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BC Stadium with the Vancouver skyline in Vancouver January 23, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
BC Stadium with the Vancouver skyline in Vancouver January 23, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Downtown light pollution has Vancouver residents seeing red Add to ...

Vince Strgar knew that when he moved to a condo near the city’s two downtown sports stadiums, it wasn’t going to be a tranquil rural retreat.

“I don’t mind city living. The noise from downtown – it’s not the end of the world,” says the 48-year-old engineer, who chose the tiny bachelor condo because it allows him to walk to his work at the BC Cancer Agency.

But he didn’t expect an assault by light.

When he ventured to open the blinds in his condo recently for the first time in weeks, he was blasted again by what has become the bane of his existence since last fall: the glowing red of BC Place’s new roof, and the much more intrusive light from one of the arena’s three digital signs that went up last fall when it reopened after extensive renovations.

“When the Telus ad comes on, there’s so much white it’s like a spotlight shining into my room,” he says. There had always been a certain amount of light from the bridge, the streets and the stadium. “But this Telus ad, that ramped it up to a whole new level.”

Mr. Strgar, like dozens of others around BC Place, have complained bitterly to PavCo, the provincial agency that manages the arena and is exempt from city bylaws, about the invasion of the light in their lives from two smaller signs and a 1,500-square-foot giant that beams light up Robson Street like an oncoming train.

On the other side of the downtown peninsula, another group of residents were also complaining to the city in the fall. Their problem? A piece of public art on the side of a condo – a light display that changed colours and occasionally burst into strobe flashes.

But what might seem like just a local flare-up of photo-sensitivity is actually a growing continent-wide clash over shared urban space, and how advanced technology for outdoor light displays is creating a new frontier of complaint. Cities everywhere, used to the usual laments about noises and smells, are now having to grapple with fights about light pollution.

Giant digital advertising signs, public art with light components, buildings lit with spotlights or wrapped in LED lights or emitting a glow, playing fields and car dealerships with floodlights, and other luminous features are increasingly part of urban life.

Some are welcomed. Many are not.

“The interest in unwanted light has escalated for about 15 years,” says Russ Leslie, the associate director of the Lighting Research Center in Troy, N.Y.

It’s reaching a new pitch as everyone from astronomers to wildlife advocates to rank-and-file residents lobby for a limit on light pollution or certain uses of light. On the other side, the outdoor-advertising industry is mounting an energetic push to use light in new ways on its signs and billboards.

“This is an era when the technology is changing for what people can do with light. People are using light more and in different ways,” says Scott Kardel, public-affairs director for the International Dark-Sky Association in Tucson, which has led the battle to reduce light pollution.

Fights about light take on a special candle-power in Vancouver. Residents have always valued light to brighten the rain-shrouded grey. But light can also have a noticeable negative effect when thousands of people are living in glass-walled condos in the middle of a commercial downtown.

Ironically, the conflicts are popping up even as Vancouver has moved energetically to reduce some kinds of light.

The city, working on Dark Sky principles, has already replaced a fifth of its 55,000 streetlights with new fixtures that beam down rather than up, uselessly, into the sky. (The overhead lights on the Cambie Bridge are an example.) Vancouver is also one of the leading cities in North America in experimenting with LED street lights – one test site is the stretch of 37th between Fraser and Main – that help reduce light pollution.

However, its planners and politicians are still grappling with the growing new uses of digital light in art and, particularly, advertising.

“I know for a fact that the billboard industry is headed towards all digital. That’s the wave of the future – fewer locations but much more powerful in impressions,” says Vancouver Councillor Geoff Meggs. But the city isn’t ready for the new wave. “The city’s bylaws are completely irrelevant to the new technology.”

City planning director Brent Toderian says the current bylaw, though strong enough to prevent advertisers from converting any existing billboards to digital, doesn’t stipulate any kind of standard about brightness.

In the case of the three digital signs in Vancouver that did get city approvals – at the Tinseltown mall, the CBC building, and on a building at Granville and Robson – planners had no idea how much light they were emitting. They just asked the sign owners to turn down the brightness if it seemed like it was too much.

That old-school approach is supposed to be changing, with a revised sign bylaw in the works. But indications are that won’t end the fights over light.

In Los Angeles, a citizens’ group has been battling the city for six years to block digital billboards or any proliferation of new digital signs on buildings, prompting legal action from both sides.

L.A. activist Dennis Hathaway said his city banned any new billboards, or even modifications to existing ones, in 2002. But in 2006, it struck a deal with CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor to allow them to convert their 840 conventional billboards to digital. Opponents went to court and got a halt to that for now, although not before 100 were converted.

Mr. Hathaway’s group, the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, is continuing to fight that conversion, as well as opposing a push from advertisers to have new “sign districts” – zones where any kind of digital building signs or billboards are permitted – created in LA.

“People living in and around those potential sign districts are very upset about the idea of changing the area with Times Square qualities and very intrusive light,” he said.

Mr. Toderian is hoping Vancouver can find an approach that controls light without that kind of polarization.

“Light is part of an urban context and it’s particularly part of a downtown,” he said. “I don’t believe we need a Times Square, but we could artfully integrate more light.”

Done well, that’s something local residents will embrace. They already do, in some cases.

Technologist Tim Bray is one of many fascinated by the new BC Place roof, which radiates a shifting palette of colour every week, like a pastel spaceship that has landed among the city’s towers.

“Being in the downtown streets is different,” he says, “with the huge glow visible from so many angles.”

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