s still bright here, bright enough to recognise all faces. We’re about to enter the residence of many homeless people and wild boar. Anybody afraid? ‘No’, says one woman, ‘but we’re in a group. It would feel different if I was alone.’

Light provides a feeling of safety and at first we follow a lit alley. A tunnel through the darkness, with a big road at the other end. But then we enter an unlit part of the park. Not entirely unlit, because Sony-Center, DB-Tower and Philharmonie sent their lights to us. A skybeamer moves through the sky, like a finger searching for something. Is it bright enough in this spot?

Lit alley through Tiergarten

Everyone agrees. Vision is even better than on the lit alley, because we can see what’s going on in the bushes and if there is a potential danger. ‘In the alley, everybody can see me, but I can’t see what’s happening next to the path,’ says one woman. The others nod in agreement.

‘Would you need a head lamp for running?’ I want to know. ‘Rather not’, says a young man, ‘but some light would be good when riding a bike’. The next moment he has to squeeze his eyes shut as a bike with a glaring LED light passes us. ‘Would be nice though, if people would direct their lights downward instead of blinding others.’

Straße des 17. Juni and Brandenburger Tor

We stay on the dark tracks until we cross Straße des 17. Juni, which leads to Brandenburger Tor. ‘There isn’t much space between the lamps here’, says somebody, ‘but then again it is supposed to be an impressive boulevard.’ We leave the light and follow a darker street towards Reichstag.

Reichstag with – here still unlit – Christmas tree

The Reichstag itself is sparsely lit with exception of its security area, which seems as bright as day. I wonder how much the security people can see when they look into the dark Tiergarten opposite of them. A large Christmas tree is set up in front of Reichstag, lit up by a single, warm-white chain of lights. ‘Now these are nice Christmas lights!” compliments the oldest in our group and the others agree.There is a calm, relaxed atmosphere in front of the Reichstag.

DB-Tower looming over the unlit Tuergarten. In the front you can see a small kiosk.

But there is lots of light around us. The brightly lit DB-Tower looms over Tiergarten, which appears black and impervious from where we stand. Nobody would believe the brightness we have experienced in there.

Now something else catches the eye. ‘Look at those dentist mirrors!’ says somebody and points out the street lights on the other side. Vertical light is directed on an inclined reflector and thus directed on the street. Not only will much light miss the reflector and go straight into the sky, but brightness is lost in the whole process. Much wasted energy, not to mention the glare produced by the reflectors.

Street lights with reflectors

It’s very cold by now, but I see how my groups is thinking about what they have seen in the last two-and-a-half hours. ‘We don’t need so much light’, agree several participants. An older man says, he will have a look around his district for bad lighting spots. The LightWalk has achieved its goal: all participants will see the lights of their city more critically from now on. They will aks if some lights are really necessary. Hopefully, they will address these questions to their municipality. Because only if many residents call for decent lighting, light pollution can be fought successfully. There are many ways to have a safe, efficient, ecological, healthy light. It’s called Darky-Sky-Lighting and all Dark Sky Advocates are happy to tell you how to do it.

Do you want to join me for another light walk through Berlin? Then have a look at this post: LightWalk in Berlin

Are you interested in a LightWalk through Berlin? Contact me at info@nachhaltig-beleuchten.de.

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