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Public Spaces

Accent lighting can transform the Mall

During the filming of Transformers 3, the production company placed lights under each elm tree in a section along the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool. This was a rare opportunity to see how the park would look at night with accent lighting on the trees.

Illuminated trees by the reflecting pool. Photo by the author.

Should this be considered as a permanent design? It was just a few years ago when the Park Service first added any lights at all to the paths north and south of the reflecting pool. The lamps were called temporary, and erected in a rush after a series of muggings.

The temporary lighting added by the production crew is similar to the sort of up-lighting landscape designers add to the grounds of elegant properties. Would it enhance or distract from the Lincoln Memorial? More photos below.

M.V. Jantzen is a resident of DC who bikes the region with his camera, documenting streetscapes, events, parks, and people. He posts his photos primarily to


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It's beautiful. I'd head down for an evening stroll much more often were it lit like this.

by Matt on Oct 18, 2010 12:04 pm • linkreport

It's pretty admittedly but I don't like lights that point upwards into the night sky and into trees where birds are trying to sleep. Downward pointing lights can be just as pretty and aid in the safety issue just as well.

by Tina on Oct 18, 2010 12:12 pm • linkreport

The Mall could be such a better space in so many regards -- this is just one of them. Among other things, all of the Smithsonian museums close at 5:30, which is really far too early.

by andrew on Oct 18, 2010 12:16 pm • linkreport

I like the look of the lights, and it would definitely improve safety in the area. However, upward pointing lights would only increase the light pollution of the area, and possibly harm the wildlife. My biggest concern is if the NPS has a $400 million maintenance backlog for the Mall, how would they pay to install the lights, let alone maintain them or pay for the electricity?

by James on Oct 18, 2010 12:30 pm • linkreport

Uplighting is a bad choice- more light pollution. Shielded fixtures with downlighting would be nice.

by Bob on Oct 18, 2010 12:34 pm • linkreport

Looks great!

I think there are tons of opportunities to creatively light spaces in DC. I remember just recently being on the Georgetown Waterfront at night and thinking that the Key Bridge looming as a dark object in the background could be lit quite nicely.

The shots of the reflecting pool show how even 'regular' spaces can be much more attractive and inviting with some well-designed lighting.

Modern technology also allows for some very cool effects that use color and LEDs for great effect. Look at the Eiffel Tower, for example:

Granted, something like that would be inappropriate for a monument to a person, but that doesn't mean DC wouldn't benefit from breaking out of the conservative styling from time to time. The beauty of lighting is that you can do that without actually changing the structure itself.

by Alex B. on Oct 18, 2010 12:37 pm • linkreport

Anything Jantzen shoots is beautiful, so I can't judge from the photos!

by Gavin on Oct 18, 2010 12:37 pm • linkreport

Although I'm generally sympathetic to the dark-skies arguments, for astronomical observation and to avoid disrupting circadian habits of wildlife, I'd agree that a thriving city, as ours should be, ought to be bright, lively, and lit up at night.

At risk of getting off topic--lighting for "safety" really ought to be re-examined. The Chicago Alley Lighting Project, which is perhaps the most extensive study of the effects of lighting on crime, found that additional lighting led to an increase in crime at night. Two explanations for this: criminals need to see what they're doing, and more light helps them do this better; and additional light calls attention to potential targets, in effect advertising that "there's something valuable here." At least part of the association of more light with safety can be traced back to marketing campaigns by lamp manufacturers: safety sells, of course, and I've seen early GE ads touting GE streetlamps as being "like a policeman on every corner" or some such.

Much of the way in which the connection between lighting and safety were developed and persist in the public imagination is likely analogous to notions of road and traffic safety.

by thm on Oct 18, 2010 12:40 pm • linkreport

Not until after they install sprinklers to keep the grass, grassy.

by Redline SOS on Oct 18, 2010 12:42 pm • linkreport

What's funny is that if these fixtures were made permanent, in a way, Michael Bay would have actually made a contribution back to society.

by Chris L on Oct 18, 2010 1:07 pm • linkreport

^ Of course, this by no means excuses him from the atrocities that are Transformers 1 and 2.

by Chris L on Oct 18, 2010 1:08 pm • linkreport

It would be nice, but I've basically given up on the Mall. There's clearly no interest or fiscal capacity at NPS to make it a nice space beyond what it is now.

by Dan Miller on Oct 18, 2010 1:47 pm • linkreport

Uplighting can achieve dramatic effects using only a tiny bit of light. If you're really concerned about a dark sky, ditch the ubiquitous DC streetlight design, those throw light everywhere, and god forbid you live next to one. Not even the best engineered light blocking drapes can keep those things out of your house.

by spookiness on Oct 18, 2010 1:55 pm • linkreport

The most surprising thing is that we have a bunch of outsiders here come in and show us how pretty the city could be.....

by Jasper on Oct 18, 2010 2:00 pm • linkreport

Great blog post! Since I am an outdoor lighting contractor in the Northern VA/DC Metro area, I think the temporary lighting set up on the Mall for the Transformers 3 movie looks great! Making the landscape lighting a permanent design would really add a lot to the look of the National Mall and make it safer in the evening.

M.V. - could I get your permission to use some of your pictures for a blog post on my blog? I'd love to share your photos; it really shows how the up lighting gives such a dramatic effect to the Mall.

by Patrick Harders - Outdoor Lighting Perspectives of Northern Virginia on Oct 18, 2010 2:26 pm • linkreport

Agree with others that more upward pointing lights are to be avoided. Not to mention that unless you could make these run on solar electricity, they would really be a waste of fossil fuels.

On the other hand, this kind of thing could be done on "special occasions." As I recall, many years ago the Oakland - SF Bay Bridge was strung with lights only during the Christmas season, as were the various Embarcadero office towers. (I've lost track as to whether that is still only seasonal....). Why couldn't we do the same thing with this, lighting the Key Bridge, etc? It would lend some civic cheeriness to the season and shift the balance back a bit from the commercialization of all our cultural holidays.

by Josh S on Oct 18, 2010 2:31 pm • linkreport

Downlighting is okay. Uplighting is bad. It's one of the best policy decisions the NPS has ever made, and you can see it taking shape in many of our national parks.

It's interesting how advances in light technology that have made lights more energy efficient, like CFLs and LEDs, have only led to MORE overall lighting. There aren't as many dark places as there used to be. (This was the subject of a recent NYTimes article.) Unlit places are probably something which should be protected. The mall doesn't need a light show like Niagra Falls.

by aaa on Oct 18, 2010 3:43 pm • linkreport

it's very pretty, but there are better uses for the $$ and the waste of energy would be unforgivable.

by AJ on Oct 18, 2010 4:13 pm • linkreport

...strung with lights only during the Christmas season, as were the towers

Rosslyn already does this.

by Rosslyn Carter on Oct 18, 2010 4:36 pm • linkreport

People have made note of potential effects on wildlife, but what about the trees themselves? Are they hurt by perpetual light?

by Arbor Queen on Oct 18, 2010 4:38 pm • linkreport

Work scheduled to start on the Reflecting Pool later this month will include lighting along the Elm Walks, but it will be downlighting, not uplighting.

by Chris in DC on Oct 18, 2010 6:04 pm • linkreport

The thin light poles that were installed at the new Waterfront Station could work in this context. I think they're supposed to create a diffuse, dappled light as the trees grow in around them, so that the tree canopy also limits light pollution:

That said, I kind of agree on the cost issue.

by Mary on Oct 18, 2010 6:13 pm • linkreport

Re uplighting: yes, I'd agree light pollution should be avoided, but note the "temporary" lights installed all point upwards (see and

This poor shot from 2006 ( almost funny: when the muggings were getting press and embarrassing the NPS, they did what any good agency does: they erected a sign (instead of warning people about muggings, they obliquely let people know "Night Lit Paths" are available a block away).

Re the Smithsonian's hours: in the summer, the big 3 (Air & Space, Natural History and American History) often stay open till 7:30, though this is oddly under-publicized (and not always guaranteed).

And note when the American History museum renovated, they lit up their trees on the south side, at least during the Christmas season:

More than anything else on the Mall, I would add light to the Smithsonian Castle, which looks so dreary at night. And yes, Key Bridge would look great lit up. (And of course the Dupont fountain needs underwater lights, but that's a separate post!)

I've never believed lights help prevent crime - unless we're talking about preventing vampire attacks. And frankly, I'd be OK with removing the temporary lights from the reflecting pool and returning it to the night darkness.

Hey, I liked Transformers I!

Does anyone know if the NPS's plan for the pool makes references to new lighting?

by M.V. Jantzen on Oct 18, 2010 9:30 pm • linkreport

It's true, M.V. Jantzen can't take a bad picture, but even with that said, can we perhaps compromise and designate a certain area with upward facing lighting and keep other parts more nature loving?

@M.V.: Lights only prevent the sort of crime that the always excellent dilettantes on the Hill are trying to prevent, until of course Lawrence v. Texas exempted the kind indoors, but safely leaving the out of doors with the frisson that only sex in the dark and leafy undergrowth can provide.

by copperred on Oct 19, 2010 4:05 am • linkreport

I do like the lighting idea. If there is concern about light pollution we don't necessarily have to keep the lights on from sundown to sunrise. I think 10pm would be great.

As for funding, does the National Mall not have a "Friends of" group like the National Zoo has "FONZ". I don't think a "Friend of" group can realistically raise funds make dramatic improvements but I'd think incremental improvements like lighting would be feasible.

by Paul on Oct 19, 2010 12:41 pm • linkreport

Oh now that looks snazzy! I would love to see that kind of visual eye-candy added to our national monuments. Keeping in mind however, that the lights would probably be of little use once the trees have lost their leaves, and may need to be turned off during the winter to conserve electricity.

by Matt on Oct 19, 2010 1:10 pm • linkreport

I work for the NPS and am 1 of only 4 electricians that take care of all electrical issues in DC we do all the memorials street lighting in some areas and penn ave. while I agree that more light is needed in some area it would be impossible to maintain as the public has called for less government spending the have cut our budget which turns into not hiring anymore help. the lights along the paths a currently being replaced with new ones as is the whole reflcting pool. So simply installing new lights would work but only until the bulbs blow then it would look like crap with lights that dont work. And as for the comment about sprinkler systems most of are areas do have them but can't be used or have been broken from all the activities that are help on the mall.

by Scott on Oct 28, 2011 11:15 am • linkreport

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