Cities are invariably associated with their daytime appeal and appearance. But the liveliest cities come into their own at night as well. Shain Shapiro, a leading expert on after-hours strategic thinking for urban centres, explains why nightlife is such a crucial element of a successful metropolis and how best to make it work.
The key to a successful city’s nightlife is diversity. I know it’s a buzzword, but it’s true. For nightlife to be truly vibrant, you need to have as much on offer by night as by day. That means being able to do the same things, even if there are fewer of them. Museums at night are really important, but so are gyms and libraries. Even crèches. Think about people who work the night shift and have small children: what are they going to do with their kids? Even if there aren’t lots of them open, there should still be options. So everything should be available, from nightclubs to shisha bars to hospitals.
The other key to success is to spread night venues around. A good thing can become a bad thing if you have too much of it in one spot. Over recent years, for instance, nightlife in London has become increasingly centralised. But if you think back to the 1960s and 70s, music clubs were everywhere. Jimi Hendrix wrote Purple Haze in Forest Gate at a place called the Upper Cut, and that’s in Zone Three! And there were versions of the Upper Cut everywhere. The music industry has changed since then but I think music venues will start to appear again in outer London. It won’t happen overnight but I am hopeful that the situation will improve over time.
The opening of the Night Tube in London should speed up the process on many levels. It will help developers to recognise the opportunities provided by outer London boroughs. It will encourage people to open businesses farther afield and make it safer and easier for consumers to get to them. It will also legitimise the night in a different way. When people think of the night-time economy, they think of hospitality and music events; – but it’s not just that, it’s people working at night – nurses and bus drivers and many others. The Night Tube makes their lives easier and shows the economic value of an accessible 24-hour transport system. And it will support London as a global city. Of course, London already competes with New York and other major cities culturally and economically but the Night Tube will boost its competitive edge, in a way that can only be viewed as helpful.
The biggest threat to London nightlife is inertia. A lot of problems happen over and over again. At the moment, in terms of night-time policy, London is way behind. We aren’t nearly as advanced as
many of our European counterparts, partly because London is a bit of a patchwork quilt with 33 local authorities, each trying to do what’s right for its own residents.
Thankfully though, the situation is improving. Some people allege that London nightlife is diminishing. But it’s not diminishing; it’s changing. Yes, there have been a few high-profile closures. But sometimes this can push things forward and have a positive effect.
Change for the better
Take Melbourne. It has more music venues per person than anywhere else in the world and that all arose when a venue called the Tote was threatened with closure. That led to protests, marches and ultimately a lot of good. The venue was saved and it still exists. You sometimes need something bad to happen for good to happen. And even when a bad thing does happen, it doesn’t undo all the good that’s happening. The fact is things are changing for the better in London; they’re just moving at a glacial rate.
Some sectors definitely need more support. Clubs in particular would benefit from greater protection, but that’s starting to happen. Potentially threatened venues are more protected than two years ago and fewer venues have closed in 2016 than in any previous year since we started counting. We haven’t stemmed the flow of closures but we’ve significantly reduced it.
Expertise is important here because the minute you get it wrong, everything goes awry. One noise complaint, for instance, can ruin years of planning. People are risk averse too, and can hold back progress, but attitudes are evolving.
"The city is losing out, residents are losing out and visitors are losing out too"
Change is also about people thinking responsibly. In my mind, a vibrant nightlife is safer. It doesn’t mean people are partying more; it just means there are more amenities. It means pavements are paved and lit properly, there are proper mechanisms to get people home, safety is improved for women – all that type of stuff. That’s the right kind of night-time economy so I’m trying to encourage people to think that way.
In that regard, communication is key. So much comes down to mind set. The more people connect, the more they talk and the more barriers are broken down. Local authorities, city regulators, businesses and residents – anyone who is a stakeholder – they should all be part of the conversation. This is already happening more in London and the appointment of Amy Lamé as the new Night Czar will propel that process. Even the title is telling. The first proposal was a Night Mayor – but it’s all about setting the right tone!
And Amy Lamé is a superb choice. She has proven experience in protecting venues; she’s accomplished; she’s been around the block; she’s very personable; and she wants to listen and learn. That’s one of the reasons she’s holding night surgeries, going around talking to people. I don’t think anything’s going to change immediately but we’re laying the groundwork for a different way to approach the night-time economy from a policy perspective.
London is already anything you want it to be. It’s the place where anything can happen. You can literally meet anyone, anywhere, from everywhere. It’s probably the most diverse city on Earth, but it is not the world leader in progressive policies around music and the night-time economy. And that means the city is losing out, residents are losing out and visitors are losing out too. Change is happening, albeit slowly. The dots are being connected more and lots of really good operators are looking to open new places. But we need to make sure that policies continue to evolve so London can really reap the benefits of an exciting nightlife and a genuine night economy.