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Pilot project in Jette could provide region-wide solutions to light pollution
Most people are aware of the problems surrounding air pollution, especially in large cities such as Brussels, but not many are aware of the impact of light pollution on humans and animals. A pilot project set up in the Brussels municipality of Jette could be a model for the whole region, reports Bruzz.
If you participated in Earth Hour on March 26 and turned off the lights that day between 20:30 and 21:30, chances are you did so as a symbolic action related to energy saving and the reduction of CO2 emissions. You probably didn’t think about light pollution, and you wouldn’t have been the only one. "Even environmental movements are not fully aware of the extent to which combatting light pollution helps the climate," says Stijn Vanderheiden, chairman of the working group on light pollution of the Flemish Association for Astronomy. "There is still too little knowledge about the damage caused by excessive and unnecessary use of artificial light."
Both professional and amateur astronomers are particularly interested in the subject because light pollution makes stars much more difficult to spot. "From space you can easily see our country because of all the lighting, but conversely, it's very difficult to observe stars here in most of Belgium. You can almost only go to the Ardennes for that," says Vanderheiden.
Beyond the lack of star-gazing opportunities, light pollution has a very broad impact on our fauna and flora, and also on human health. As far as animals are concerned, bats, nocturnal animals par excellence, are the most well-known victims. In bright night light, they are easy prey for predators such as owls or falcons, and artificial lighting shortens the period in which they can hunt themselves. Under normal circumstances, the light-shy animals eat large numbers of mosquitoes every night, thus playing an important role in the ecosystem.
"The light pollution also confuses birds and causes great damage to insect populations that are important for the pollination of plants,” says Vanderheiden. “Amphibians and fish also suffer from it. The consequences are very broad. There are fewer studies for flora, but the existing research also clearly shows that trees, for example, also need dark periods to stay healthy."
For humans, an excess of artificial light causes a reduced production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our internal clock and our sleep. That not only increases the risk of sleep problems, but also of stress, obesity, depression, diabetes and certain cancers.
Each area of a city has its own producers of light pollution. "Think, for example, of poorly thought-out lighting on the street and along highways, at monuments, on sports fields, in parks, greenhouses and shops," explains Vanderheiden. "Actually, there are hardly any places where there is no lighting. We have lost the idea that it is really dark at night. We have to think carefully whether all that lighting is necessary. There are many places where you can reduce it and even eliminate it. Smart lighting that switches on the light when it is actually necessary can play an important role in this. In fact, light pollution is one of the forms of pollution that is in principle the easiest to tackle, much easier than air pollution, for example."
"Look at building sites around the city,” says Friedel Pas, chairman of the non-profit organisation Light Pollution Prevention. “In principle, you should turn off those lights at night in such areas. You can solve a lot with lighting with motion detectors, which is also much better for social control."
"Elsewhere in the city, most lamps are also not well shielded, so the light is beamed in different directions, instead of beautifully from top to bottom,” adds Pas. “On a basketball court you can also install a simple light switch, with which you can turn on the light when it's needed."
The classic argument for lighting is safety. "Often that is a false sense of security,” says Friedel Pas. “On motorways with more lights switched off, people drive more responsibly, resulting in fewer accidents. And with lighting with motion detectors, suspicious movements, which can indicate criminal activity, are much better observed."
Many local authorities, including the Brussels Region, have drawn up plans in which they outline their policy on lighting, but according to Stijn Vanderheiden, there is still a lot going wrong on the ground due to a lack of expertise and because aesthetic aspects are given priority. The legislation also urgently needs an update.
According to Ben Van der Wijden, head of the biodiversity department at Brussels Environment, the discussions at the Brussels level are moving in the right direction. "While the last Lighting Plan from 2017 unfortunately does not address the needs regarding biodiversity, for example, a recent reflection on the lighting of the canal did listen carefully to our concerns about this,” he says. “Parliamentary questions about light pollution have been asked in recent years and the issue has also been included in the coalition agreement for the first time, which gives us a mandate to work more around this."
While politicians should play a leading role, Sijn Vanderheiden also sees merit in regional centres of excellence, which can provide the various public services with the necessary support.
Two years ago, the ambitious 'Bat Light District' pilot project in Jette was launched, where bat-friendly night lighting was installed for the first time in a Brussels residential zone. About 30 streetlamps in the Avenue du Sacré Coeur were equipped with this technology. The intention is to create a dark or light-free network, grafted onto the green zones in the north of the municipality. The project is the result of a collaboration between Brussels Environment, Sibelga, Natagora and the municipality of Jette.
A lot of action focuses on the problem of bats, partly because the animals have protected status in Europe. For example, years ago orange-red night lighting was placed in two places in the Sonian Forest, at the Rouge Cloître in Auderghem and in Watermael-Boitsfort, because this type of light is less disturbing for nocturnal animals.
Based on the results, other municipalities will be able to take action. "After this pilot project, we want to take the logical step towards projects on a larger scale," adds Van der Wijden. "We also need better monitoring tools to map light pollution more thoroughly, so that we can work on a clear scientific basis, averse to emotions, and also better visualise the problem for the general public. We are currently actively looking for additional resources to realise these projects."