The Big Business Of Bridge Lights

New York and London are following cities like Memphis and San Francisco and installing LED lighting displays along their river crossings. And it’s not for aesthetics alone: The projects are driving significant economic investment.


Stretching nearly one mile across the Mississippi River between Memphis and Arkansas, the Harahan Bridge is a defining part of the Delta landscape. But until last October, the bridge was inaccessible except for the two rail lines that crossed it. Since the Big River Crossing–a bike and pedestrian path that spans the entire length of the bridge–opened in October, hundreds of thousands of people have used it, says Kevin Kane, the president of the Memphis Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. And a large part of the repurposed bridge’s appeal, he says, stems from the connected LED lighting installation that now illuminates the once-dark bridge.


Big River Crossing. [Photo: Darius Kuzmickas/courtesy Philips Lighting]
“Lights are energy,” Kane says, “and the LED lighting has given new energy and animation to the downtown and riverfront area.” Before the $12 million display–installed by Philips Lighting and financed by an anonymous philanthropic donation–lit up, the Memphis waterfront was not exactly bustling, Kane says; because the banks of the Mississippi River fluctuate so drastically, the city has shied away from developing along its edges. “We’re not like other cities, where you see bars and restaurants along the river,” Kane says. “But the bridge lighting has given people a new reason to get down to the waterfront and enjoy the animation from the lights and the colors.” The lights, Kane says, have contributed to Memphis’ sense of community, changing color in accordance with holidays, and lighting up blue in honor of the city’s basketball team, the Grizzlies.

The Big River Crossing is a part of a larger revitalization effort that will stem from the south end of downtown Memphis, where the Harahan Bridge begins, to West Memphis in Arkansas, across the river. Terence Patterson, the president of the Downtown Memphis Commission, told The Commercial Appeal that he anticipates the project will benefit the area for years to come. Developers have already funneled $55 million into overhauling a nearby train station into apartments, shopping, and a movie theater; the same state and federal grants that financed the bridge project are also supporting much-needed repairs to the streets and sidewalks that lead up to it.

Meydan Bridge. [Photo: courtesy Philips Lighting]
Bridge lighting projects, like the Big River Crossing, are by no means solely responsible for driving economic development. But in recent years, a spate of cities from San Francisco to Little Rock have sunk millions into these displays which at first glance, seem to serve a purely aesthetic purpose; London and New York will roll out their own bridge-lighting schemes over the next few years. These projects are not cheap: New York’s 11-bridge display will be a part of a $500 million state-funded overhaul of the city’s bridges and tunnels, and London’s approximately $25 million project will be funded by private and philanthropic sources. Neither are they universally loved: New York’s proposal has been called everything from futuristic to tacky; when Bay Lights first illuminated the Bay Bridge in 2013, San Francisco Chronicle critic John King was underwhelmed, calling them the “visual equivalent of background music.”

BRX Harahan. [Photo: courtesy Philips Lighting]

But momentum for these projects does not appear to be slowing down. “The reason why you’re seeing cities take on these displays is to draw attention, to create something meaningful and inspiring,” says Paul Kennedy, the general manager of Color Kinetics, a startup acquired by Philips Lighting in 2007 that specialized in infrastructure-scale LED lighting. The lights, Kennedy adds, “really do get people to come and look at the installations, and that generates economic activity in waterfront areas–that sort of payback is a big reason why cities and people invest.”

The Bay Lights, which first went up in San Francisco as a temporary installation in 2013 and reopened permanently in 2016, has supported around 88 jobs and contributed $10 million to the area’s GDP, according to a report from Philips Lighting and the economic consulting firm Boyette Strategic Advisors. Around 50 million people (tourists and residents alike) were estimated to have seen the Bay Lights; the additional boost in tourism around the lights, according to an economic assessment commissioned by the city of San Francisco, had an economic impact of $97 million. Nearby restaurants and hotels have profited, reporting as much as a 30% increase in business. The lights also send a clear message about the city’s commitment to sustainability, using 85% less energy than traditional lighting sources.


The Bay Lights, Leo Villareal. [Photo: James Ewing/courtesy Philips Lighting]
While the Bay Lights are a fixed art installation designed by the artist Leo Villareal, the River Lights in the Rock project, which spans three of Little Rock, Arkansas’ six bridges, is more flexible. The goals of the project, according to the report, “were riverfront enhancement and increased community engagement.” Various organizations can customize the lights to further a cause or advertise an event; since 2013, 20 nonprofits have used the bridge to raise awareness for causes ranging from Hunger Action Day to Ovarian Cancer Awareness, and 105 conventions with a total economic impact of $19 million have also used the customizable LEDs. The lights have integrated the bridges into residents’ recreation and exercise plans; around 400 cyclists and pedestrians used the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge in one day, and the crossings have also strengthened the city’s connection to its neighbor, North Little Rock.

Bridges are not the only urban structures that have embraced LED lighting as a way to boost public engagement and animate cities–the Empire State Building is known to light up in support of local sports teams and causes, and in New Haven, an LED mural on the wall of a community college projects portraits of students and faculty in an effort to connect with the surrounding neighborhood. Another report from Philips notes that “light is swiftly becoming one of the most powerful tools to breathe life into cities and to initiate a new era of urban design.” While it’s imperative that cities continue to fund public spaces like new parks and complete streets, lights are a way that cities can inject a bit more allure in pre-existing infrastructure, and activate a sense of community through projecting a highly visible message.

Bridge lighting, at the moment, is undeniably “a trend.” But Kennedy feels that the installations can offer something specific to each place that pursues a project, and often signal or drive greater investments in the areas they touch. “Each city is trying to strengthen its identity through these projects,” Kennedy says.

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.