Just a few miles down the road from the bright lights of Austin, Dripping Springs holds on to its natural nights. The community’s efforts to practice better night lighting have earned it designation as a Dark Sky Community from the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), the first in Texas and one of only seven in the entire world.
Dripping Springs residents can gaze at stars no longer visible in most cities. Chances are, they also sleep better and enjoy better health.
Research shows that exposure to artificial light at night can increase risk for obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes, breast cancer, and other ailments. It disrupts our normal day-night cycle, or circadian rhythm, and suppresses melatonin production. This hormone induces sleep but also has antioxidant properties, lowers cholesterol and helps our thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, testes and adrenal glands function.
Artificially bright nights also affect other animals and even plants. Light interferes with the ability of nocturnal mammals (those active at night) to hunt or hide and disrupts mating habits of some animals. For example, fireflies use their charming blinking lights to find mates but, when forced to compete with porch lights and street lamps, the insects lose out. Frogs and toads use croaking at night to attract partners and can be confused by night lighting.
Bright nights interfere with navigation by birds that migrate at night, and millions of birds die every year colliding with illuminated buildings and towers. Artificial lighting also affects seasonal cues that tell migratory birds when to go, which can cause them to miss the right conditions for nesting and foraging.
As anyone with a porch light knows, insects are drawn to light. Unnatural concentrations around lights make bugs easy pickings for predators, contributing to declining insect populations. That affects animal species that rely on insects for food or plants depending on them for pollination.
Finally, artificial light that shines into the sky or your neighbor’s property also wastes energy. The IDA estimates that properly designed outdoor lighting could reduce energy use by 60 to 70 percent, saving billions of dollars and cutting carbon emissions.
The Dripping Springs citizens who asked the city to pass a lighting ordinance back in 2000 didn’t know all this. They just wanted to keep their view of the night sky and prevent light from surrounding homes and businesses from trespassing onto their properties, says Michelle Fischer, City of Dripping Springs administrator.
The ordinance requires light fixtures be designed or shielded in such a manner that it shines toward the ground and not in people’s faces or into the sky.
"When you shield lighting you eliminate glare," says Cindy Luongo Cassidy of Green Earth Lighting LLC and author of the Dark Sky designation application. "You aren’t blinded by the light but you still have the feeling of security. You also get rid of the light trespass, which is protecting people’s property rights." It also makes the community more attractive.
Several years after the ordinance was in place, the community realized that Dripping Springs had the potential for a Dark Sky designation. John Barentine, IDA Dark Sky Places Program Manager, says the bar for that is set pretty high. He currently is processing at least 100 applications for the designation, but expects few of them will ultimately qualify.
Dripping Springs’ ordinance only covers property within the city limits, but Fischer says the majority of development outside city limits has agreed to comply with it voluntarily. "We ask, of course, and we give them educational information. Once people learn why it’s important and what the benefits are, it’s a hard thing to be against. It’s such a no-brainer. We’ve been very lucky with compliance."
In August, Dripping Springs hosts Better Lights for Better Nights, a conference for communities, businesses and individuals that want to learn more about night-friendly lighting. And the Texas Night Sky Festival, scheduled for March 28, 2015, will be a free, family friendly event all about natural night skies. Dripping Springs also holds occasional star parties (check the city events calendar).
Those who want to go and soak up a natural night can book at several local bed and breakfast establishments, including the Cabin on Barton Creek, Mt. Gainor Inn, and the aptly-named Star House Bed and Breakfast.
"We all live with this omnipresent connection through technology, but on the other hand, it has disconnected us from aspects of our culture that go back into early history and the mists of time," says Barentine.
"When we didn’t have artificial light and TV and internet, we sat around a campfire and told stories underneath a canopy filled with stars. For hundreds of thousands of years that was our culture and only in the past century have we lost that. It is possible to have modern conveniences without discarding that heritage."