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Detroit’s New LED Streetlight Network Is Illuminating The City While Cutting Its Emissions

A $185 million conversion to replace broken lightbulbs with clean light sources is reenergizing the city’s nightscape and knitting together its neighborhoods.

Detroit’s New LED Streetlight Network Is Illuminating The City While Cutting Its Emissions
[Photo: A.C./Getty Images]

Anyone doubting the impact of smart streetlighting needs look no further than Detroit, where, just one month after switching on 65,000 new streetlights, the city is basking in the glow.

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The $185 million project, which got underway in February 2014, has completely overhauled Detroit’s nightscape. Just three years ago, the city’s 139 square miles were lit only sporadically; around half of the 88,000 old streetlights were dysfunctional, their wiring decades old. According to the Detroit Free Press, the city once had “the worst streetlights in America.”

Now, thanks to a leg up from the Obama administration, Detroit is home to one of the most advanced lighting systems in the country. The U.S. Department of Energy consulted with the Public Lighting Authority of Detroit to devise an overhaul that would be both sustainable and cost-effective. The first step was switching out the old sodium lamps in favor of LEDs. Vandals had taken to stripping the old lights for copper wire; the LEDs, in addition to being more energy efficient, are outfitted with aluminum wire, which is so cheap that nobody would bother to take it. Shaun Donovan, the budget director for the Obama administration, said at the switch-on ceremony on December 15 that the new lights will reduce Detroit’s carbon emissions by around 40,000 tons a year—equivalent to removing 11,000 cars from the streets—and render Detroit the only large city in America to be completely lit with LEDs.

[Photo: Flickr user James]

All this–and the fact that the new lights will reportedly save Detroit nearly $3 million annually off its electric bill–is good. What’s even better is the effect the LEDs are having on the city’s livelihood. While much has been made of Detroit’s locally driven economic revitalization (through companies like Shinola and citizen-led developments and nonprofits), much of the sprawling city is still blighted, and left in darkness, sort of forbidding. The new LEDs are spread across the city evenly, illuminating blocks long plagued by dysfunctional lamps. An east side resident told the Detroit Free Press that when Mayor Mike Duggan came to his neighborhood and promised new lights, 15 blocks around his house were unlit. Now, they all are.

This is a lifeline for businesses outside of the city’s center, which suffered at night without adequate lighting to draw customers. In The New York Times, Rufus Bartell, the owner of Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles along Livernois Avenue said that before, “foot traffic almost fell to zero after dark. Since the lights came on, it’s up to 15% across this neighborhood.”

Detroit has a long way to go on its path to revitalization; since 2014, it’s also added 80 buses, and a new light rail is slated for construction. But the lights are a crucial step toward knitting the city together, and setting it on a course for sustainable development.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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