İstanbul: A city that never sleeps or sees the stars
The Bosporus at night. Artificial light from the buildings on both sides of the strait as well as the bridges over it can be seen from miles high in the sky. (PHOTO: Sunday’s Zaman, M. Fethullah Akpınar)
Ecology is usually the last thing on the minds of city officials of the proud city of İstanbul, a jungle of nightmarish concrete blocks that house nearly 20 million people.
The consequences of uncontrolled urban development that has condemned the city’s denizens to a life without trees have been well documented, concerns frequently raised (and ignored), but one would hope it could still be possible to maintain a connection with nature and its cosmic beauty, perhaps, by looking at the night sky or sitting by the Bosporus for a couple of minutes, enjoying the sounds of the sea. Well, what little research is available indicates that finding solace in what has been salvaged from the reach of greedy municipalities and contractors is scientifically impossible.
Tuncay Özışık, the chief researcher of the TÜBİTAK National Observatory, says light pollution -- defined as the use of light in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong amount and in the wrong direction -- says not only in İstanbul but in most cities across Turkey children and young people don’t know what the night sky actually looks like. “Road and street lights, lighting of the outer facades of buildings, lamp posts in parks, yards and sports complexes, and deluges of light flowing out of homes,” he said, listing the various sources of light pollution. “Since electricity consumption entails the use of natural resources such as coal, oil and water, light waste means energy waste.”
In addition to economic damage, light pollution can have disastrous effects on the environment. “Many species that rely on the nocturnal cycle and the sky can no longer find a naturally dark night sky. Light pollution, for example, is a new danger threatening nocturnal migratory birds,” he said, adding that newly hatched sea turtles often die when they go in the wrong direction, lured by artificial lighting, and fail to find the sea.
Research also indicates that there is a long list of documented and near-devastating effects on human health. “It is known that over-illumination causes eyesight loss in people.” He also said there have been studies indicating that women who work night shifts in overly lit environments are at a higher risk of breast cancer.
Özışık noted the economic aspects of energy waste cannot be overemphasized. “Taking measures including choosing the right kind of light fixtures, pointing lights in the right direction, using gas-based lamps instead of tungsten bulbs, only lighting areas that need lighting and using light in the house only when necessary can decrease energy consumption by 30 percent, if not more,” he told Sunday’s Zaman. “People are throwing money at the sky,” he said, highlighting the incorrect upward direction of most city lamps.
A life of all light and no stars is tough, but too much life coupled with no silence is depressing. The disruptive effects of noise pollution, also a byproduct of poor urban planning, have been well documented. İstanbul residents have no luck there, either, as a report compiled in August by the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, whose experts conducted measurements in the cities of Turkey’s 81 provinces (the total of fines for noise pollution issued after the measurements exceeded TL 189,000) found that İstanbul is the loudest city in the country.
Experts say the number one cause of İstanbul’s noise pollution is traffic. On an average day, the noise level around Barbaros Boulevard in Beşiktaş is at about 80 decibels, compared to 60 being the acceptable maximum during daytime. The other culprits are industrial plants, entertainment facilities, busy flight traffic in the city skies and residential buildings.
Luckily though, Turkey recently adopted a directive to fight noise pollution. The İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality is working together with a company called Eclipse Information Technologies, taking regular measurements at different parts of the city, and fining the companies or individuals according to the law.
The availability of a law trying to prevent noise pollution also leads to higher awareness. But currently, there is no legislation in Turkey that deals with light pollution. TÜBİTAK’s Özışık said many other countries have been adopting new legislation to fight light pollution. But currently, an individual in İstanbul or anywhere else in Turkey, who tries to have their local government switch off the blinding light emanating from a giant metal halide lamp at a nearby park has absolutely no law that they can use to support their cause.
There are not many civil society organizations that concentrate on light pollution, but some scientists have been lobbying, so far unsuccessfully, to pass anti-light pollution legislation. In fact, there appear to be no organizations dedicated to this cause around the world, except for the International Dark-Sky Association.
Perhaps an overly illuminated sky doesn’t bother the new generation as much, because of its members’ forced oblivion to the beauty of the night sky. Scientists say as much as 75 percent of Turkey’s youth have never seen the Milky Way. But for those İstanbul residents who know and miss the stars, there seems -- at least for the time being -- to be nothing to do but try to remember stars shining across a darkened sky to the best of their memory and take comfort in the fact that, for all we know, they are still up there.