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Artillery Row

The Stratford MSG Sphere would have been a dystopian nightmare

Light pollution is not a fringe issue and we need to reconnect to the night sky


The US company MSG Entertainment has officially withdrawn its application to build a replica of the Las Vegas Sphere in Stratford. Like the original, London’s Sphere would have been a concert and entertainment venue. It would have been almost 100 metres high and 120 metres wide, and fitted with over 1 million external LED panels. The Vegas sphere has been described as “like a sun on earth”.

The company had already declared its intention to withdraw, but we can now breathe ceremonial sighs of relief.

The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan was central to disrupting the plans, though the final word lay with Michael Gove as housing secretary. Many believe Khan’s action in blocking the plans was political, including MSG Entertainment itself; in December, a Sphere Entertainment spokesperson told the Evening Standard:

The entire 5-year planning process was hijacked by the Mayor and his bogus last minute report. Londoners should be dismayed that they are not going to benefit from this groundbreaking project, and others looking to invest in London should certainly be wary. Moreso, everyone should be alarmed by how easily the government’s established process was tossed aside by one politically motivated official. Mr Gove’s action, although commendable, still appears to us to be more of the same, and we cannot continue to participate in a process that can so easily be undermined by political winds. As we said previously, we will focus on the many forward-thinking cities.

The official letter to the Planning Inspectorate from MSG Entertainment dated 8th January expressed a similar sentiment.

So, why am I so relieved? The approval of the Sphere would have signalled that light pollution is not a concern in any way. Rejecting it should be the start of a conversation that recognises this as a major issue. 

The night sky has filled humans with inspiration and wonder for millennia. Every human culture ever to exist has had a connection with the sky. Today, that relationship —  which I studied for my MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology with the University of Wales Trinity St David — is in peril. A relationship with the night sky is no longer automatically available to anyone able to look upwards after dark. Over 80 per cent of the world’s population, and 99 per cent of the European and U.S. populations, live under light polluted skies. Apart from severing us from our dark sky heritage, light pollution also has negative effects on wildlife, the climate, and our own health. 

We don’t talk about light pollution much in London. Is it because we think we are too far gone in that respect, living in a capital city? This would be a misconception. While we will never see the Milky Way in London, we can still see hundreds of stars. Many are not aware of this, because we tend to conflate two key sources of pollution: skyglow and glare. 

Glare refers to lights shining directly into our eyes; screens, street lights, shop front lighting. This prevents our eyes from developing night vision, which we need to see the stars. It doesn’t matter how unpolluted the area is; if there are nearby bright lights — like a phone torch — our view of the night sky will be severely limited. Night vision is linked to a protein called rhodopsin, which is light-sensitive. Developing night vision takes at least forty minutes, but one flash of a brighter light — someone nearby checking their phone — immediately photobleaches the rhodopsin, and all night vision is lost. Pure red light also allows us to develop night vision, as rhodopsin is insensitive to longer red wavelengths of light. So it is possible to avoid glare completely in cities, with sufficient co-operation from those around and access to the right location. Standing on the roof of a friend’s apartment building in Brooklyn, shielded from the street lights below, I immediately spotted the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. In London, the Baker Street Irregular Astronomers meet monthly in Regent’s Park after dark with binoculars and telescopes; meetings are free and open to all.

Skyglow is exactly what it sounds like: the glow in the sky that appears above towns and cities. It is caused — in simplified terms — by refracted light particles diffusing into the atmosphere. No matter how isolated we are from light sources, how long we wait to develop night vision, or how unclouded the sky, skyglow will prevent us from seeing thousands of stars, including the Milky Way. The only way to escape this is to travel away to a dark sky area. In the past decade, skyglow has skyrocketed; a 2022 study revealed a 7-10 per cent increase per year, much of it from LEDs. According to its researchers, at current rates, a child born in an area where 250 stars are visible, would be able to see fewer than 100 by their 18th birthday.

The MSG Sphere would have contributed to both issues; it would have been an enormous source of glare for those in surrounding areas, as well becoming perhaps the greatest single source of skyglow in the UK.

Anyone who cares remotely about light pollution would have done everything in their power to block the Sphere

Anyone who cares remotely about light pollution would have done everything in their power to block the Sphere. But was Sadiq Khan’s decision to do so driven by politics rather than environmental concerns? He initially backed the development, saying it was “‘great to welcome another world-class venue to the capital.”’ Local residents then campaigned against the project for years. Khan’s letter of 20th November, requesting that planning permission be blocked, cites light intrusion to local residents as a primary reason, but light pollution in a general sense — skyglow — was not mentioned, even though it is a global, rather than a local, issue. A 2022 question to the London Assembly on whether the GLA monitors London’s light pollution has yet to receive a public response — ‘‘officers are preparing an answer’’.

If the Mayor of London really wants to recognise the city’s light pollution as a problem, and help fix it, there are plenty of actions he can take.

Firstly, he could trial non-polluting street lighting schemes. Responsible street lighting should be necessary, targeted, controlled, as low-brightness as possible, and warm-coloured. There is no evidence to suggest that more efficient street lighting increases crime; overly bright lighting can even reduce safety. An education campaign about light pollution would also be a positive action, acknowledging this form of environmental damage as on a par with other harms. 

Khan could also consider ways to regenerate positive relationships between Londoners and the night sky, a free source of mystery and wonder with which we have lost touch. Even with the amount of skyglow we currently have, it is still possible to see hundreds of stars, and all the planets. Many will have seen a bright star over London in November, but how many will have identified it as Jupiter? Londoners need to reconnect with our celestial heritage. 

The outside of the Sphere would also have been used for advertising, hardly something we need more of. We are a population in need of some magic, not more marketing.

If the site for the Sphere is not used for social housing, as many have suggested, it would be a perfect location for an astronomy and culture venue, which would bring jobs and investment to the area without a neon soul-destroying orb. Such a venue could offer two experiences: the first, to shield people from glare as they witness stars and planets in the open air (requiring the surrender of phones) and a second, to immerse us in the night sky itself using VR technology. Learning about space even without seeing it directly can still inspire a sense of wonder.

I sincerely hope the mayor of Teesside’s desire to bring the sphere there is also thwarted, and feel sorry for the inhabitants of the “forward-thinking” city in which the next Sphere eventually lands. In today’s light-saturated world, the development is indefensible.

David Hopkinson, COO of MSG Entertainment, has said in a statement regarding advertising on the external screen of the sphere that the “Sphere’s Exosphere is a 360-degree canvas for brand storytelling that will be seen around the world, offering our partners an unparalleled opportunity to become part of the greatest show on Earth.”

He could not be more wrong. The greatest show on Earth is the night sky, and the celestial sphere is the sphere that matters. We must not neglect it.

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