Are You Scared to Go Out at Night?

By Leo Neubecker

Khayelitsha informal settlement near Cape Town at night. (David Harrison/M&G)
Khayelitsha informal settlement near Cape Town at night. (David Harrison/M&G)

People of the PJS informal settlement near Cape Town don't go out at night because they don't feel safe walking in the unevenly lit spaces between houses. Recognizing the need for adequate nighttime lighting, Dr. Yael Borofsky set out to install solar-powered lights above the front doors of nearly 800 households and to study the effect on nighttime activities.


The PJS informal settlement, before the solar public lighting intervention, was illuminated by high-mast floodlights situated at the border with neighboring regions. Although better than nothing, the spaces between the houses were not evenly lit and were often in almost complete darkness. Adding insult to injury, the floodlights were often subject to load shedding and lengthy repairs, leaving the residents with no light for sometimes even weeks. Because of the uneven lighting, people did not feel safe at night and consequently did not dare venture out to meet the most basic needs, like going to the toilet, collecting water, and buying food.


Why is there no change?

The question must be asked, why was the PJS informal settlement equipped with such an inadequate lighting solution and why wasn't something done about it? These high-mast lights were first implemented by the apartheid regime in the 1980s as a means of surveillance. Designed to be virtually indestructible, they were not envisioned as an efficient public lighting service. We haven't seen any changes because the new democratic government paid little attention to changing public lighting infrastructure. Instead, the public gradually accepted the infrastructure of high-mast lighting as the norm in townships. Then why didn't the residents themselves come up with a public lighting solution themselves? The reality is that it requires a significant amount of investment, which the community won't and can't afford.


Solar public lighting

Recognizing that most improvement interventions in informal settlements did not focus on nightlife, Dr. Yael Borofsky studied the effects on nighttime activity achieved by public lighting improvement as part of her doctoral thesis. After multiple design phases, about 800 small solar-powered lights were installed in the PJS informal settlement together with hundreds of sensors to measure pedestrian activity. Throughout the entire project the local community was always involved with multiple positive effects: 

  • 40 local people were employed to install lights and sensors giving them valuable expertise
  • The design of the lights was shaped according to the needs of the community
  • This project was not seen as a foreign intervention, on the contrary people were quite enthusiastic about getting solar lights
  • Relatively few lights were stolen or vandalized because locals looked after them

In the end, this study did not find any relevant changes in nighttime activities and experience of crime. However, citizens reported feeling safer and were more likely to use shared sanitation at night.


What comes next

The adoption of solar-powered lights is a good solution for informal settlements like PJS. The small form factor allows for easy installation and maintenance by a relatively inexperienced crew, and it allows for fast relocation, would the need arise to move the lights to a more convenient location. However, the efficiency of this type of public lighting hasn't proven itself on a larger scale and in different contexts. There is plenty of opportunity for further projects to research the adoption of this technology. If you are motivated and in search of a development engineering project, you are welcome to tackle the challenges in the widespread adoption of solar public lighting.