Using Streetlights to Strengthen Cities

By Margaret Scott • August 22, 2016

Across the world, streetlights illuminate highways, intersections, street corners, and all sorts of public spaces: alleyways, parks, sidewalks, and so on. Streetlights provide lighting to increase visibility, promote road safety for drivers and pedestrians, and to discourage theft or violence. Though experts debate the utility of streetlights for direct crime prevention, streetlights are nonetheless welcomed as one of many public safety strategies in urban and suburban communities alike. In recent years, a number of new technologies have emerged to make streetlights more effective and interconnected, bringing them into the discussion on how the Internet of Things (IoT) can improve service delivery in cities. Several recent improvements have made streetlights more efficient, more connected to other public services, and better-equipped to promote public safety through sensors and real-time information.

City Connectivity

As cities increasingly turn to network-based applications to manage citywide services such as water or waste, streetlights have come into the fold as well. Beyond the cost savings from converting traditional streetlights to LED, many improvements have also focused on building in more efficiency by embedding other capabilities in the streetlights themselves. Many new streetlight systems focus on ensuring that the lights work better together by creating networked LED systems that can be dimmed via a central control, or can alert the management system when an outage occurs. Additionally, a critical improvement to streetlights is to embed sensors, controls, wireless transmitters, or microprocessors – all tools that can enable the lights to register and share information, or even offer additional services such as wireless internet routers or video cameras. Depending on the network, cities can take advantage of tools to measure changes in temperature, weather, or air quality, or to be able to rely on real-time data for applications that monitor traffic, publicize parking availability, or assist emergency response teams.

Such a conversion process is currently underway, with a number of companies across the globe ushering in new smart lighting networks: Cisco’s “smart + connected lighting,” Echelon’s “outdoor street lighting” technologies, General Electric (GE)’s “LightGrid” pilot program, Global Green Lighting’s real-time grid control, Philips’ Lighting “Smart Cities” program, Silver Spring’s streetlights and sensors platform, and Telensa’s PLANet LED streetlights. A report by the Northeast Group, LLC estimates that there are more than 2,000 LED and smart streetlight projects ongoing across 90 countries. These range from more straightforward energy efficiency upgrades to networked systems. Examples include Madrid, Spain’s retrofitting of 225,000 streetlights in the largest single-city project recorded, and Glasgow, Scotland’s adaption of an “intelligent street lighting” program with a real time data feed.

In the United States, recent examples include Los Angeles, California, using Philips’ SmartPole Street lighting to integrate cellular data and wireless technology, and Kansas City’s Sensity System’s smart streetlights that not only operate more efficiently but also monitor patterns of movements, helping to regulate policing and allowing investors to prioritize economic development in areas that are heavily trafficked by residents. The Department of Energy has also acknowledged the need for better approaches to outdoor lighting with an “Outdoor Lighting Accelerator” program through the Better Buildings initiative, intended to share best practices for high-efficiency lighting networks and help municipalities and states make important decisions about how to approach lighting upgrades, such as through the outdoor lighting decision tree tool.

Public Safety

Given the ready connection between street lighting and public safety, many streetlight improvements and network upgrades have also included security technology. Emblematic of this trend is GE’s recent partnership with ShotSpotter, a company that uses acoustic sensors to quickly detect and locate gunfire to help police forces respond more immediately and accurately to gun violence. The new effort will embed ShotSpotter’s technology in GE’s smart streetlights, combining LED streetlights with ShotSpotter acoustic sensor technology. The partnership is part of GE’s “Intelligent Environments for Cities” program, focused on improving city performance through data and energy efficiency in digital infrastructure, and is expected to help broaden the coverage area of the gunfire detection technology and introduce lower per-unit costs. Rather than the current practice of deploying ShotSpotter technology exclusively in high-crime areas, the partnership allows communities interested in employing a GE lighting system to also install ShotSpotter technology across the entire streetlight network.

In the last decade, ShotSpotter has been implemented in more than 80 cities of all sizes across the country – ranging from Oakland, CA to New York, NY – as one strategy in a series of crime detection and prevention approaches. Once the sensors register gunfire, the location is immediately relayed to a police department’s central command and directly to an on-duty police officer’s smartphone, allowing for a much quicker and localized response. This real-time information can be particularly powerful in communities plagued by high levels of gun violence, where residents may be less likely to call authorities because of the threat of gang retaliation or fraught relations with the police. Over time, ShotSpotter has faced some complaints from participating police departments including false alarms, in which another sound triggers a response, the system’s failure to properly detect a fatal shot, or the inability of the system to track where the perpetrator(s) may have gone after firing a shot. Nonetheless, as the ShotSpotter system gains traction and combines with other networks such as GE’s smart lighting, the technology has significant room for improvement to strengthen public safety efforts across the country.

Overall, streetlights are just one example of ways that cities can take tangible steps toward embracing technology to operate more efficiently, improve service delivery, ensure public safety, and improve quality of life for residents.

About the Author

Margaret Scott

Margaret Scott is a Research Associate with the Rethinking Social Housing Policy in Mexico project at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. She is a 2015 graduate from the Master in Urban Planning program at the Harvard GSD with a background in housing and community development in the U.S. and Latin America.