Going Green(er): The Past and Future of Lights in Central Park

LED Fixture
Did you know Central Park's light poles are a navigation tool? Most poles display numbers corresponding to the nearest street. For example, if you are near 79th Street on the west side, poles will read "W79". As technicians replace the Park's light fixtures, they will also add these numbers to poles without them.

The only thing greener than Central Park is Central Park a few months from now. This spring and summer, the New York City Department of Transportation, coordinating with the Central Park Conservancy, will replace the Park's 1,400 metal-halide lamps with low-energy, long-lasting LEDs (light-emitting diodes). The new lamps will reduce energy use and maintenance costs, and produce greater clarity under lower light intensity than the Park's current bulbs. The new lamps will retain the historic character of the Park's current lights. Replacement of light fixtures has been scheduled to work around major events in the Park to minimize impact on visitors. Central Park will be the first park in New York City, and one of the City's first three public spaces, to be lit by LED lights.

Central Park wasn't always lit, or open, at night. In 1872, a New York Times editorial argued against outfitting the Park with gas lamps. The Times editorial board was concerned that the Park, if open at night, would "be made the rendezvous and hiding-place of all sorts of sin and iniquity, of offensive deeds and acts without a name. [It] would become the haunt of thieves… who here might plot [their] villainies." The editorial board failed to predict that, 140 years later, its own paper would report that the Park "pulses at night" with dog walking, strolling, jogging, and other wholesome activities with names.

Despite the editorial board's certainty that the public would not stand for this "proposed innovation," the Park was eventually lit. In 1909, 80 watt tungsten bulbs "equal to 80 candle power each" replaced the Park's gas lamps. Along with the new electric bulbs, the Parks Department installed 1,277 new lampposts "of an artistic design, painted in imitation of old copper."

Since 1981, the Park has been lit by 175 watt metal halide bulbs. Selected at the time as a bright innovation that would allow for fewer lamps in the Park, advancements in LED technology have made them the natural successor to metal halides. The 40 and 90 watt LED fixtures that will illuminate the Park will last approximately two to three times longer than metal halides, and will use less than half the electricity. LED bulbs are mercury-free, unlike metal halides, continuing their environmental benefits even after disposal.

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