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Urban Moonlight
Andy Mattern


A meme self-organized itself in my bookmarks recently, clustering together internet detritus around the subject of city lights.

Included is a satellite image, published on NASA's Earth Observatory, of North America and its constellations of urban brightnesses at night. It's a classic image that most have probably seen before in many iterations, but this particular one received more than the usual attention because of the large, luminous smudge in North Dakota. Sprawled out over an area equal to, if not larger than, Chicago's but over one of the least-densely populated parts of the country, it's the “home to the Bakken shale formation, a site where gas and oil production are booming.” While some, including me, have mistakenly thought the lights were all due to gas flaring, only “a few are evidence of gas flaring.” In fact, most are “associated with drilling equipment and temporary housing near drilling sites.”

There's also the image of New York in complete darkness save for the Milky Way in all its possible brilliance in the night sky. Several other cities are also rendered as their parallel world selves aglow with galactic light. Though Chicago isn't among them, images of the city's grid at night — the greatest built landscape in the world, in my opinion, second only to the Public Land Survey System and Central Park, and maybe Greater Los Angeles and Florida, but it's up there — pop in now and then in my Tumblr dashboard, most recently this amazing photo by Jim Richardson, part of a series that also includes this more panoramic view of the city irradiating some passing clouds. In other words, the Milky Way may be blotted out, but you can still go to the top of Sears Tower and watch the Andromeda Galaxy spread out over the prairie, half-swirling around the gravity well of the supercloverleaf in the West Loop, flinging motorists into and out of the city.

Andy Mattern


Before I come around to the photos decorating this post, I want to point out the photos taken from the International Space Station by its current commander, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield), who I recently started following on Twitter. Many of his orbital snaps got snagged by the meme, among them are of Kolkotta (“at night, definitely not the 'Black Hole of Calcutta' of legend”); Lisbon (“at night - black water, intricate spiderweb of surrounding towns”); Pyongyang; and Tehran with its “bright blue oval” bracelet.

Though he hasn't tweeted a photo of it yet, the residents of Hadfield's hometown of Sarnia in Ontario, lit up their city last Friday night, sprucing themselves up in a coordinated effort for their remote portrait, as it were. Light pollution has never been so tinge with romanticism and nostalgia: earthbound creatures sending out beacons out to spacefarers plying through “orbital darkness,” reminding them of home.

As opposite to the photo-poetics of Hadfield and Sarnia as one can possibly get, BBC News reported last week the “rise in the number of incidents in which handheld lasers are being used to distract airline pilots flying over London.” The statistics are quite astonishing: “in 2010 there were 145 reported incidents. In 2012 the number rose to 252.” Enraging astronomers, turning urban wildlife into insomniacs and aggravating the nature deficit syndrome of other city dwellers are one thing, but this part of the photonic smog spectrum causing airplane crashes is horrifyingly another.

Andy Mattern


To add to this meme, then, are these images of moonlight towers in Austin, Texas, photographed by Andy Mattern “at their most visible moment just after they turn on at dusk.” Quoting the project statement:

In 1895, the City of Austin acquired a novel street-lighting system from Detroit consisting of thirty-one 165-foot tower lights. Their cool glow and looming height earned them the popular moniker “Moonlight Towers.” In the 1930s, however, the towers were all but obsolete due to the advent of newer, brighter street lamps that were closer to the ground. Over the years for a variety of reasons including public safety and urban growth, more than half of the original towers have been removed.


Indeed, to also quote our go-to reference:

The structures were popular in the late 19th century in cities across the United States and Europe; they were most common in the 1880s-1890s. In some places they were used when standard street-lighting systems — using smaller, shorter, and more numerous lamps — were impractically expensive. Other times they were used in addition to existing gas street lighting. The towers were designed to illuminate areas often of several blocks at once. Arc lamps were the most common method of illumination, known for their exceptionally bright and harsh light.


Of the cities that once used to operate such a street-lighting system, Austin is “the only city in the world known to still” do so.

Andy Mattern


Since this is winter, the chronic period of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), I am reminded of, firstly, the Austrian town of Rattenberg and its unrealized plans to install heliostats that would have redirected sunlight to “a dozen 'hotspots' — areas not much bigger than a front yard scattered through the town, where people can gather and soak up rays.” Even more awesome, these Sunlight Towers also would have shone light “onto building facades to show daylight slowly turning to dusk.” In other words, buildings in the mountain's shadows are turned into public cinemas playing artificial weather spectacles everyday. (Except on cloudy days.)

Secondly, I'm reminded of Perpetual (Topical) SUNSHINE, a public installation by fabric | ch. A screen composed of 300 infrared light bulbs, this Tropical Tower allows winter sun bathers to soak in “an abstract and never-ending, planetary form of day and of summer, across longitudes and time zones.” You might be “out of sync both temporally and climactically” from the rest of the city, but perhaps this asynchronous urban space will light blast your mental health back into some semblance of normality.

Andy Mattern


Picking up the possible psychiatric benefits of these light towers, Moonlight Towers could be reinstalled in sun-deprived northern cities, turning downtown plazas, city parks, and the everyday sidewalks and alleyways into solar sanitariums for the depressives, the moody and the bipolars. Usually dead spaces in the winter, they'll teem with people in search of light therapy. In other words, Prozac Plazas. Not a deterrence against thieves and rapists but against fatal mood swings.

You won't be able to see the stars at night, but at least you're not going to kill yourself.

2 COMMENTS —
  • woozy mizzenmast
  • February 13, 2013 at 7:07:00 AM CST
  • Thanks for posting this. I went to college in Austin and before graduating I went moontower hunting with a few friends late one night. It was a lot of fun and a very surreal experience looking up at these otherworldly lights. It was great to revisit that memory when I saw this on my blog feed. Cheers


  • Eli Chiasson
  • March 7, 2013 at 9:38:00 AM CST
  • Funny, The Atlantic just put up a story of the same topic:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/03/tower-of-light-when-electricity-was-new-people-used-it-to-mimic-the-moon/273445/

    I wonder if the author read your post first? No mention of it in the article, nor the comments.


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