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The Essential, Invisible Night: Illuminating Cities for Essential Workers



The architectural and urban design professions are day-biased, even as night is a full 50% of the world’s time. My years of work as an urban lighting designer have expanded to propose an interdisciplinary awareness of night as place.


Nighttime design is a long overdue area of study and implementation. Holistically applied it could directly affect physical -and mental –health, and safety, for “essential” nightshift workers by focusing on legibility and late-night services. In this paper, the various categories of night work are used: shift-work is an overall term to differentiate from the normative day-shift. Other terms are, for example, night-shift, second-shift, third-shift and graveyard shift. Second (or evening) shift starts around 2 to 6 p.m. and ends between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Night-shift (or third or graveyard) starts around 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and ends around 5 to 8 a.m.


This think piece targets issues that have existed before and during the pandemic. However, because of the pandemic, I posit that a relevant synergy between “essential” “worker” and “night” remain cynically unaddressed. While the city and state of New York has lauded (and applauded) those of us who work tirelessly to keep the wheels of society and commerce turning. At the same time, it is disingenuous to avoid consideration of public-space working conditions that are critical to our key workers, that is, the hours between dusk and dawn.


Why is this important?



From the outset, night-shift workers’ conditions are inequitable. Per U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18% of the 11-million service workers in the protective, food, and cleaning sectors work the evening and night shifts. And, significantly, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health states that “Both shift work and long work hours have been associated with health and safety risks.” Additionally, shift work is associated with diet-related chronic conditions such as obesity and cardiovascular disease, per “Influences on Dietary Choices during Day versus Night Shift in Shift Workers” (from Nutrients 2017). These are but two salient studies.


Thus, re-contextualizing night-space as a workplace, urban design opportunities arise for imaginative and functional solutions in regard to transportation (transit and micro-mobility), retail open and closing hours, street design and streetscape amenities, and availability of nighttime services, to name a few.


Further to understanding the plight of the graveyard shift population, the seminal 2009 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 30-page document, “Psychological and Social Support for Essential Service Workers During an Influenza Pandemic” addresses both the psychological and social needs of essential service workers during a pandemic. The authors define these workers to include “healthcare workers, public health workers, first-responder organizations, and employees of public utilities, sanitation, transportation, and food and medicine supply- chain companies.” All of these key workers are likely to be employed on second and third -shift work.


Equity issues are involved, as the New York State essential-worker definition expands upon the CDC’s, and includes not only the professional classes but also those who take care of our mail and shipping, laundromats, building cleaning and maintenance, childcare services and warehouse jobs. All of these roles have nighttime shifts, and are so-called “low-skilled” or blue collar. UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute’s Dr. Carole Lieberman, indicates that “Night shift workers begin to feel like second-class citizens. They begin to feel invisible.” There is a diagnosis for those who cannot adjust to changes in the sleep/wake cycle, or circadian rhythm: Shift Work Disorder. Symptoms include sleepiness, often coupled with insomnia and depression.


In addition to the individual Disorder symptoms, described above, extrinsic, gender-based, night-space brutality is a facet of daily life for women. Design, from a harm reduction point of view, can begin to address the darkened work and mobility environment, as briefly enumerated below.


International Labour Organization co-authored with UN Women’s “Handbook: Addressing violence and harassment against women in the world of work”, repeatedly enumerates that traversing the city to and from home and transit, is dangerous for women, especially in regard to sexual harassment and assault, “particularly affecting women working shifts and having to travel by foot or public transport in the dark or late at night. Preventative actions by local authorities – such as improving street lighting or the positioning of bus stops – can have a beneficial impact on making women’s, as well as men’s, lives safer when they commute to work.”


Design Solutions:

We suggest that districts with a preponderance of shift workers and neighborhoods with night work sites, such as hospitals, transportation and transit hubs and warehouses be designated night zones in order to benefit from night-focused interdisciplinary design solutions.


For example, consider the northeast section of New York City’s Bronx, a future recipient of a Metro-north transit line. This district contains a preponderance of 24-hour work sites, including more than nine hospitals, one of the largest food distribution centers in the world, and nearby, the George Washington Bridge Bus Station with connections for transit riders during the dark morning and evening hours, as well as 24-hour drivers starting and returning to the Bus Station itself.


Fearful nighttime conditions can be ameliorated and turned positive with creative design collaboration inclusive of architectural disciplines, landscape, illumination, wayfinding and security. New approaches to nighttime design would focus on lighting and legibility for first and last mile transit corridors, enhanced bus stops for late night ridership needs, and public space amenities for shift workers adjacent to workspaces.


Typical design tactics, starting with existing conditions studies are relevant. For example, a Shades of Night analysis, which is a framework to measure human activity in relation to environmental changes such as open-shut hours and lighting should be undertaken to characterize after-dark populations, their movement and needs. Consultant teams for nighttime design must be assembled to address shortcomings of the district. Which consultants can address safe meeting places? How about availability of food purveyors, including food trucks?


Are night transit options that relate to local worksites in place? What about after-dark cultural offerings and protected public spaces, such as all-night libraries? These are experts in addition to the ones already mentioned, such as those well versed in permitting, sustainability, community engagement and real estate, among others.


For rapidity, tactical urban and lighting solutions could be devised in the form of measurable pilots that would be planned as participatory exercises that concurrently build community capacity in the self-same districts. Longer term, smart technologies are available to enhance amenities and wayfinding.


Let’s value essential, heretofore invisible, shift-workers as they work and traverse the dark city by establishing welcoming, safe public spaces.

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