The City of Light pollution: Paris’s parkour climate activists

Bersun Kilinc

By Alice O’Connell

In 2013 French legislators introduced a law requiring stores and office buildings to turn off their signs an hour after the last employee leaves. Yet enforcement is sporadic; while people are confined to their homes, the Champs-Elysees remains aglow with neon store signs for no one to see. The City of Light status comes at a significant environmental and carbon cost.

Enter: the group of climate activists using parkour to single-handedly tackle Paris’s light pollution.

On the Spot is a Paris-based parkour collective. Comprising 28 individuals, each from diverse athletic backgrounds such as acrobatics, climbing and volleyball, the members are united by parkour and the hope of a better environment. Operating every Friday evening, often after the city’s Covid curfew, they remark that police officers rarely interrupt; acting instead as an audience.

The group uses their diversity of styles to reach small interruptor switches that control shop signage, a process that is ‘totally reversible’. They operate only three rules:

  1. No degradation – if reaching the switch will cause damage to the property, they won’t do it. 
  2. They don’t operate in places where the lights act in place of public lights: the group has no intention of interfering with public safety.
  3. When members of the public stop to look, the group ensures they explain their actions and educate the public about what they’re preventing.

Shining a light on light pollution: why is it an issue?

Light pollution is caused by excessive or inappropriate use of outdoor artificial light: store signs, traffic lights and street lamps. While the latter two are fundamental for pedestrian safety, brightly lit store signs are of no benefit once a shop is closed. Their harmful glow is made even more redundant by pandemic restrictions, meaning that while populations are confined to their households, the lit signs serve no purpose but to contribute to light pollution.

While its most visible effect is obscuring the night stars from view, light pollution also has a negative impact on health. Increased amounts of light at night lower melatonin production, which can result in sleep deprivation, stress and anxiety. This disruption is not unique to humans: light pollution also affects animal migration patterns, wake-sleep patterns, and habitat formation. In extreme cases, artificial light interferes with natural moonlight during migration, causing animals to get confused, lose their way, and often die.  Sea turtles, living in the ocean but hatching on the beach at night, find the sea by detecting the bright horizon over the ocean. The glare of artificial lights interferes with this natural navigation process, leading millions of hatchlings to die every year as a result.

More than 80% of humanity experiences light-polluted night skies – a statistic which includes more than 99% of Europeans. Taking these repercussions into consideration, France’s 2013 legislation served to eradicate the country’s unnecessary contribution to increases in light pollution.

How effective is legislation for dimming light pollution?

During 2019 alone, France’s total energy released to space saw a reduction by 6%, following the enactment of the artificial light legislation. Although the legislation did decrease light pollution for the country as whole, its inefficiency is evidenced by the majority of the country’s 96 cities, 69 of which observed an overall increase in light pollution. 

Additionally, the legislation is merely a drop in the ocean compared to what the country could do to combat its carbon footprint. France’s energy system, ranked 33rd in the world for coal consumption in 2016, accounts for 1.1% of the world’s total consumption of this fossil fuel when sustainable alternatives like solar, wind and hydro energy, are available. The issue of light pollution, then, is further problematized by its reliance on electricity- electricity which is supplied by burning non-renewable fossil fuels.  

An alternate policy would require incandescent bulbs to be replaced with LEDs. LEDs consume only a fraction of the energy consumed by their incandescent counterparts and have the added benefits of lasting longer and containing no mercury. Given that an estimated 17% of our carbon footprint is due to lighting alone, this substitution would have profound impacts on CO2 emissions.

The legislation’s intentions were more ambitious than its execution. With police adopting a seemingly laissez faire attitude to the enforcement, an unexpected group of activists have (quite literally) taken Paris’s problem of light pollution into their own hands.

The politics of parkour

While parkour is a relatively peaceful way to protest, considering France’s robust protest culture, it is also more effective: why demand something on a placard that you can do yourself?

Such is the attitude of Kevin Ha, On the Spot’s leader, who can be seen on his Instagram page using his street athletic skills to reach the switches that power the Champs-Elysees’ brightest shop signs. His group comprises 28 individuals practicing parkour to bring into effect what the 2013 legislation failed to accomplish.

In conversation with Kevin Ha, On the Spot’s leader and parkour enthusiast

“I used to wear a Batman costume going to the carnival and then, you know, when you grow up the costume doesn’t fit you anymore”.

Twenty-eight-year-old Kevin Ha has been practicing parkour since 2007- citing jungle animals, video games and superheroes as his principal inspirations. As he grew up, and out of his Batman costume, Kevin had to find a new way to engage with his superhero fixation. One such way was combining his passion for parkour with his environmental disciplines (Kevin is currently obtaining his PhD in oceanography). 

Inspired by Marseille’s Wizzy Gang, his group began using parkour to collect litter from places that people couldn’t otherwise reach. Following the failure of the 2013 legislation – Kevin tells me there is no consequence for shops that don’t comply with the lights off rule – the group saw an opportunity to advance their use of parkour in context, meeting every Friday night to take matters into their own hands.

The impact?

I ask how the shops respond; whether the group has seen a change in light wastage on the Champs-Elysees. He tells me that while some shops don’t care – especially big brands Sephora and Dyson – others respond positively by having their lights off the following Friday. He tells me proudly, “for us it’s an accomplishment because they actually see our message and they comply.”

The public reaction has been equally supportive: “One guy actually commented that it was a small step for humans but a big step for the planet – it was very cool to hear that.” 

I’m intrigued as to how the police react to this group of twenty-somethings climbing buildings and interfering with shop signs. Kevin tells me amid laughter about one instance where an officer asked one of the parceurs to show him a backflip. When the crew member complied, the officer responded with jealousy, remarking “wow, I wish I could get rid of my uniform to show you my backflip!”

While on some occasions officers have mistaken the group for burglars, once they approach and allow the group to explain its intentions, the police are apologetic, advising only “[to] be careful, don’t hurt yourself.”

With Kevin’s group gaining recent media attention, I want to know what’s next for On the Spot: “We meet and talk about what our next move is – I think something that can still be parkour in context, but not limited to ecological purposes.” 

On the Spot’s message is clear: turning off the lights is symbolic of the bare minimum that businesses should be doing to ensure climate-consciousness. 

The group exemplifies that just as silence can be deafening, sometimes darkness can be enlightening. 

Graphic courtesy of Bersun Kılınç