Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
"Turn up the lights," said the writer O. Henry. "I don't want to go home in the dark." He was dying when he said it, but the sentiment is widely shared among people who are alive and well. Some of them showed up at a budget hearing of the Minneapolis City Council last week.
Council members listened to comments from citizens concerned about a range of issues — homelessness, immigrants' rights, opportunities for young people, white supremacy, school funding, the opioid epidemic, police brutality and more. Many of the topics were beyond the purview of the city's governing board, but several of the comments concerned streetlights — and those are something the city can address.
It appears poised to do so. Mayor Jacob Frey's proposed budget for the coming year includes about $9 million for streetlight repair and improvements in selected parts of the city. The mayor touts the streetlight initiative as a means of fighting crime — and, as public-safety strategies go, better streetlights seem an obvious move. In Minneapolis, daylight is down to about nine and a half hours at this time of year.
"Every neighborhood in our city deserves to feel safe," Frey told reporters last August. "Part of feeling safe is making sure that streets are well lit and that would-be criminals are deterred."
One of the neighborhoods due to receive attention is Marcy-Holmes, which comprises Dinkytown and other parts of the University of Minnesota community. A handful of U students joined the residents offering testimony at the city budget meeting.
"When I get up in the morning twice a week to do my teaching practicum, the streetlights are still on," said Sara Davis, who serves as a student representative to the Board of Regents. "And I still worry, even though it's only a five-minute walk. All of the students near campus, regardless of where they live, deserve to get where they're going safely — morning, noon or night. On top of all of the other stressors in our lives, getting home or getting to our car should not be one."
The value of improved streetlights in fighting crime is not a universally accepted fact. Cities that have brightened their streets to deter criminals have reported mixed success. A few voices have suggested that better lighting might actually encourage some kinds of illegal behaviors, like drug dealing and prostitution.
A risk that seems less far-fetched is that brighter streetlights will interfere with the natural world, by adding to light pollution and confounding birds' ability to navigate along their migratory routes. Minneapolis strives to comply with the standards set by dark-sky advocates — for example, by installing fixtures that focus light downward.
To offset any further disruptions to bird navigation, perhaps the city could encourage greater participation in the Lights Out Twin Cities program, which aims to persuade building owners and others to turn their exterior lighting down or off during migration season. Information is available on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website.
Like other cities, Minneapolis has been working for several years to replace its aging streetlights with LED alternatives, which consume less energy and produce more light. They also last longer than other fixtures. So a concerted push to bring more of Minneapolis into the LED age would make sense, even if the city were not grappling with crime.
The crime problem will require a host of solutions, but this one is relatively easy to achieve. As Mayor Frey observed, everyone deserves to feel safe. Everyone, that is, but those who commit crimes.