With the approach of the Christmas season, as strings of holiday decorations appear, Columbia, like most places, is turning into a veritable “city of light.” I look forward to these displays, both commercial and residential, as they temporarily overwhelm the place that I’m starting to believe looks more and more like the “city of glare.” It takes the onset of winter weather combined with the fact that darkness falls by 5 p.m. to remind me more than ever of our community’s illumination deficiencies.
Lighting here is the realm of contradictions. Some people say there’s too much light, arguing with those who say there isn’t enough. Others are bothered by the glare. Confusion abounds at some intersections as drivers try to distinguish the traffic signals from the streetlights. Then, one wonders if recent criminal incidents at several area parking lots could have been avoided if they were better lighted.
I’m reminded of how bright Columbia has become every time an astronomical event is announced, such as the appearance of a comet or meteor shower said to be visible to the “naked eye.” I’ve been following celestial events since I was a boy — the first comet I ever saw was Arend-Roland in April 1957 — and while largely inactive in that hobby now, I still dust off the telescope as I did recently to have a peak at Comet Holmes or try to. Unfortunately, my neighborhood is lit by a string of so-called “dusk-to-dawn” lights, so I headed out of town to look for this latest celestial visitor.
Residents of one Columbia neighborhood recently balked at what I believe were the city’s best intentions to light up a stretch of Forum Boulevard as a means of promoting safety and security for everyone who uses that road. Now that the city has backed off — pending further study — I wonder if this means, like the inmates who’ve seized the asylum, that residents now have the power to dictate to the city how their neighborhoods will be illuminated.
This reinforces my concern about the growing selfishness of people who seek to deny something that will benefit the community at large just because they personally don’t want it to happen. The protesters in this case can hardly claim to be exclusive users of Forum Boulevard, which they happen to adjoin.
What’s next? Will individual citizens and neighborhood associations start challenging municipal officials in other areas? It could become absurd and picayune with silly petitions mounted to question, say, the color of the police departments’ uniforms or wondering why a particular door handle was used on the recently installed restrooms along the MKT Trail.
While I hate to see the city stirred up in still another area — no doubt spurring another one of those ubiquitous appointed “commissions” of citizens — Columbia needs to develop a cohesive, uniform policy on lighting that will promote safety and take aesthetics into account. Safety without the glare should be an easily attainable goal. Let’s copy how some of the area’s auto dealerships have lit up their lots because they know how to do it.
Right now, the city’s most significant black hole is a portion of Old Highway 63 — the section south of Stadium Boulevard – that is especially devoid of lighting and in fact does not even have any helpful reflector strips attached to the guard rails flanking the roadway as it twists and turns on that hilly stretch. Given the number of students who course up and down that road every day, it’s a miracle, except for one incident I can recall, that the stretch of the road has remained mostly accident-free.
The dusk-to-dawn light has been the mainstay of Columbia’s illumination practice ever since the city replaced the old street-mounted standards several generations ago. Thousands of them glare at us, wastefully flailing light downward and outward all around the city and country because they’re cheap to acquire and easily maintained.
On the other hand, a few so-called “shoebox” fixtures have been placed along certain city streets that beam light mostly straight down, thus sparing drivers of the blinding, confusing glare of those dusk-to-dawn demons. It’s a pity that fixtures of this sort were not chosen to illuminate downtown Columbia. The latest lighting iteration is another bad choice that doesn’t bode well for the future. One can hope the fixtures chosen to brighten up our newfound alleys will flood those passages with light without illuminating the heavens. Let’s get out the lighting catalogues and spend a little more time poring over their pages and get it right for a change!
Al Germond is the host of the “Sunday Morning Roundtable” every Sunday at 8:15 a.m. on kfru. He can be reached at [email protected].