Last night, I tagged along with a group of Pioneer Square residents (and apparently a nerdy mix of theater design geeks, urban enthusiasts, and flâneurs), as New York City "NightSeeing" expert Leni Schwendinger gave a walking tour of Pioneer Square.

Schwendinger, who'd toured the area for the first time herself the night before (but believe me, she sees things others don't), was brought in as part of the neighborhood-driven city-funded project to redesign its alleys.

Schwendinger is an expert on urban lighting design (meaning how to brighten, dapple, shadow, frame, and illuminate city landscapes to help activate them). And after her edifying lecture on the history of urban lighting (originally in the late 19th Century, for example, many people were against lighting the night because they believed nighttime was inherently lewd and illicit—and making it more accessible would simply encourage more trouble), Schwendinger led the group on a walk through Nord Alley, tacking south to Jackson, then west to another alley and then back east.

 

We paused at shadows, traffic lights, windows, doorways, street lamps, walk signals, sky scraper lights, corners, parking lots, and brick walls, as Schwendinger, dressed in a phosphorescent scarf, pointed out effects, moods, illusions, meanings, and perfect iPhone photo moments all around us that relied on nighttime optics that she often compared to a movie or theater set—or an "alley opera."

The Pioneer Square alley project, which is getting some brainpower from architects at local firm Olson Kundig, local landscape architecture and civil engineering firm SvR, and Pioneer Square's own non-profit International Institute for Sustainability, is taking two approaches to the alleys: to see them as both curated musuems (a preservationist angle) and live theater sets (interactive spaces for residents to participate in the action of the street).

I hope they mine Schwendinger's insights as they redesign the alleys in Pioneer Square; her talk—she called our attention to skyscraper lights reflected in puddles, lighter shadows on darker shadows, and what the lighting outside of buildings tells us about the people inside—certainly heightened and brightened my sense of the city.

On my walk home along a much-too-dark 19th Ave. E., I passed some lighted tennis courts where people were actually playing in the rain at 11 pm. It suddenly seemed as if city planners had purposefully designed the courts as a glowing oasis. 

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