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November 20, 2014

Putting a whole new light on the waterfront

  • Walkways will be lit with warmer, more varied lighting to give users a richer experience.
    dark | light design

    Image courtesy of dark | light design [enlarge]
    Street lighting will be cool and uniform, but lighting for pedestrians will vary by location and context.


    Seattle’s waterfront is undergoing massive change, creating new public spaces that connect downtown Seattle to Elliott Bay.

    In concert with these changes, the nighttime experience of the waterfront will also be dramatically improved through the application of light. This is especially important here in the Northwest, where darkness can descend even during daytime hours in the depth of winter.

    The overall goals of the Waterfront Program — creating a waterfront for all, reconnecting the waterfront and the city core, and improving the waterfront experience for all users — are reinforced by the lighting design. The current pedestrian environment, lit with spill light from street poles, will be transformed into one that is human-focused, addresses the context of the waterfront, and supports new waterfront spaces and uses.

    The opportunity inherent in the lighting of all outdoor spaces is that it gives us the opportunity to experience a space after dark in a way that is different from daylight hours. Choices must be made about what to accent, how to direct circulation, and how the lighting character affects how people will use the space.

    To do this, the design team has worked across disciplines to enhance the nighttime experience for a wide variety of users — from drivers on Alaskan Way to families enjoying a stroll along the waterfront promenade.

    The lighting concept is driven by the Alaskan Way corridor as a strong north-south connector with points of interest, pause, or gathering along the way. Other program components tie in to this connector as gathering places and points of east-west connection to downtown Seattle. The waterfront’s lighting must speak a common design language but also interface with existing lighting identities, including Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market.

    Although a wide range of uses are included in the waterfront program, the lighting must unify the many different program elements with an enduring fixture palette that is both environmentally sustainable and maintainable for many years to come.

    LED lighting

    All lighting for the waterfront uses LED technology to maximize sustainability and minimize maintenance. Not only does LED lighting result in lower energy use compared with older technologies — for example, an LED streetlight uses 60 percent less energy than the old high-pressure sodium sources — its long life also reduces maintenance to drive down long-term system costs. LED street-lighting systems can also direct light more precisely to provide more uniform illumination on the roadway.

    The Alaskan Way corridor provides north-south circulation for motorized vehicles, cycles and pedestrians. While each of these transportation modes has different technical requirements, they also drive different lighting solutions based on their function and surroundings.

    Beyond meeting the technical requirements of higher light levels and greater uniformity for vehicle circulation, the lighting focuses on enhancing the pedestrian experience, whether on the water’s edge or walking between downtown and the waterfront on one of the program’s many east-west connections.

    One important differentiator between pedestrian and vehicle zones is the use of cooler-colored lighting on the street and cycle track, with warmer light on walkways and gathering areas. Similarly, the lighting character and distribution are different — more uniform light to meet the technical requirements of the street and cycle track, while a variety of light levels at pedestrian circulation and gathering zones create a rich variety of experiences for these users.

    Pedestrian areas have specific goals that are supported by the lighting: at the water’s edge, lighting provides a processional, quiet experience; on east-west connectors, lighting creates a clear and legible path between the waterfront and downtown.

    A cohesive experience

    For east-west connections between the waterfront and First Avenue, lighting provides a luminous connection that creates a clear link between the two. At Union Street, a new elevator and pedestrian walkway are clearly marked through lighting incorporated into a glass elevator tower that transforms it into a lantern at night.

    The north-south corridor is punctuated by areas of higher activity — and accompanying lighting interest — along the promenade. Some of these are part of the waterfront program, such as the Union Street Pier and the Overlook Walk, while others already exist, like Colman Dock, the Great Wheel and the Seattle Aquarium. These activity nodes are connected by a cohesive pedestrian experience along the length of the promenade.

    Along Elliott Bay, a variety of lighting strategies will acknowledge the water’s edge, provide areas to pause and enjoy, and provide a legible path from one destination to another.

    Lighting in the pedestrian zone between Alaskan Way and the water serves an important purpose, as this area transitions between the relatively high light levels of the street and the nighttime darkness of Elliott Bay. To support this transition, lighting is located on the east side of the promenade, and provides a gradient of illumination with higher light levels inland that drop off near the water’s edge.

    Planting zones between the pedestrian promenade and Alaskan Way are gently lit, with fixtures mounted low to illuminate plantings and walking surfaces, keeping light fixtures below eye level for a less active visual experience than the promenade. This area serves as a visual buffer between vehicle traffic on Alaskan Way and pedestrian circulation on the promenade.

    The breadth of uses and space types in the waterfront program is challenging for many design disciplines, including lighting design. By providing context-appropriate design, the new waterfront will be enhanced by a variety of lighting strategies that will provide users with an enriching nighttime experience.

    Jill Cody is principal of dark | light design.

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