Smart Cities, Outdoor Lighting and Urban Planning

Leni Schwendinger - International Nighttime Design Initiative
Leni Schwendinger
Director - International Nighttime Design Initiative

Smart lighting is a gateway to smart cities. Lamp posts placed in required spacing act as mounting armatures for the eco-system of sensors and devices that help city governments streamline services to their constituents. Here we consider how the lighting and tech systems can work together to expand the illumination of our nights. 

The wonder of these digital technologies is their electronic control. No longer do fittings just switch on and off. Lights dim, sensors collect data. It is through this flexibility that we can imagine an adaptive city which reflects the multi-faceted requirements of people and place.

24/7 + People 

Those of us involved in night time design evaluate the hours between dusk and dawn through a lens of space, time and culture. Space includes our built environment; the structures, edifices, landscape and hard-scape, water bodies, and other geographical features that make up our cities. Time includes the procession of day, seasons and climate - and our movement by foot or vehicle, throughout. Culture encompasses social relationships, traditions, and our rapport to each other and our locality. 
Consider the city as home. At night, outdoor districts evolve into illuminated rooms. Key to the thriving night-city are the people who inhabit these rooms. 
As a designer, my smart lighting lens is focused on the population traversing public space at after dark. Today, during the Covid-19 pandemic, a spotlight has been cast on key workers. Society relies on those of us who keep the urban-enclave engine humming: wholesale markets, waste collection, medical staff, cleaners, factory operators, those who make deliveries and maintain call centres, to name just a few. Additionally, people partake in cultural activities - music, theatre, clubs, movies - during the darkened hours. In a sense, these populations are the lighting designers’ “clients”. 

Planning comes before design 

Urban spaces are defined by use and character of the built environment. It’s essential that designers and manufacturers engage the local community to find out what problems need to be solved.

Designing an around-the-clock, smart city starts with a discovery phase that I call “Shades of Night”.  

This investigation, both quantitative and qualitative, is a comparative analysis of people, place and light. The study identifies the local population, their destinations or purpose for being in the area, and enumerates systems such as buildings, transportation, bars and parks, along with their opening hours. It also looks at how public and private lighting levels vary throughout the night. 

Shades of Night by Leni Schwendinger, Urban Lighting Designer

Once these existing conditions are recorded, strategic smart lighting methodology moves on to an envisioning phase. Workshops capture the relevant public’s current concerns. Critically, along with education about positive lighting precedents, wishes for their future nights are expressed. With the provision of smart enabling technologies for lighting, adjacent smart city technologies will no doubt be considered. 
The varied issues and applications should be reviewed and contemplated with citizen participation. In addition to potential public benefits, concerns regarding surveillance, privacy, which city departments will govern the technologies and how it will be shared, must be processed long before lighting infrastructure procurement and installation.    


A utopian night city would be truly malleable, with everyone involved in designing and using it in structured dialogue. Local governments would employ a lighting designer, while a citizens’ council would be engaged throughout the planning phases. All stakeholders would work with the lighting manufacturer, designer and other relevant agencies, such as planning, transportation, social welfare, economic development and digital portfolio managers to ensure a holistic approach to the city after dark. 

Municipalities each have their own governing structure, so one approach does not fit all. Priorities are set early on, and cities should consider which services can be improved with these new technologies. Street lights now have the ability to integrate sensors to help cities determine the quality of their environment, traffic, weather - all data that can be used to improve services. For example, measuring traffic levels can resolve bottlenecks, which in turn impacts air quality. Which tech services can be added for public good, such as WiFi, charging stations or information screens for better public transport connections?

Manufacturer co-design should gradually increase throughout this process. By the later phases, the manufacturer should be involved to clarify which priorities can be addressed by lighting and mounting systems - and how they would work. At this point pilots are co-designed with manufacturer, designer and tech experts to test operability and prove the value of the system to the client and relevant public. 


In a 2020 twist that nobody could have foreseen, the Covid-19 pandemic has foregrounded the importance of public space and open air. Landscape architects, park commissioners and public health practitioners have always advocated for access to nature and designed outdoor amenities to support urban citizens. The global crisis has made it clear that the world’s health needs this more than ever. Therefore, our mandate for welcoming, illuminated rooms in the open air is highly relevant - it’s time to play our part, after dark. 

About the writer

Leni Schwendinger is a published authority on issues of city illumination, She specialises in strategic urban lighting, public art and community engagement. Collaborating with municipalities, her innovative projects help to transform public spaces after-dark. The recently published Smart City Street Lighting Guidebook for the State of New York was authored by International Nighttime Design Initiative, of which she is founder. Leni is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the London School of Economics. 

Leni kindly agreed to write this guest blog after participating in our podcast which you can listen to here

Connect with Leni on LinkedIn

RESOURCES - reading and viewing from Leni’s vantage point

  1. Connecting Communities: Holistic Smart Lighting & Enabling Technologies Guidebook 
  2. The Invisible, Essential Night: Illuminating Cities for Essential Workers 
  3. NightSeeing™, Navigate Your Luminous City Program  
  4. The Collaborative Night: Where light and cities meet 
  5. Global Nighttime Recovery Plan: Chapter 3 Innovating 24/7 Cities