Preserving dark night sky is a northern Michigan placemaking strategy

The Emmet County Headlands International Dark Sky Park is an excellent example of how to promote a unique rural asset as a placemaking strategy.

Dark, unlit places are often associated with areas that are unsafe or scary, where a person would most definitely not want to be. Some communities in Michigan, though, are promoting the dark – dark skies, that is – as a regional asset that can attract people to the area.

Parks officials in Emmet County, Mich. are promoting portions of the county as some of the darkest locations on earth at night. The Headlands International Dark Sky Park in the northern part of the county was designated in 2011 as a place offering outstanding night sky viewing opportunities. Dark Sky parks are determined by the International Dark Sky Association through a rigorous process – the Emmet County park is one of only nine in the United States.

In addition to the park, the Michigan legislature designated 21,050 of state land in Emmet County as a “Dark Sky Coast.” The law establishing the area requires that any lighting on public land within the area be directed downward in a way that does not create glare that interferes with nighttime viewing.

So why all this effort to promote the absence of light?

Light pollution - excessive outdoor lighting that is not falling where it is intended or needed - has many effects, one of them being brightening the night sky so that stars, planets and other astronomical features are not visible. Many areas in Michigan and adjoining states are very bright, and because of this, residents rarely see the beauty of the Milky Way, planets, aurora borealis and other objects in the night sky. An excellent video shows just how stunning the northern Michigan night sky can be.

Promoting northern Michigan as a place to travel to for night sky viewing can have economic benefits. The Headlands park is realizing those benefits by providing education and attracting visitors to events and facilities to enhance enjoyment of the night sky. Emphasizing the unique qualities of northern Michigan’s dark sky can be an effective placemaking strategy - another reason to both visit and reside in the region. This strategy is not limited to northern rural parts of the state, Michigan’s first dark sky preserve is located at the Lake Hudson State Recreation area near Clayton in southeast Michigan.

Reducing light pollution is not limited to creating preserves and parks. Many communities are adopting outdoor lighting goals within their master plan and standards within their zoning ordinance to mandate designs that direct light downward where it is needed, not up where it’s not. There is a financial benefit in reduced electricity cost, too. The Emmet County Master Plan and Zoning Ordinance provide good examples. Search for the word “sky” in both documents to quickly locate those provisions.

For more information about this and other placemaking strategies, contact a Land Use educator from Michigan State University Extension in your area.

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