Street Lights from my Neighborhood

I go for a lot of walks around the neighborhood with my kids. My 3 year old walks at a glacial pace, so I have plenty of time to look around and notice details of the streetscape. One thing that always stands out to me is the large number of types of light fixtures being used to light public spaces within a relatively small area. I decided to take take photos of a few of them. All of the following photos were taken within a block of the intersection of Portland Avenue and Minnehaha Parkway in south Minneapolis. This is far from any kind of comprehensive list of light fixtures in use throughout the City, but I was surprised to find so many different types within one block of each other.

Most of the lights in use today on residential streets seem to be the “acorn” style, a name derived from the acorn-like shape of the globe. I found two variants of acorn-style lighting, and one of the variants came in two different heights:

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Acorn Style 1

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Acorn Style 2

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Acorn Style 2 – Tall Version

Style 1 seems to be more common throughout the city, but Style 2 is pretty prevalent as well. The differences are subtle and may not come through in the pictures, but the differences are clear with an up-close inspection.

One final version of the Acorn was one of a kind in the neighborhood. I call it the faux-acorn, since the shade is actually open air with the light directed directly down. I wonder if this is an LED light? I haven’t been back after dark to see if it gives off a noticeably different light than the other fixtures.

open acorn

Faux-Acorn. Is this an LED?

There are also lights up and down Minnehaha Parkway that I presume were installed by the Park Board and are intentionally distinct from fixtures used by the City. Two of the styles were much taller than the third, but all appeared to be aimed at lighting the roadway. Generally, the trails are not lit.

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Parkway Style 1

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Parkway Style 2

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Parkway Style Ugly

All of the lights hung on utility poles are maintained by XCel Energy. I’m not sure if they pick their own light fixtures or if the City specifies which they will use. In my neighborhood, these are mostly in the alleys, but some are on the streets as well. These lights are noticeably utilitarian in appearance. There are three different types in use in my neighborhood:

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Cobra Head Style

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Long-arm Cobra Head

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Barn Style

In addition, there are light fixtures included on the signal poles at the intersection of Portland Avenue and Minnehaha Parkway. These are shoe-box style fixtures – an older style that has since been replaced by something newer and sleeker.

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Shoe-box style signal mount.

I also think it’s interesting that a number of the houses around the neighborhood have these roughly 6′ tall light fixtures in their front yards, often just a few feet from the sidewalks. They were originally gas fueled lamps, though a few of them have been converted to electricity. Most of them have been either abandoned in place or removed.

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Abandoned Gas Light

This final photo is of a standard Acorn Style 1, but it has been wrapped with what appears to be electrical tape (which is melting away). My guess is that the adjacent property owner isn’t too excited about having a streetlight in their front boulevard, so they wrapped the fixture in tape to keep the light out (or in?). Maybe it was shining through their living room window. I don’t know about Minneapolis, but in many cities, if an adjacent property owner requests it, the city will install some sort of permanent shield inside the globe to direct the light towards the street rather than towards the house. But as my father would say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

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Unwanted Light

If you’re interested, you can read the full Minneapolis Street Lighting Policy, though it doesn’t dive into any technical details. It lists six different styles of lighting, though it doesn’t shed much light (see what I did there?) on how the city decides which type of fixtures end up on which streets.

I’m an engineer, so I guess I like uniformity and it drives me a little bit nuts to see so many different types of lights in use within such a short distance of each other. The reasons for such variety are generally three-fold: 1) Each agency has their own standards, and 2) Those standards change over time. 3) Different types of lights light things differently (newsflash!).

Lighting standards are always a challenge for municipalities. Residents often feel passionate about it, and the assessments that come along with it are rarely popular. Some folks want more light to enhance safety, others want less light for “dark sky” reasons. Some folks want fewer, taller lights, while others want more frequent, shorter lights. Some folks like retro-style lights, others would like a more contemporary appearance. Sometimes heritage preservation concerns come into play. There is also discussion about whether the intent of street lighting is to light the roadway itself, or also the adjacent sidewalks. In this case, all of the roadways in the area are well-lit, but there is no lighting provided for the parkway trails. Should there be? I’m sure there are differing opinions about this.

There’s always a pressure to change the lighting standard to embrace new technologies, such as LEDs, but each new standard requires a whole new set of parts to stock and maintain, and can raise new questions about reliability. There are several well-established and reliable companies that manufacture a majority of the light fixtures we see around the Twin Cities. There are also many smaller companies, and they tend to be the companies selling the newer/sleeker/energy efficient models. As with any industry, there is some level of security in choosing parts from reliable and well-established vendors. Agencies like to minimize the number of different types of fixtures they have to maintain and the variety of different parts to keep in stock, and this is easiest when they pick one supplier and get all their parts from the same place. At the same time, agencies often come under pressure when it is perceived that they are favoring a particular manufacturer and not allowing others to compete for the city’s business. However, it has happened more than once that an agency installs light fixtures from a new start-up company, only to have them go out of business, leaving the agency with no reliable way to source parts to maintain the lights.

It is tempting to suggest that we should just pluck a few of these outdated fixtures out of the ground and install the new standard on top of the old foundation and reuse all of the existing wiring. In some cases, it’s not as simple as swapping out an old fixture for a new one. Lighting plans are usually drawn to meet the specifications of a particular fixture. For example, if the existing fixture supplies x amount of light when installed at height h, we can’t just swap the fixture out for a new style that supplies y amount of light from height j without impacting the overall lighting levels. Sometimes this isn’t a big deal, but sometimes it is.

For now, I guess I should be happy that my neighborhood has street lighting (and that the previous owners of my house fully paid the assessment that was levied against the property for it). Not everyone in every community can say the same.

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14 Responses to Street Lights from my Neighborhood

  1. Monte Castleman
    Monte July 2, 2014 at 12:56 pm #

    A few comments:
    “Acorns” aren’t cutoff so they’re not politically correct anymore even if we find them attractive. In their place are the “faux-acorns” mounted higher up and often interspersed with standard poles so that they can use fewer fixtures and higher wattage (=more efficient bulbs). The one in the picture is appears to be a standard High Pressure Sodium fixture, you can see the metal reflector which would not be needed with LEDs.

    The Parkway style 1 and 3 date from the 1960s-1980s. While I like them a lot the wiring is deteriorating and parts for the fixtures are no longer available, so they’re being completely replaced with style 2.

    For the wood pole lights, the “Barn” style (officially called NEMA) is some private party leasing a light, not a city. (In St. Paul the city supplies and maintains NEMA heads on Xcel supplied masts and poles.) You can lease a light from Xcel for your yard or your business parking lot, they maintain and supply the energy for a flat monthly fee.

    For a long time it was illegal to have gas lamps, so a lot of the front yard poles were abandoned or converted to electric (It is now legal again if they have an electronic igniter to shut off during the day.

  2. Matt Steele July 2, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

    I love the faux acorns with the down-facing LEDs. I hope we see many more of them.

    I hate the freeway-style lights (either Xcel-owned ones like the cobra pictured, or city-owned ones like on Mpls stoplights or every Richfield street). They are far too tall. Lower fixtures (and more of them) creates more even lighting, less glare, and more of a human scale.

  3. Mike Sonn
    mikesonn July 2, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

    One of the things I love most about St Paul, all the amazing street lights, very pedestrian scale.

  4. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary July 2, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

    I find the half-acorns really ugly (the full glass acorn shape, but only half lights up). I like the more modern “faux acorn”, both for its downlighting, and its avoiding of easily breakable glass on the bulb shape.

    As for the general lack of consistency… just try to remind yourself, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. Different styles on one block are unsightly (like on 42nd by Temple Israel Cemetery). But does it really matter from block to block? Our trees are different, the curbs are slightly different, the sidewalk width is sometimes different. I don’t think it’s worth an effort to “fix” just for the sake of consistency.

    A broader question of interest would be the validity of the Minneapolis street lighting policy. On the one hand, I love the aesthetic benefits and higher quality of light. On the other hand, these lights are really, really expensive, and I’m not sure the community benefits in proportion to the cost for them to be installed on every reconstructed residential street. Residents along Penn Avenue (which is a major street, which probably should have the ped-scale lights) fought tooth and nail to avoid getting assessed for new lighting as part of that project. Despite what this article says, the lighting was put in after all. I can’t find the number here, but I believe only 2 or 3 households actually voted “yes” for the new lights on Penn. The larger minority was mostly due to non-respondents.

    • Matt Steele July 2, 2014 at 2:05 pm #

      History from my neighborhood group (Field Regina Northrop, possibly Reuben’s group as well) is that a certain percentage of neighbors have to petition for the city to install lights. Otherwise we get the standard Xcel cobras. I’d love to see better lighting on my block, but apparently the neighbors shot down that idea 5 or 10 years ago, while the people over in Field got the city acorns.

      • Sean Hayford Oleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary July 2, 2014 at 2:32 pm #

        As I assume you’ve seen in the policy, the proportion flips depending on whether it’s a petition from the neighborhood or led by reconstruction. If the street is being reconstructed anyway, it takes 75% to stop the lights from being added. If it’s not being reconstructed, it takes 75% to support adding the lights as their own project.

  5. mister.shoes July 2, 2014 at 4:52 pm #

    True story: Reuben loves across the street from me—a street with beautiful trees and acorn lights. When we bought this house just over five years ago, having a small-scale acorn light in the front yard (I can see it out my front window as I type this) was a huge plus for us. Coming and going after dark feels safe and we like the visibility it provides at night, given the large amount of foot traffic on our sidewalk due to people heading to/from the creek. The neighborhood feels very welcoming and friendly with these smaller lights. Every street in MPLS should have them.

    • Matt Steele July 3, 2014 at 9:40 am #

      I should use this to sell it to my neighborhood. Any idea what the assessments are on an average 40-50′ lot to get the lights?

    • Reuben Collins
      Reuben Collins July 9, 2014 at 9:55 pm #

      mister.shoes, well how about that? Two neighbors brought together through blogging. Good to put a face (and an actual name) to the name. All the comments you’ve left on this site and you were sitting just across the street from me.

  6. Monte Castleman
    Monte July 2, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

    Also of note Mn/DOT got special funding to convert approximately 25% of their lights in the metro to LED, and will be looking for more funding in the future to continue. For a useless skill, you can tell what type and wattage bulb a light uses by the stickers on the bottom.
    Red: Mercury Vapor
    Blue: Metal Halide
    Yellow: High Pressure Sodium
    10= 100 watts
    15= 150 watts
    20= 200 watts
    25= 250 watts
    40= 400 watts
    X1= 1000 watts

    Most freeways use 250 or 400 watts, with the higher wattage on higher poles and/or wider freeways and more common on newer installations. 1000 watts are for high mast. Residential streets are usually 100 or 150 watts.

  7. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke July 3, 2014 at 5:58 am #

    I did a similar thing for StP streetlights years ago, but w/ no words or thoughts: http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2008/04/lampposts-of-saint-paul.html

    For some reason, I find all the paint colors to be fascinating. I really wanna find out who paints these.

  8. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary July 3, 2014 at 9:55 am #

    The gas lights you posted are also interesting. These are actually even more prevalent in Richfield, which did not have street lighting on minor streets until the 70s. Today, Richfield has pretty good (if somewhat unattractive) public street lighting, and most of these old post lights have fallen into disrepair.

    One issue that I think exacerbates the problem in most of South Minneapolis (at least, north of Minnehaha Creek or so) is the frequency of front porches. Homes built post-war to today seem to have one or many outdoor lights on the house, and have front porches less commonly. The older homes north of Minnehaha Creek have little outdoor lighting attached to the house — and if they do, it’s often inside a semi-enclosed porch, so little of the light projects out.

    Although I love these houses and I love porches, when there’s standard cobrahead lighting and no post lights, this combination can make the street look a little more dark and empty than a street full of externally lit houses.

    Matt — if you don’t succeed in getting your neighborhood to agree to pay an assessment, perhaps you can do it on a more grassroots level, just getting folks to install lights outside their porches, or install post lights near the sidewalk. I installed a post light at my parents’ house to help make up for lack of street lighting on their exurban cul-de-sac, and I love the result!

  9. Tom Wald July 3, 2014 at 10:16 am #

    I like the cube-style parkway lights. They remind me of my youth in Minneapolis, and some of the other mass-produced designs of the time. But that sort of taste is very personal….

  10. Monte Castleman
    Monte July 3, 2014 at 10:35 am #

    One of my projects is to convert the light in front of my house back to gas. I discarded the old gas light years ago, and had to replace the pole due to a driveway expansion, but bought a new fixture with an ignitor. Minnegasco used to promote them in an effort to sell more gas, but they were made illegal during the energy crisis, later modified to be allowed if they turn off in the day.

    I always thought of the parkway lights as “mid-century modern”. Like other things of that era they’re falling victim to age and under-appreciation,

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