Cristina Gil Venegas – The Nighttime Traveller

18th December 2020

A new research project has been established to examine the ways in which women interact with the urban environment after dark. We speak to the research founder, Colombian lighting designer Cristina Gil Venegas, to find out more.

For many in the lighting design sphere, the job comes with the added bonus of plenty of global travel. Whether it’s working on projects overseas or attending international conferences, many of us are lucky enough to occasionally swap the office for the airport and see the world (before 2020 had other plans).

With this luxury of international travel comes the opportunity to experience different cultures, immerse ourselves in new environments and discover new cities. However, while it can be exciting to explore places that we’ve never been to before, for some, this can come with an added sense of caution or trepidation, especially once night falls.

This is the basis for a new research study from Colombian lighting designer Cristina Gil Venegas, entitled The Nighttime Traveller. Based in Bogota, Colombia, Venegas has travelled around the world, studying in Buenos Aires, Barcelona and Stockholm, and throughout her career has always had an interest in urban design and outdoor lighting. “I have always been keen to work in outdoor environments, and in the course of my lighting design studies, I began to feel an interest in working in urban environments at night,” she told arc.

“During the first urban intervention I saw in Barcelona, during the Llum BCN Festival for Santa Eulàlia, I felt really inspired by the poetical way Barcelona’s old town was transformed through lighting and the way that locals and tourists of all ages enjoyed the outdoor activities. Even though those activities were mainly contemplative, people’s mood transformed just by walking by and admiring the city, seeing Barcelona through new eyes.

“Since that moment, I wanted to inspire other people to explore the night with that curiosity I saw in people’s faces during the Llum BCN Festival, contrary to the current panorama in which most citizens almost don’t interact with the urban night. I wanted to become a spokeswoman for the endless opportunities of urban lighting design to create a sense of wellbeing at night.”

Venegas first came to lighting via architecture; she completed a degree in Architecture with Urban Environmental Emphasis at Santo Tomás University in Tunja, Colombia, during which she spent a year studying abroad at the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA) in Argentina. “I had some hints of lighting design while I was studying in Buenos Aires and saw a class given at UBA,” she explained. “I was intrigued by the description of that class, which was on the relationship between light and spaces, but I didn’t take the class because it overlapped with other assignments I had already enrolled on. It wasn’t until later that I realised that class was given by a really talented lighting designer, Eli Sirlin.”

Years later, while Venegas was working as a junior architect in an architectural heritage studio, she read an article on the ability of light to change the perception of buildings. “The article was on a group of people who stopped heritage buildings from being demolished in New York by lighting them up and doing an ephemeral intervention.

“Since that moment, I felt inspired by light as an ‘invisible’ tool that can transform a place with no visible interventions.”

This led Venegas to research lighting design postgraduate courses, which eventually led her to a one-year course at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) in Barcelona, called “Proyectar la luz”. “I found this one-year programme a good way to understand light, from its basic concepts between light and shadow, then its application in indoor and outdoor environments, and finally the possibility to explore my own interests during the development of a final project,” she continued.

Venegas explained that it was once she began researching lighting design as a career choice that she realised what her true passion was. “During my last years as an architecture student and at the beginning of my work experience, I was interested in urban design and the job opportunities that I had. But at the time, even though I enjoyed my work and career, I didn’t feel the passion I used to see in my bosses. When they were working you could notice how much of themselves they put in their projects, so I realised I hadn’t found my own path yet.

“When I started researching lighting design, I began to feel that passion that I used to see in my bosses, so I followed my intuition and I believe that with the passing of the years, this passion just increases.”

Finally, in 2017, Venegas enrolled in the Master’s programme at KTH in Stockholm, Sweden, “driven by the recommendations of some lighting designer friends and my curiosity of living in a country with such drastic light conditions”. Here, she expanded on her interest in urban design, researching outdoor lighting and focusing her thesis on how light can positively influence and encourage peoples’ engagement and interaction with the urban environment at night.

“For this, I did field research at Norrmalmstorg and Biblioteksgatan in Stockholm, and a literature review about two case studies in Colombia and lighting designers’ approach to urban projects. I called this research Light as a tool to structure urban planning: a socially-oriented approach. My tutor for this was Florence Lam, Global Lighting Design Leader at Arup,” she explained.

The result of her thesis, Venegas continued, was the proposal of a guideline to approach urban lighting design. “The aim of the guideline was to establish the framework to structure urban lighting proposals, by identifying the attributes in light that encourage people to dwell and explore cities at night.”

This research ended up being a great influence for Venegas in creating The Nighttime Traveller. She explained: “During the research process of my thesis, I was able to study qualitative and quantitative data, and see the way people move through urban spaces differently during daytime and nighttime, and also to study how their paths and pace change in those two moments of the day.

“Additionally, when I was studying how facial perception changed under different light conditions, I realised how we as citizens avoid certain spots of the city due to the fear of not being able to identify other people because the light position makes us perceive faces with strong, dramatic shadows.

“That process made me enquire about my own way to explore the night and start asking some friends about their experiences. I began to ask about how, when recognising landmarks was easy, through planned lighting design, those places became more interesting for people to explore.

“Then, I realised how different the perception was between women and men about the urban night, and from that, I decided to inquire more about that situation.”

The contrasting perception in the way that men and women feel about the urban night, Venegas believes, stems from deep-seeded societal attitudes. On the Nighttime Traveller blog, she writes: “In my youth, I started to become aware of the difference between women and men. In the beginning, I was not sure if that feeling was just my own construction because of my shyness, or the fact that I grew up in a Catholic school, where the norms were very clear about ‘how a lady should properly behave’, referring to not give her opinion unless asked, not to speak up, not be so noisy or demanding, and among all those ‘nots’, not to go out outside alone at night.

“But then I discovered that the fear of the night was a shared feeling. As women, we hear statements such as ‘you should not walk alone at night outside’, or ‘you have to avoid wearing provocative clothing’. These statements can be more or less extreme between countries as a result of social constructions that translate into norms and boundaries.

“Most of us were raised with that fear of the night, in cultures where statements exclude women from enjoying the nighttime, and where we are judged if we do.”

Venegas even references Michelle Obama – a spokeswoman for freedom and empowerment – who herself wrote in her book Becoming, that she “knew never to walk alone at night”.

“After a while of exploring that shared feeling of fear and my own feelings, I came to the conclusion that, as women, we have been trying to be as invisible as possible in the urban nighttime. We use this as a sense of self-protection; as a way to remember those behavioural norms that society has imposed on us, in order to protect ourselves from harassment, and because we know if we are attacked, society is going to blame us for provoking these situations – this is something we continually see,” Venegas continued.

“I became aware that the way we move, the speed of our pace, the emotions we put in the urban journeys, suddenly became controlled and supervised by external eyes, and those eyes are prepared to judge us if a misfortune happens to us. In this situation, we become aware as women that our gender, that social construction, instead of including or integrating us into society, has instead limited our interaction with public space due to those prejudices.”

It is these attitudes that inspired Venegas to set up The Nighttime Traveller, to try and ascertain with more clarity how public spaces are perceived by women, and what can be done to create more inclusive public spaces at nighttime.

To do this, she created an anonymous survey to try and allow for a more open and transparent dialogue. The survey is divided into four sections as a way to structure the outcomes: General Information, Emotions, Travel and Comments.

In the first section, Venegas looks to obtain general data about the women taking part in the survey, to guarantee that the sample includes perspectives of women from different socio-economic backgrounds and age groups. In the second, Emotions, she seeks to identify how women interact with public spaces at night, emphasising the perception of safety and the main obstacles they identify when exploring cities at night. The third section, Travel, asks participants about their preferences when travelling, and hopes to gather qualitative data about whether the topics they search before travelling are connected to the obstacles they identify earlier in the survey. The final section is more open for women to share their experiences of cities after dark. The goal for this section is to explore qualitative information that can then open the discussion up to future research.

Venegas plans to present the outcomes through data visualisation that is easy to understand, communicate and interact with, and with that data, “adapt and design tools that decision-makers, designers and other professionals could use to design collaborative projects with citizens from a gender perspective approach”.

“I hope this research can contribute to raising awareness about how different women perceive and explore the urban environment at night, and to communicate how culture influences our confidence to explore the world and stand by ourselves as women,” she added.

“I believe light is a powerful tool to communicate, so I want to create and encourage other designers to create urban ephemeral interventions with the data of the outcomes of my research, to communicate to citizens, decision-makers and designers the female perception of the urban nighttime.”

It is an issue that Venegas clearly feels passionate about, and from the many women around the world that have already participated in the study, it is clear to see that this is a global concern. “I believe it is a situation that as women, we are aware of, but it still has many cultural barriers that make us avoid those conversations,” she said.

“One of the insights this process has brought to me was how different women feel when they travel abroad compared to the way they do in their own cities. I have identified this situation mainly in Latin American countries. So far I have found that, in general, women are cautious to explore urban spaces at night, and in countries such as mine, Colombia, this situation is even more evident.”

While Venegas’ research gauges how women perceive the urban environment at night, she has also begun to consider what lighting designers can do to help create more safe spaces for women after dark. “I have read about how we, as women, rely more on a sense of location and facial recognition to explore urban environments at night. So I believe that as lighting designers, we can contribute by lighting landmarks to turn them into reference points when we navigate through cities at night; light pathways to guide the flow through a visual sense of direction; and also to take care about the light direction in the urban environment, related to how citizens will perceive each other’s faces,” she said.

“With that in mind, I believe it is not just a matter of how much light, but where the light is coming from; what areas, buildings or elements to accentuate; and what the best lighting positions are that allow people to recognise other faces without distorting facial features.

“Additionally, the idea of designing urban environments at night around the activities people do would promote more vibrant spaces at night, and with more people engaging outdoors comes a feeling of more safe spaces.”

Venegas’ research is still open, and she is hopeful that, through the support of Women in Lighting (WiL), more women will take part. “WiL has given me a lot of support in sharing my research, and also brought me the opportunity to be in contact with other women who have either been researching this topic, or who have some interest in it. I believe these networks create an atmosphere that allows all of us to grow together, and I am really delighted to be a part of it,” she continued.

Looking forward, as Venegas continues to work on her research, she is already making a number of plans based on the outcomes she has already received.

“I am planning some ephemeral interventions with the outcomes of the research for raising awareness about this topic to a wider group of people. Additionally, on the Nighttime Traveller website, I am making the outcomes available through data visualisation, and will share a report with more detailed information for lighting designers and other professionals interested in the topic. My aim is for this information to be shared on other platforms to reach a bigger audience,” she said.

“I am also adapting and designing tools to help designers to go through the design process, taking into account the gender perspective, and working with citizens to design collaborative projects. The goal with these tools is to encourage professionals to use them during their design process, and get feedback from them to adjust the tools to diverse needs and locations, and make them available to anyone who wants to use it.

“I also want to encourage other women to share their own stories – nobody knows who they can inspire.”