What does lighting design have to do with creating communities?

September 30, 2015 Denise Fong

Thoughts and reflections from the Seminario de Illuminacion IES Mexico 2015


As a lighting designer for the past 30 years, I have been fortunate to travel the world investigating trends in sustainable urban lighting design from Copenhagen to Shanghai, Toronto to Mexico. I’m passionate about sharing what I’ve learned through publications and seminars to help advance my profession and encourage designers to create energy efficient urban environments beaming with the right light.

This year I was a speaker at the 2015 International Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) conference in Mexico City. The overarching theme of the conference was connecting quality of light with the urban environment and how we make our cities safer and more pleasant to be in at night. The event gathered a wide variety of speakers from Mexico, the US, Spain, France, and South America. In good company, I presented personal reflections of the people and places that have influenced my interest in sustainable urban design while showing how my experiences connect with everyday work in lighting design.


Denise Fong speaking at Seminario de Illuminacion IES Mexico 2015.


My passion for sustainable design comes from a few places. First, I was influenced by the way my grandmother lived her life as an Italian immigrant who, along with my grandfather, supported their family with a small farm. They grew their own food and recycled everything before anyone even used that term. Hearing a speech by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. about the birth of RiverKeepers, plus my travels to Copenhagen, Malmo, and Berlin, where I observed sustainability in urban areas unlike any here in the US, also inspired my professional path. These experiences have developed my commitment to doing my part to create sustainable urban environments in the area where I have influence – lighting design.

Armed with examples of both good and bad urban lighting, I had a complex goal for my IES presentation: to illustrate how slight differences in light levels, light color, and light direction affect the human experience in the nighttime cityscape. In the discussion, I delved into the effects of light on the nighttime sky and ways that designers are working to develop lighting scenarios that lower the levels of light pollution in urban settings. I love sharing what the real light pollution culprits are with peers and showing how we can develop urban lighting plans that improve the overall quality of light.

Why the sea of examples? It’s imperative to study the community you are designing for. For instance, along the coast of South America, beaches are crowded during the day but considered unsafe at night because they are so dark. Extending the electric grid is problematic, so in one town a Hungarian design team developed a light fixture that is not only elegant and delivers a pleasant, controlled light, but also generates its own electricity with wind power. While it is a small installation, it points to the possibilities worth exploring where design becomes the problem solver.

Lighting designers have the opportunity to create neighborhood identity, help people feel safe, and reduce maintenance costs, electricity use, and light pollution at the same time through the quality of the lighting they design for urban communities. I am proud to be one.

About the Author

Denise Fong

Denise Fong, IALD, LEED AP, is a principal in our Seattle office and a leader of our lighting design discipline. Denise is the author of numerous articles for national publications on the topic of green design and building for a sustainable future and speaks frequently on this subject.

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