Urban Lab Walk: London at Night

UCL Urban Laboratory
6 min readApr 13, 2022


During the Spring of 2022 UCL Urban Lab curated a series of walks across East London, as a means of exploring London once more following the Covid-19 ‘lockdowns’ which had enforced the cancellation of so many in-person events, and linked to its annual theme Emergency. Running between UCL’s Bloomsbury Campus, and the soon-to-be-opened UCL East, the series moved from Kings Cross and Hoxton/Dalston to Angel, Islington, for the third walk led by Satu Streatfield of Publica research and urban design practice - a night-time tour to the heights of Primrose Hill. In this blog post, MArch student Trishla Chadha, who joined us on the walk, documents where the walk led us, and what insights she took from it.

Amidst the drizzle and cloudy sky, as everyone gathered around the Angel Station with their vibrant umbrellas, UCL Urban Laboratory held its third event of the 2002 Urban Lab Walk series, titled ‘London at Night’, led by Satu Streatfield, Associate Director (Night-time and lighting) of Publica. The walk was aimed at capturing the night-time experience of navigating the city to interpret the past, present, and future of lighting and nightlife in London.

Stop #01: Angel Station, London

Starting right outside Angel Station in Islington, Satu started by giving a brief introduction to lighting’s long neglect as an aspect of urban policy. London is a 24-hour city and lighting makes that possible. Without it, our city would grind to a halt. However London’s 1.6 million night workers are still not entirely able to travel safely and confidently to their jobs. For the most part, city authorities have taken a narrowly utilitarian approach, emphasising making the roads and streets brighter, but with little thought to the creative, social, and environmental dimensions of light. Are we using the right kind of lights in the right places?

The increasingly rare sodium lighting of Tolpuddle Street exhibiting its characteristic warm, yellow glow.
The increasingly rare sodium bulb lighting of Tolpuddle Street, exhibiting its characteristic warm, yellow glow.

Stop #02: Half Moon Crescent, London

We exited the Angel Station and walked towards the northeast towards Tolpuddle Street. As we walked past the cafes and supermarkets along the Islington streets, we stopped at the Half Moon Crescent Tenants Co-operative, an area of residential housing. Standing in the silent neighbourhood, Satu pointed out the traditional sodium street light in one corner which has been a centre of public debate and explained how the replacement of these with LED streetlights has been ongoing since the 1950s-60s. Whilst the sodium lamp rendered the streets in its signature monochromatic yellow colour, one could easily differentiate its impact compared to the newer, more efficient LED alternatives further along the street. This dualism was reflected along the silhouettes of houses across the streets while the group discussed how one’s capacity to navigate the city after dark is related to the ability to ‘read’ a place at night. We discussed how the encroachment of LED lighting indeed denies us the romance and luminous beauty of a starry sky, or the otherworldly magic walk illuminated by moonlight.

Lighting along sections of the Regent’s Canal in Camden Town

Spot #03: Regent’s Canal

Continuing our walk through the Half Moon Crescent neighbourhood along narrow paths and steep steps lined with the perfectly groomed plant life, we reached the path of the Regent’s Canal. Our eyes took some time to adjust to the transition from the well-lit roadside to the dark walkway along the canal where we could barely see each other. Satu then took out the lux meter to measure the light levels and it was interestingly found to be only 0.1 lux. She pointed out the sharp contrast of this to Oxford Street which has light levels up to 250 lux. Looking to the left, one could see the tranquil environmental oasis of the Regent’s Canal, providing a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the nearby King’s Cross. The unpaved trail with a green corridor of trees along the railings on the side brought everyone to a harmonious resting place. Glancing at the sky, the moon had already risen with the adjoining lights casting its beam over the canal creating a surreal experience.

Construction lights from Google’s ‘landscraper’ being reflected in the still waters of the canal at King’s Cross.

Spot #04: King’s Cross

As we continued along the Regent’s Canal towards King’s Cross, one could observe the stark contrast in the public lighting of the urban fabric within a range of 1 kilometre. The scale and ratio of lighting increased, creating an exciting and more welcoming space. Satu explained the influence of private investment in the King’s Cross rejuvenation as a major factor in the contribution of direct and indirect illumination of our streets and common spaces — as well as total skyglow and ambient light pollution leading to a radical change in the area’s ambiance. London is hardly a cohesive place in design terms by day, and private lights contribute to its ‘big city’ feel by night. Rather surprisingly London lacks a coordinated set of principles to manage the operation of its lighting, with responsibility falling on individual boroughs, meaning that lighting strategies may differ from one street to the next. As we kept walking along the canal, there was a notable transition in how rigorously the lighting has been planned in areas including the Coals Drop Yard. Overall, the lighting system was designed to create a strong visual identity, encourage commuters to enjoy these spaces, and reinforce the powerful presence of the buildings after dark.

The canal towpath at the ZSL Aviary, beneath Primrose Hill

Spot #05: Primrose Hill

Further walking along the Regent’s Canal towards Primrose Hill, we could observe the lights of Camden Town diminishing at a distance. While it drizzled, we struggled to walk, stepping into puddles along the pathway. Here, Satu highlighted the complex urban environment and the more nuanced typology of places leading to the constant overlap of the lighting strategies across London. Nearing the end of the walking tour, we walked up the elevated pathway and through the beautifully illuminated park of Primrose Hill with linear lights enhancing the spatial dynamics facilitating people and movement. At the top, the London skyline never felt so dynamic, with buildings like the Shard and the Gherkin dissapearing amongst the lights shining from an array of construction cranes, their presence highlighted along the night sky. Satu pointed out how the buildings were earlier distinguishable by the lights, forming patterns in the sky but in recent years differentiated by the red aircraft warning lights on each skyscraper.

Through this walk, people developed insights into the wide range of benefits that come with taking a more considered approach to lighting and the opportunities that the city has missed. Understanding the current and potential users of an area at night is necessary to develop a good lighting strategy, and there is an opportunity to align both concerns. The knowledge exchange that takes place in participatory research and design can help to educate both the public and professionals about the skill and complexity involved in designing good lighting. Overall, the role of understanding the public realm and making it more welcoming, safe, and navigable after dark is central, and lighting has a key role to play in achieving this.

Trishla Chadha is an MArch student at the UCL Bartlett Faculty for the Built Environment, with a background in architecture, urban design, and architectural journalism.



UCL Urban Laboratory

Crossdisciplinary centre for critical and creative urban thinking, teaching, research and practice at UCL | www.ucl.ac.uk/urban-lab