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Lighting the Cities of the Future: Part 1

Lighting the Cities of the Future: Part 1

The Executive Director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting discusses the launch of the city’s unprecedented new streetlighting design contest and how cities of the future will be lit.


In Fall 2019, the City of Los Angeles intrigued the global design community by announcing the launch of “L.A. Lights the Way,” a first-of-its-kind competition to design and create a new standard streetlight for Los Angeles. The competition asks applicants to consider how streetlights can incorporate new technology, include a written plaque or accommodate text on each pole, and provide shade to help ease the impact of the climate crisis. In light of the fact that Los Angeles has spent the past decade converting its 200,000+ streetlights to LED technology, a move which has reduced its lighting energy by over 70% and delivered $10 million in annual energy cost savings with a 5- to 6-year payback period, the contest and eventual new design will continue to build on the city’s well-known proactivity in the area of street lighting.

“When we invest in smarter design in our streetlights and infrastructure, we can do more than brighten our public spaces — we can illuminate a future that’s cleaner, greener, and safer for all Angelenos,” explained LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, whose office is leading the initiative together with the city’s Bureau of Street Lighting. “L.A. Lights the Way is a competition where the winners aren’t the artists alone, but the people who live, work, and walk in our neighborhoods every day — and it will help us combat climate change and promote equity across our city.”

Open to applicants from across the world, entries will be judged by a panel of seven experts in design, lighting, and public infrastructure and the winner will be announced this June.

In the following interview with tED magazine, Norma Isahakian, Executive Director of the Bureau of Street Lighting for the City of Los Angeles, discusses the creation of and response to this unprecedented initiative, the goals Los Angeles ultimately hopes to accomplish with its new lighting design, and what she believes lighting will look like in cities of the future.


tED magazine: Why did Los Angeles develop and introduce “LA Lights the Way?”

Isahakian: The City has more than 223,000 streetlights with over 400 different designs that go back to the early 1900s. After 1950, the new designs were very basic and ornamental elements and craftsmanship no longer seemed to be going into our designs. We have some very basic poles that are used everywhere, but our Mayor wanted us to have a basic pole that was both maintainable and affordable while also saying “I am LA.” This contest has generated a lot of interest and entries from participants and it also incorporates a student component – e.g., we’ve invited college and high school students who go to school in LA to let us know what they’d like their streetlights to look like.

tED magazine: Having replaced over 200,000 streetlights with high-efficiency LEDs since 2008, what is your hope for the new design? Do you expect to be reducing energy usage even further with whatever new system wins the competition, or is the competition more about the design of the actual fixture/streetlamp?

Isahakian: The new design will be focused on the pole and arm; the fixture is optional.  Regardless of the design, we’re 90% LED compliant and are working to get to 100%. We’re also always looking for ways to reduce energy usage, whether it’s through solar power or other means of reducing lighting levels during times of low pedestrian activity.

tED magazine: Contest entrants are encouraged to incorporate a number of other sustainable elements and technologies into their streetlighting designs beyond just lighting. What will the new, winning system reflect about your city’s commitment to cutting-edge and renewable technologies and the health of the surrounding environment?

Isahakian: The contest definitely asks that the pole incorporate other purposes for the City. We want it to be able to carry smart city elements (e.g., EV chargers, air quality meters, real-time traffic monitors, hardware to hold solar panels, etc.), a potential shade sail to increase the shade line on the sidewalks during the hot months, and a plaque that can accommodate the inscription of poems that reflect LA. Our Cultural Affairs Department will be going through a similar process of a “Call for LA Poems” that will be used on our poles throughout the City. We also ask that applicants let us know of the materials they’ll be using, with an emphasis on sustainable materials wherever possible.

tED magazine: How many entrants ended up registering in the competition (which closed on January 10, 2020) and what process will your city’s team go through to determine the viability of each design and the ultimate winner?

Isahakian: Currently, we have 108 applicants (more than we anticipated) and we plan to announce the winner in June 2020. We have a professional jury panel and a student jury panel. The professional contest has two stages. The first stage will review five renderings from each applicant and then the top four (we may expand that) will move on to Stage 2. In Stage 2, we’re going to look at the structural feasibility of the poles and then pick the final winner. We’re planning to put together a SMART CITY Streetlight Conference this June that will invite other cities and utilities to discuss streetlight issues; during this conference, we’ll be announcing the winners of our different categories. Everyone is very excited about this contest and the fact that L.A. Lights the Way will allow our basic standard streetlight design to reflect who we are as Angelenos and carry us into the future.

tED magazine: What can you share about how leading-edge cities like yourself are designing street lighting? In your opinion, what does lighting ideally look like in the ‘city of the future’ (e.g., smart, sustainable, environmentally responsible, etc.) and why?

Isahakian: It’s becoming obvious that streetlights are more than just a means of lighting the street. They have a presence in the City landscape, conduct electricity, and are the perfect height for connectivity. As smart products become available, our lights represent an ideal means of connecting systems and if cities don’t take a proactive approach to visualizing what they want their streetlights to look like through their design and products, they’ll end up being a “hat rack.” I believe that our streetlights will have a purpose not only at night but during the day as well.

tED magazine: Finally, how can electrical distributors maximize their participation in lighting cities of the future (like yours)? 

Isahakian: Our contest will take the final design and send it out through the City’s normal purchasing process; at that time, distributors and manufacturers can bid on the design.  Some manufacturers are becoming part of the applicant teams to help them with the feasibility of making the pole, and even though this isn’t a guarantee that they’ll get the contract to make the poles, it gives them first knowledge of the pole design if their design wins.


Tune in on Monday, February 3, for Part 2 of “Lighting the Cities of the Future,” when a Smart City expert from a major lighting manufacturer will discuss the benefits/capabilities streetlighting will be able to deliver to the ‘city of the future’ as well as how distributors can maximize their share of this active market.


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Susan Bloomis a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at susan.bloom.chester@gmail.com.

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