A not so silent night

Sunday, Feb 2, 2020, 05:25 AM | Source: Pursuit

Michele Acuto

The world of waste collectors, night shift nurses, office cleaners, rough sleepers and security guards rarely makes international headlines.

Yet the night-time is critical to building a fairer and more sustainable future for our cities. To do so, we urgently need to think more strategically about what happens after hours in Australian cities.

Around nine percent of Australian employees work in the night-time economy. Picture: Getty Images

In a recent Nature ‘worldview’, I argued that understanding what happens in cities after sunset is crucial to global sustainable development.

The night-time is a critical space for addressing some of today’s most pressing sustainability challenges. For example, internationally, energy use peaks during evening hours.

Then there is the an estimated 154 million people – about two per cent of the world’s population – who are homeless and face precarious situations at night when seeking food, shelter and transport in socially and environmentally hostile climates.

In Australia it is has been estimated that around nine per cent of employees works in the night-time economy. Many are on low pay and work in unhealthy conditions, juggling multiple jobs. They also face longer and more difficult journeys to work, or to access services, than their daytime colleagues.

More than two per cent of Australian households live in ‘food deserts’ concentrated in low-income and outer suburbs, like Western Sydney and Wyndham in Greater Melbourne, where access to affordable, healthy food options is limited or non-existent.

At night, these conditions worsen as basic services like transport, retail and healthcare stop or shut and affordability plummets.

Some cities are already waking up to the issue of what happens in cities at night. In 2018, New York, the ‘city that never sleeps’, set up an Office of Nightlife.

Cities differ greatly in their approach towards night-time infrastructure and regulation. Picture: Getty Images

In 2012, Amsterdam appointed its Night Mayor. London has had a Night Czar since 2016.

As research from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design flags, though cities differ greatly in their approach towards night-time infrastructure and regulation, there seems to be a “growing consensus on the need for permanent nocturnal governance structures”.

Over 40 international cities have already done so, with at least 10 more just about to join the ranks. It might be time for Melbourne to follow suit.

A recent Council of Capital City Lord Mayors’ report, Measuring the Night Time Economy 2016-17, highlighted that Victoria accounts for 28 per cent of national NTE (Night Time Economy) establishments, 25 per cent of its employment and 26 per cent of total NTE turnover.

Yet Plan International’s Free to Be program provided an online mapping tool for women to identify and share the location of public spaces that make them feel uneasy and scared. It highlighted how 90 per cent of women don’t feel safe in a city like Sydney after dark.

Likewise, colleagues in Sydney and Perth noted that night-time council policies have been “gentrifying the night”, and pricing out communities from nightlife precincts across metropolitan Australia, rather than promoting economic vitality.

To drive a more effective and socially just ‘after hours’ perspective into the heart of planning and urban policy, we need a step change in university education for the built environment.

At night, the conditions worsen as basic services like transport. Picture: Getty Images

For example, the Connected Cities Lab is working at the Melbourne School of Design and with engineering and design company Arup on a ‘night time studio’ program designed to build greater ‘night-time literacy’ for a new generation of urban practitioners.

The aim is to increase an appreciation among practitioners that what happens after hours fundamentally shapes the future of cities.

Among our projects, we have been working with Melbourne School of Design students on a studio to map governance of the night-time internationally and evaluate how Melbourne is performing vis-à-vis the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Research in this area is coming up with evidence-based solutions and along the way busting a few myths. For example, as Arup and Monash University researchers have noted, more lighting alone doesn’t increase safety.

After London appointed its Night Czar, I argued that simply appointing such ‘mayors’ for the night time, while a positive step, wasn’t a panacea. Better supporting the night-time requires sustained hard work to build bridges across jurisdictions and stake holders.

University of Melbourne Associate Professor Tim Edensor has been advocating for a better appreciation of shade and shadows, while I have been highlighting the importance of citizen engagement and learning from experiments.

Overall, researchers are arguing that the most effective solutions are grounded in holistic urban design that goes deeper than quick-fix interventions like, for example, Sydney’s lockout laws.

Better planning could mean adopting better night-time strategies like adjusting street lighting. Picture: Shutterstock

Research on night-time trends could eventually lead to more nuanced approaches to planning by promoting ‘temporal zoning’ analogous to spatial zoning.

This can range, for example, from timing lighting in streets and parks to limit the impact on animal behaviour, to adopting night-time strategies that time the availability of transport infrastructure to ensure equitable access.

Night-time research can enable us, as work by Ben Campkin and colleagues at University College London’s Urban Lab proved, to move from regulatory or responsive night management to more proactive nocturnal place-making.

It can also amplify a variety of voices in decision-making, like maintenance or leisure sector workers who are often from migrant communities, as well as elderly people and families who are often left out in youth-centric discussions about night-time leisure activities.

In London, the Mayor’s Night Czar, Amy Lame, holds regular ‘Night Surgeries’ to consult with communities across the British capital.

However, in Melbourne, the night was afforded only one mention in the Council’s 2017-2021 plan – in the context of safety.

This was the same as in the Council’s previous 2013-17 plan. Night management, couched as ‘night time economy’, currently sits in the Council’s ‘Prosperous City’ portfolio under ‘economic activation’.

Internationally, energy use peaks during evening hours. Picture: Getty Images

At a minimum we need a new night-time strategy, but the development of that strategy may need institutional or governance changes to drive it. For example, Melbourne could benefit from a democratic, visible, accessible and strategic ‘voice’ for Melbourne’s nights.

Perhaps a night mayor for the city or even for Greater Melbourne?

Honorary or partial mayoral positions run the risk of being a token appointment if they are not backed by a solid capacity to implement strategic policy.

A night-time manager needs a dedicated night-time urban design team, possibly in joint collaborations with university research teams that are already building greater knowledge about the night time.

An ‘office of the nightlife’ with a solid grounding in planning and environment, links to knowledge institutions, and a remit across all council portfolios might be just what the city needs.

Banner: Getty Images

University of Melbourne Researchers