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Lighting design tips for parks and recreation areas

More adequate lighting is one of the most common design modification requests parks and recreation officials receive from patrons. Lighting can clarify the layout of outdoor spaces by emphasizing walkways, focal points, gathering places and building entrances. Ample lighting also boosts safety.

Here are three things to consider when planning exterior lighting design for parks and other outdoor recreation areas.

Safety after dark

When it comes to lighting design for a park or other recreational space, the perception of safety can be as important to patron attendance as the park’s actual safety ratings. Lighting can be used to enhance the perceptions of safety and increase park usage.

Parks and recreation areas in Los Angeles, California neighborhoods see frequent gang-related crimes, especially during the warm summer months. Local parks and community leaders adopted a program called Summer Night Lights as a strategy to ensure children and families are safe from violence in their Los Angeles-area homes and neighborhoods.

The Summer Night Lights program extended nighttime operating hours in eight parks in troubled neighborhoods, keeping the lights on until midnight and sponsoring nighttime movies and family-oriented activities four nights a week.

Due to positive results of the program:

  • City officials doubled the size of the program in 2009.
  • The budget nearly tripled.
  • The city hired a total of 160 young people to help staff the program.

Once again, crime rates around the parks tumbled. The program cost roughly $5.4 million, with half of the budget provided by private donors and half from public sources. By empowering communities and targeting traditionally violent summer months, Summer Night Lights has become a national model for reducing crime by keeping the lights on a little longer.

Energy efficiency

Modern lighting technology and fixtures are also maximizing park resources and making it easier to adopt energy-efficient, cost-saving strategies. For example, New York City’s Department of Transportation (DOT) oversees the largest municipal lighting system in the country, including 12,000 lights in public parks. In 2009, the DOT began an LED pilot program in Central Park, testing LED lights as a replacement for standard, 100-watt metal halide park lights.


The program showed that LED lights last two to three times as long as metal halide lights while creating better visibility despite having lower light intensity. The LED lights saved the city $94,710 in a single year.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the city parks department installed new LED lights along the pathways of Frenchy’s Field, a 17-acre recreation park. The lights include motion sensors, and brightness levels change depending on ambient conditions. The LED lights have broader wavelengths than their predecessors. As a result, they provide better illumination for outdoor spaces, even with less light.


There are other benefits, too. Since LEDs use only a fraction of the power of incandescent or sodium-vapor bulbs, they can be powered by solar panels, meaning they can be erected without any connection to the electrical grid.

Hierarchical approach

Lighting design for parks and recreation areas is best developed in a hierarchy. The top of the hierarchy includes lighting high-activity areas and primary walkways so that they become the focus of pedestrian activity after dark. At the bottom of this hierarchy are some areas that are purposely not lit at all, because their use at night would be unsafe or inappropriate.

These are items to consider regarding lighting design in parks and other outdoor spaces:

  • Hierarchy of lighting types and intensities
  • Enhancing edge activities and the park perimeter
  • Placement of lighting
  • Consistency of lighting
  • Encouraging evening use
  • Coordination with park signage

The advent of LEDs has also allowed landscape architects more opportunities for creativity. Some have bathed center-city parks in kaleidoscopic public art displays, allowing parks to become more prominent civic landmarks and draw more tourists.

Phoenix’s Civic Space Park has a stunning, LED-clad, 145-foot, interactive sculpture of columns in its center.

Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis, part of a revitalized Mill District, draws many visitors and park guests with blue-lit benches that echo the facade of the adjacent Guthrie Theater.


Simon and Helen Director Park in Portland, Oregon, has a glass canopy lit with multicolor LED lights, which creates a new downtown focal point at nighttime.

The ability to gather, enjoy the outdoors and create memories with friends and family plays a factor in our everyday lives, and the need for more outdoor public spaces is growing. Smart lighting design helps us build safe, energy-efficient and well-designed parks and recreation spaces, so that our communities can continue to thrive.