Motor City Streetlights Shining Brighter

The future is looking bright along the streets of Detroit, following the recent completion of the installation of 65,000 modern, efficient and reliable light-emitting diode (LED) light fixtures.

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“Prior to this project, Detroit had block after block of darkened city streets, lined by rows of nonworking streetlights,” said Edwin Tatem, principal-in-charge for WSP USA. “At one point, only about 60 percent of the city’s streetlights were in working order.”

The $185 million project called for the replacement of 88,000 obsolete streetlights that were rapidly falling into disrepair, subject to vandalism, or stolen for their copper bases.

“Work crews have replaced tens of thousands of old high-pressure sodium fixtures and their yellowish light with brighter LED lights that use less energy and give off a whiter, cleaner glow,” Tatem said.

WSP served as owner’s engineer for the Detroit Public Lighting Authority and the City of Detroit. The firm also provided design services and construction management services for the project, providing the city with the criteria that would achieve a level of illumination that meets industry standards.

The final light was installed on Dec. 15 as part of a public dedication ceremony held 3 1/2 years after the project began.

“This project gave the city 100 percent of its lights in working order,” Tatem said. “This has made the city safer and has enhanced the quality of life for residents in Detroit.”


The impact of the streetlights on Detroit neighborhoods was highlighted in photos by students at the College for Creative Studies.

Getting Out of the Lighting Business

When the project began in May 2013, WSP and Transmission Maintenance Construction prepared an evaluation of the city’s Public Lighting Department (PLD) assets to determine if the city should continue providing the power and maintaining the utility poles, or if it should consider other options.

“We assisted the city to determine if they would stay in the lighting business and to evaluate updated illumination options for Detroit,” Tatem said. “WSP provided recommendations for changes and upgrades to bring substations and overhead and underground distribution systems up to industry standards for reliability and safety.”

The assessment recommended that Detroit transition its management of the lighting to an independent authority, and provided recommendations for the modernization of the existing equipment. The study eventually led to the creation of the Detroit Public Lighting Authority.

“WSP helped the city upgrade from a department to an authority and got them out of the business of lighting,” Tatem said. “This is assisting the city to utilize their resources better.”


By improving visibility, the new streetlights are creating safer neighborhoods for families and children throughout the city.

‘A Shining Example’

Tatem said his team was pleased to have an opportunity to play a critical role in raising the quality and standard of living in the Detroit by improving the lighting.

“It is providing a safer environment for children and parents to enjoy their communities,” he said. “Professionally, it is satisfying to be involved and intertwined into the community in such a way that we were able to use our skills technically to improve the quality of life for everyone living here.”

The new lights were also designed in a way to discourage vandalism and theft.

“To deter vandalism, the new street lights don't have copper at their base and they use more overhead wiring instead of the underground wiring, which thieves often pulled out and sold,” Tatem said.

Public reaction to the improved lighting has been outstanding, according to Tatem.

“A lot of residents had the perception that by not having adequate streetlights, it suggested that Detroit was a city in decay,” he said. “The lights are seen as a sign that the community is now in a real rebirth and Detroit is re-emerging as a modern city.”

Today, Detroit is one of the few U.S. cities that has completely transitioned to LED public lighting, and has become a model of how LED lighting can illuminate larger areas using fewer lights.

“Crime rates have decreased in the city due to the project,” Tatem said. “Two years after the city's exit from bankruptcy, street lighting is becoming a shining example of the city's rebound.”


The project called for the replacement of 88,000 obsolete streetlights with 66,000 brighter, more efficient LED light fixtures.

About the Photos

The images featured in this article were provided by photography students at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, under the guidance of Carlos Diaz, instructor. The impact of the new streetlights on the quality of life in Detroit was featured in a public photography exhibit to coincide with the illumination of the final streetlight in December.

The student photography project began with a request from the Detroit Public Lighting Authority (PLA) to clearly show where the lights had been installed along the city and neighborhood streets.

“Our objective was to make photographs that transcended simple documentation,” Diaz said. “It was important that the photographs communicate something about the human condition and that they reveal and express how the installation of these new lights have changed the dynamics of the city and quality of life, literally and metaphorically.”

Diaz said when the students talked to residents during the photo shoots, the residents expressed gratitude for the safety, security, and aesthetic improvements that the lighting provides. “In many cases, the residents would ask us to thank the PLA for bringing back lights to the neighborhood.”

The students created a list of the important facets of city life to include, such as churches, bus stops, the Thanksgiving Day parade, gas stations, businesses, apartments, important landmarks, and neighborhoods large and small.

“I think the photographs reflect a connection between the students and the cityscape and how they chose to represent the city,” Diaz said. “They are aware of the negative images and narratives that have defined the city in the past. These are unique photographs of the Detroit landscape, and because they are taken at night, they reveal the city as magical and in a way that we literally could not see with our eyes. Before the lights were installed, these images were not possible. The new PLA lights have become a very visible symbol of the reinvigoration of the city of Detroit.”


When the replacement project began in 2013, only about 60 percent of Detroit’s streetlights were in working order. Today, 100 percent of the streetlights are illuminating the city.