Exemplary implementation of LED Lights at Yanaguana Garden at Hemisfair. Photo by Robert C. Trevino.
Exemplary implementation of LED Lights at Yanaguana Garden at Hemisfair. Photo courtesy of Hemisfair.

When I was appointed to City Council in December 2014, one of the first things I did to get to know my new Council colleagues and to wish them a Merry Christmas was to give them a copy of the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. The gift of that book was to convey that I, like the main character Jonathan Livingston Seagull, was about to embark on a journey of higher purpose. I use the concept of purpose everyday to make decisions in Council and it also is with purpose that I make choices as an architect.

Last week, City Council voted on an ordinance authorizing CPS Energy LED rates for five new streetlight rate classes as well as updated prices on the existing LED retrofit streetlight tariff. CPS and the City have been moving toward implementing this technology over the last several years and I applaud and support the adoption of this new and more energy efficient product.

These new LED lights have a much longer lifespan than the high pressure sodium lights that have been the standard for decades and they will be less expensive to maintain as well. Additionally, they provide a much truer and whiter light than the orangish-yellow light of the high pressure sodium bulbs, allowing for better clarity.

All of these things sound great, right? They are, but as the City continues to install these LED lights, especially downtown and in our urban core, we must be mindful that they, because of the quality of light they provide, may wash our downtown with its history and unique character, in bright white light. I advocate to design a plan for the installation of these lights in a well-planned and thoughtful way – with purpose.

Soft, ambient lighting at Yanaguana Garden at Hemisfair. Photo by Robert C. Trevino.
Soft, ambient lighting at Yanaguana Garden in Hemisfair. Photo courtesy of Hemisfair.

If we swap out all of the existing lights with an LED equivalent, we may significantly alter how our city looks and feels and how we interact with it. Imagine your favorite room in the house – what makes it your favorite? Is it warm and cozy? Does it have a mix of natural and artificial light, giving you enough light to read and get things done without giving you a headache?

Now, imagine if you replaced all of the lights in the room with daylight-hued, white fluorescents. You now have ample bright, white light in which you can read, but does it still feel as cozy? Can you still recess into the shadows to get a break from the brightness and do some thinking? The concept I am talking about is where quantity and quality meet, joined by purpose.

We have a great opportunity to design an environment downtown that can do many things. With appropriate lighting, we can frame our iconic architecture, showcase our compelling history, and further activate our vibrant center city. We must be sensitive to the layers of history and the uniqueness of place, especially as we approach our Tricentennial.

Our special buildings and spaces such as San Fernando Cathedral, Main Plaza, and the Alamo are not only important to San Antonio, they are important to Texas and the United States. They also connect us to the continuum of world history. Although these places require different considerations as we literally bring them to light, they all need the same level of thoughtfulness in our approach.

As we move forward with efforts to illuminate our downtown, we must purposely consider our architectural and cultural heritage while showing it off to its best effect.

The fundamental job of the City is to provide for the safety of its citizens. The City does this in many ways, the most fundamental of which is infrastructure – how the city is built. Streets, sidewalks, curbs, drainage and, yes, lighting.

We must ensure we light our city in such a way that we provide for pedestrian and motorist public safety as people move from place to place. This does not mean turning night into day, it means creating a path for people to follow.

Irby Hightower, a noted San Antonio architect who recently sat on a panel I moderated, provided a great example of this thought. He said a parking lot can be brightly illuminated to make us feel safe while we are in the lot at the expense of making the rest of the world feel even darker and scarier. It is the quest for balance in this design solution for which I advocate.

As an architect who seeks solutions through design, I frequently come back to one of my favorite architects, Louis Kahn, who said, “I sense light as the giver of all presences, and material as spent light. What is made by light casts a shadow, and the shadow belongs to light.”

The take away: American humorist James Thurber said, “There are two kinds of light – the glow that illuminates and the glare that obscures.” I think this applies to both the topic of lighting our city and the process by which we guide ourselves to do everything in government.

If we act with purpose (by design) and thoughtfulness, we can find solutions to our problems and be the glow that illuminates. I believe, as Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Let’s make our habit good design with purpose.

Click here for more information on lighting use and design, the protection of night skies, and light pollution as a design risk.


Top Image: Exemplary implementation of LED Lights at Yanaguana Garden at Hemisfair.  Photo courtesy of Hemisfair.

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Roberto Treviño

Roberto Treviño is a member of the San Antonio Philharmonic board.