What in the world is a dark sky community? Before your imagination runs wild, it has nothing to do with scary sights or UFOs.
“Dark sky” is an increasing effort to reduce light pollution, which has been proven to impact everything from tourism to the health of plants and animals, including humans. Proponents say it is the one form of pollution that humans can completely reverse.
According to the International Dark Sky Association, a dark sky community is “a town, city, municipality, or other legally organized community that has shown exceptional dedication to the preservation of the night sky through the implementation and enforcement of a quality outdoor lighting ordinance, dark sky education, and citizen support of dark skies. Dark sky communities excel in promoting responsible lighting and dark sky stewardship…”
That means the community makes a concerted effort to reduce light pollution, primarily through lighting and development ordinances. Light reduction efforts are easier for neighborhoods and smaller, rural communities, but cities of all sizes can take steps to make a difference with things like changing the angle of lighting to downward rather than outward or upward.
Mammoth Cave National Park is the only dark sky designated site in Kentucky, but many communities across the world use “dark sky” as a tourism draw.
“Kentucky may have only one officially designated site, but there are several other potentially qualifying dark sky designated sites within the state,” KLC Community and Economic Development Manager Tad Long said.
“One day, a small rural Kentucky city is going to take the plunge and commit to catering to the stargazing and astrophotography audience,” Long stated. “Hobbyists travel from all over the world to take advantage of the dark skies. While dark sky star parties are a niche tourism market, professional and amateur astronomers invest tens of thousands of dollars in equipment alone. The parties generally attract an audience that has plenty of disposable income, and they could potentially be a boon for a small, rural Kentucky city.”
Light pollution became a topic of interest when animal behavior became noticeably affected due to illumination in the middle of the night. Migratory birds, monarch butterflies, sea turtles, and other species that navigate by moonlight become disoriented with constant illumination. When you look at the United States from a satellite view, it is startling to see the density of nighttime lights.
The Village of Hawthorn Woods, Illinois, is 35 miles north of Chicago. The community of 9,000 people has been a committed dark sky city since 2020. Even as a small city with a very small budget, Hawthorn Woods has taken steps to curb excess lighting, including an illumination ordinance that is being phased in for all residents, businesses, and construction.
“We don’t call ourselves a suburb,” said Kim Stewart, the city’s chief operating officer. “We call ourselves an oasis, and we are rural by design.”
For years, Hawthorn Woods has focused on environmental stewardship and made it part of its overall brand. Known as a “village,” Hawthorn Woods received the Audubon International Sustainable Community Award a few years ago and took that as encouragement that they were on the right track. Hawthorn Woods does allow streetlights but controls the bulb intensity and timing of the lights.
Not only does light pollution affect animals, but it also impacts the circadian rhythms of humans, which are proven to be an important modulator of overall health. All forms of life are affected by light pollution.
Stewart’s advice for cities is to start small with public education, work with neighborhoods, and then move on to lighting ordinances and adding lighting specifications into building codes. Considerations can include:
Stewart noted that Hawthorn Woods is ranked the second safest city in Illinois and that the lighting ordinances did not impact crime or vehicle accidents.
She said the most important first step in becoming a dark sky community is getting people, neighborhoods, and businesses on board through education, including social media. There are nominal fines for property owners that do not wish to comply. The city gives residents five years to get started and 10 years to comply, with an intention toward compliance, not impunity.
The dark sky designation has been an asset to Hawthorn Woods’ businesses and its overall brand. In just a couple of years, the community has become a destination for Independence Day fireworks (6,000-plus attendees) and regular stargazing classes.