Warm light for a cold winter night in Tartu

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Author: Karl Saidla

Winter darkness is for real here. In December, the sun comes up after 9, and disappears between 3 and 3:30. If you are going or coming home from work or school, or doing any other kind of extra curricular activity, it will be dark.

It is also cold. Not as cold on average as it is at my home near Ottawa (Canada), but the routine is the same – you need warm boots, a heavy jacket, a hat, scarf and mitts every time you leave the house. Over the past winter the sidewalks and streets were usually covered in snow or slush, and the wind had that familiar bite.

But here in Tartu, during winter evenings the streets always have a distinct and very human feeling of coziness. While a number of features help to create this – the narrow streets, the  colourful wooden houses and the smell of woodsmoke from their chimneys – undoubtedly an important contributor is the way the city is lit.

Kassitoome urban sledding

This is something more subtle than the kind of lighting that is installed to reduce car crashes or to make people feel safe from crime. Tartu’s lights help to draw you away from your couch and out into the neighbourhood. If you are already out, they coax you to stay.

As pointed out by experts like those at the National Association of City Transportation Officials  (NACTO),  lights can be deliberately employed to highlight the history or identify of an area, to create a sense of magic and drama, to help with wayfinding, or to calm traffic. This is where Tartu shines. Quite obviously, Tartu’s strong, human-scale lighting is also an important support for the city’s aggressive goal of increasing walk, bike, and transit trips to 75 per cent of all trips by 2040.

Good lighting obviously helps to keep people on their Tartu Smart Bike Share bikes all year.
Kuperjanovi street traffic circle

Digging into this a little, I discovered that the quality of Tartu’s lights is clearly not an accident; the city has been doing substantial work to improve lighting from both energy efficiency and artistic perspectives. With respect to energy efficiency – Tartu is in the midst of a multi-year project to systematically replacing all of its older technology street lights with LEDs.

Furthermore, Tartu participates in numerous artistic and policy projects on lighting. The Tartu Architecturral Lighting and Light Art Festival has been held every second year for the last 7 years. This is an interantional festival of lighting design and art, consisting of international workships, outdoor installations, a conference, as well as indoor and outdoor exhibitions.

The city is also a member of the EU-funded EnglightenMe project, that aims to develop methods to assess the impact of lighting on health and recommendations for best practices.

Downtown Tartu

Finally, Tartu is well known for its Christmas lights – particularly in the Town Hall Squre area – most assuredly contributing making Tartu such a friendly and inviting-feeling place during dark Nordic winters.

As you can tell by now, I am really impressed by what Tartu is doing with its lights. I am also convinced that most Canadian cities could draw on Tartu’s innovation and creativity in this area.

Tartu University’s main building

Excerpt from Karl’s blog Silver Bullet Mobility

The Mobility Lab of the University of Tartu is an interdisciplinary research group that studies human mobility and its associations with society and the environment using mobile (big) data.

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