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Flagstaff: The World’s First Dark Sky City

Dark Sky Places Traveling Fellowship Part 6

Thanks to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, I have received a traveling fellowship to visit all of the International Dark Sky Places in North America between 22 August and 03 October 2011. This series of blog posts will detail my visit to each of these very dark places.

Flagstaff, International Dark Sky City

Flagstaff is a city with a long connection to astronomy. It was dubbed “the Skylight City” in the 1890s, and the Lowell Observatory, cited on Mars Hill just west of the town, was established in 1894. Six decades later the United States Naval Observatory was set up five miles outside the town. As a result, light pollution has long been a concern in Flagstaff.

Flagstaff: the World's First International Dark Sky City

In fact, in 1958 Flagstaff adopted the first lighting ordinances to prevent the rapid deterioration of the night sky for astronomical research. This ordinance is worth printing in full:


BE IT ORDAINED by the Mayor and Common Council of the City of Flagstaff as follows, to-wit:

1. It is hereby declared to be unlawful for any person or persons to operate within the City Limits of the City of Flagstaff any incandescent or arc-type search light, beacon light or similar lighting device designed to and capable or projecting a beam of light into the sky for a distance of an excess of one half (1/2) mile.
2. The provisions of this Ordinance shall not apply to emergency search lights or beacons or search lights or beacons pursuant to public authority.
3. The provisions of this Ordinance shall not be construed to prohibit the use of short-range open type, wide angle stationary floodlights not capable of projecting a beam of light in excess of one half (1/2) mile.
4. Any person violating any provisions of this Ordinance shall be guilty of’ a misdemeanor and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of’ not to exceed $300.00 or imprisonment in the City Jail not to exceed (90) days, or both such fine and punishment.
5. In order to protect and preserve the public health, safety, and welfare, it is necessary that this Ordinance become immediately effective and it is hereby declared to be an emergency measure to become effective upon posting and publishing according to law.
PASSED AND ADOPTED by the Mayor and Common Council of the City of Flagstaff’, this 15th, day of April, 1958.

Thirty years later astronomer Chris Luginbuhl led new, comprehensive city- and county-wide ordinances. Ever since then a dedicated and enthusiastic team of community activists have been combating the increasing problem of light pollution that comes with an expanding city.

Today’s dark sky defenders are the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition (founded in 1999), many of whom I met on my two visits to the city, including two leading lights in the fight for dark skies, Dark Skies Coalition founders astronomer Chris Luginbuhl and community organiser Lance Diskan.

Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition spread the word

Indeed Lance moved to Flagstaff so that his children – born in Los Angeles – could see the stars: “One of the things we required when we had children was that they be able to see the stars,” he says. “We wanted them to have the unlimited imaginative potential that comes from looking at the stars. Part of being human is looking up at the stars and being awestruck.” Lance has completed a masters thesis entitled: “The Night Sky in Human Culture”.

Flagstaff was awarded International Dark Sky Community (IDSC) status by the IDA in October 2001, and indeed it was Flagstaff’s unique history of lighting controls that inspired the IDA to form this designation in the first place. It wasn’t for another five years that the IDSParks programme expanded the family of dark sky places into larger parks.

During my two visits to Flagstaff in my traveling fellowship (on 8-10 Sep and again on 23-24 Sep) I met with members of the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition, learned of the community activism, was given a night-time tour of the good (and the still-present bad) lighting, visited Lowell Observatory, went stargazing and saw the Milky Way in a city centre (!), took a day-trip to the nearby Meteor Crater, and attended the opening night of the 2011 Celebration of the Night.

Meteor Crater through a fisheye lens

The latter is the fourth such event, which seeks to promote dark skies across a wide range of events and programmes, The opening event I attended was the public unveiling of the excellent Nightscapes IV exhibition of artworks inspired by the night, and by dark skies.

Throughout my visits I got a real sense that Flagstaff is leading the world, not just in lighting controls, but in engaging the local communities in the city to make them feel ownership of the wonderful resource they have overhead every clear night.

The fact that I could see the Milky Way from a small park in the middle of a city of 66,000 attests to the success of their mission, but it is an ongoing battle. Even in this enlightened (pardon the pun) city, there are poor lights that cause glare, trespass and skyglow, and which have to be constantly monitored and reported. And the resources of the volunteers in the Dark Skies Coalition are stretched very thin dealing with this problem.

Astronomer Chris Luginbuhl put it very well in conversation with me. “I get caught up in lighting controls, and drafting lighting ordinances, but I’m not interested in lighting; I’m interested in nighting”.

Measuring sky brightness with an SQM-L from Buffalo Park in Flagstaff resulted in readings of 20.5, excellent for a city, and corresponding to a Bortle Class of 4, which normally you would only get at the rural / suburban transition. Just a few miles east of the city in the KOA campground the sky was even darker, reading 21.4.

  1. Soozie
    January 24, 2012 at 03:23

    Thanks for this lovely article. I’m going to the Lowell Observatory in July 2012. I’m from a city just outside of Nashville, TN. Nashville is brighter than it needs to be, so I am looking forward to seeing the stars in Flagstaff. Do you happen to know of a campground near Lowell that is a little less popular than KOA? I’m not a fan of hearing too many other campers.

  2. March 27, 2012 at 13:33

    Flagstaff sounds like a great place. I will be visiting in April 2012 and I am also very excited to see the stars. I live in a light polluted city and hope one day Vancouver, Canada can be like Flagstaff!!

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