Monday, December 8th, 2008

High Mast High Jinks in Chicago

You may recall from my previous post on the streetlights of Chicago that the Windy City has possibly the best street lighting of any city in the world. I have been less than fully enthusiastic about the new decorative lighting the city has installed, however. Well, not to be outdone, IDOT has gotten in on the act of degrading its lighting design.

On its freeways too, Chicago is an amazingly well lit city. I’ve always said that IDOT does it right. Well, not any more. I mean, the roads are still better lit than any city in America, but instead of tasteful, reasonably human scaled individual light standards like these on the Kennedy Expressway

IDOT is now installing continuous “high mast” tower lighting, as in this scene on the Dan Ryan. (You should click to enlarge this to get the full effect).

Yuck. I’ve always hated this. High mast lighting towers are awful anywhere, but they are a particular abomination in the city center. They resemble nothing so much as cell phone towers, and the way IDOT has lined the sides of the Stevenson, Dan Ryan, and Kingery with them makes you feel like you are driving through a veritable cell tower forest. These huge towers are completely out of scale to the human and urban fabric, and, unlike the individual standards that mimic normal street lighting, do not engage properly with the road. They stand apart from it as surely as any self-referential suburban office complex ever did. (IDOT is slightly better than normal on this last point, I must admit). I’d never use them anywhere, but if you must, then they should be out in the countryside keeping company with roadside truck stops and Stuckey’s. At least there they serve a semi-utilitarian function of giving you ample warning that you’re about to come upon a place where you can fill up.

Sorry for the tilt on the Kennedy photo. I had to stick my camera around a pole to get a clear shot because of the protective railings that are up on the overpasses.

An Urbanophile gold star to the first person can tell me how many high mast towers are visible in the Dan Ryan picture, and whether or not that is a world record for all time most high mast towers in a single photo fame.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Transportation
Cities: Chicago

11 Responses to “High Mast High Jinks in Chicago”

  1. Ahow says:

    I’ll go with 32.

    Chicago really knows how to screw up a good thing. Next up: The Olympics!

  2. thundermutt says:

    n = Too Many!

    And I thought the relative few along I-65/70 in downtown Indianapolis were bad!

  3. Lord Peter says:

    Looks like they’re going for a Berlin Wall ’75 aesthetic.

  4. caliboy28 says:

    I’m counting 35…

    Love the blog, by the way!

  5. Anonymous says:

    I actually counted 33. I thought this hideous lighting example was solely an INDOT thing. Seems to make sense only in efficiency…maybe??!!!? Or access for maintenance? Not sure but the traditional chicago street lights which have been for years cannot be matched. That’s what makes this place Chicago—love em. Unfortunately the gentrified neighborhoods go with something of an idyllic ‘past’ version and–most annoying–a feminine treatment. Can anyone tell me who (besides classless people) decides on these standards?!?! I wish there would be a design competition for Indianapolis to RELIGHT 5 main thoroughfares—lets say 38th street, Meridian St.(from 38th to the circle), College Avenue(from Mass Ave. to 65th street, Martin Luther King Drive, Lafayette Rd. (from 10th St. to 46th). Each designated thoroughfare would help define the district(s)/neighborhoods and cultural amenities of each area, marking a better sense of place. Other designated thoroughfares to consider in the future would be
    10th St., Fall Creek Parkway, Keystone Avenue, 1-70(from downtown to the new airport), Virginia and Massachusettes Avenues, Kessler Blvd., and 16th street. Any others I’m leaving out? Physically, Indy would seem much less homogenous as a community.

  6. thundermutt says:

    I support Urbanophile’s contention that the Warehouse District lampposts/streetlights are the best in Indy. They should be the Indianapolis standard, at least on the two alpha streets (Meridian, Washington) and throughout Downtown/Regional Center. Maybe 38th also.

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Ok, I everyone has to share the gold star since there are way too many to get an accurate count!

  8. Crocodileguy says:

    I really like the SOM-designed standard from NYC’s 2004 streetlight design contest. LED too!

  9. Josh says:

    Agreed on the SOM lighting – though they would very much dominate the street. You could use just about anything by Hess.

    The tower lighting, unfortunately, I think will only increase. Let’s hope it doesn’t. I’d love for the new federal infrastructure package to be lobbied by AIA, APA + ASLA to include a design review. The WPA actually gave us some fairly good design. And the NPS had fairly good design as well. We could do this again with Obama’s promised giant infrastructure package. Let’s hope some if it goes to create regional high speed rail connections.

    Chicago does have well lit roadways. They can actually go a bit overboard. See the S. Lakeshore Drive lighting for example. I still prefer it to the giant poles.

  10. Crocodileguy says:

    @ Josh: I think the SOM design is well-suited for higher-density areas of cities. It would dominate in a rural or lower-density area, though. A shorter design would be more suitable there, but I really like the clean, modern lines.

  11. Crocodileguy says:

    I just looked at what I could find by Hess, and I found their designs very lacking. Far too utilitaian.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures