A Message for the Solstice

From MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein

December 19, 2019

With the winter solstice approaching this weekend, I feel the familiar rhythms of the season beginning to develop. Am I the only one who wants to tuck in at home on these oh-so-long nights? Suddenly I find myself in a mood to bake and curl up with a good book.

This December, however, the shortest day of the year has also given me renewed cause to think about the role that sunlight plays in our lives. In October, we launched our latest campaign—Fight for Light—in partnership with New Yorkers for Parks. Throughout 2019, we studied the role of sunlight in the public realm and reported back on what other cities are doing to protect it. Now comes the hard part—convincing partners across the public and private sector to act on these findings. That’s what 2020 will be all about.

This might seem esoteric but the truth is, we know that we value natural light ourselves. We seek it out in the homes we live in and the places where we gather. We know that access to sunlight makes people healthier, parks greener, and cities stronger. We deserve a public policy that reflects that value and safeguards light for all New Yorkers.

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Heinrich Heine Fountain at sunset
The Heinrich Heine Fountain (Die Lorelei) in the Bronx's Joyce Kilmer Park. Photo: Phyllis Cohen for MAS.

Indeed, natural light and the movement of the sun have captivated societies throughout human history.

When I was in my early teen years, my parents took my sister and me to the English countryside to see the magnificent Stonehenge with our own eyes. Those were the days when they still let you enter the circle. I remember standing amidst those great monoliths, entranced by the timelessness of the site—how ancient it felt, and yet how mathematically advanced. I have always wanted to go back on the solstice, when the sun rises and sets in perfect alignment with the monuments. Even in 3000 BC, the profound effect that sunlight has on public spaces was understood and revered.

On a recent morning, my colleague Phyllis Cohen was in Joyce Kilmer Park in the Bronx, watching the sun rise over a monument of a very different era. She was checking on the latest restoration work underway at the Die Lorelei Fountain, an 1899 work of public art that MAS has maintained for decades. Rarely has it looked so beautiful. The white marble figures glowed in the dawn light, set off against a purple and pink watercolor sky. Just an hour earlier, the park had been silent and empty. But now with the arrival of daylight, it was abuzz with activity: people walking dogs, children trudging to school, commuters already hurrying toward the subway. I can’t say how many noticed the spectacle around them, but whether they were conscious of it or not, it was the rise of the sun that drew them into the park that morning.

As our research this year clearly demonstrated, sunlit spaces attract people, especially in winter months. Whether it’s the warmth of the sunny side of the street or the appeal of a bright public space, sunlight changes our behaviors and environment in ways we can’t replicate with technology. The only way to truly brighten a city is to safeguard the natural light we have.

In the coming year, we will be pushing for sunlight to take its rightful place alongside the myriad priorities that contribute to a well-planned city. It will not be easy, but we believe light is worth fighting for. As we undertake this effort, we are more grateful than ever for your contributions, which empower us to bring deep thinking, research, and action to build a bright future for the city we all love.

We have a voice because we have your support. Thank you. From all of us at MAS, we wish you a wonderful holiday season!

And remember, this Saturday will be the shortest day of 2019. Starting Sunday, it only gets brighter from here.

Elizabeth's signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
The Municipal Art Society of New York

children play on the shore near the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo: Giles Ashford.

MAS is proud to fight alongside you for a city where growth is balanced and character endures.