In order to cultivate a successful evening ecosystem, the city can’t just focus on arts and entertainment. It needs to prioritize making resources like transit and everyday services more accessible at night.
Taking its cue from several European cities, New York City is the first American city to establish an Office of Nightlife.
Seattle has certainly had nightlife task forces before. But unlike Seattle’s antagonistic task forces, which were set up to address traditional and supposed gripes about nightlife (noise, crime, drinking), the NYC Office of Nightlife is charged with cultivating the dividends of the night.
From the tangible to the intangible, these can include arts, entertainment, restaurants, creativity, and romance—all important draws for city dwellers, but also engines of urban commerce.
This CityLab article about NYC’s new Office of Nightlife has a good description of the intangible quotient:
While, from the outside, it may look like a lot of people getting wasted, nightlife is also a creative space where new directions in music, design, and fashion germinate, ultimately feeding back into and enriching the city’s life and economy as a whole.
To help NYC’s new office get it right (it was just created by the city council last month), the article surveyed existing European nightlife bureaus—Amsterdam’s “night mayor,” London’s “night czar,” and Berlin’s Club Commission.
One suggestion seems smart: “Look at the Bigger Picture.” By this, they mean cities need to think beyond the picayune details of clubland regulations, and think about preserving clubs and cool local spots from the effects of gentrification.
Nightlife offices can win successes with small issues, like better soundproofing or better communication with neighboring daytime businesses. To really fulfill their potential, though, they have to look at their city as a whole. For Berlin’s Club Commission, London’s Night Czar, and Amsterdam’s Night Mayor, this means devising strategies that could help prevent (or at least lessen) the damaging effects of gentrification on the availability and diversity of nightlife.
This is a key issue for all nightlife offices. When rents rise, many night businesses are forced to close. This makes cities duller, more monotonous places, reducing the number of people on the streets at night and thus simultaneously reducing the perception that these streets are safe, well-frequented places. A nightlife office’s work thus needs to go deeper than getting clubs to line their DJ booths with noise-dampening egg boxes. It has to look at creating a climate in which the social role of night business is valued and protected.
While that’s important stuff, and Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture is certainly alert to the effects that gentrification is having on art spaces, I was ultimately disappointed that the CityLab recommendation about taking a broader approach to nightlife wasn’t, well, broader.
To craft a successful evening ecosystem, the city needs to have a holistic approach that’s not just about clubland. It needs to include: transportation (enhanced nighttime bus schedules, for example, that serve blue-collar night shift workers); nighttime city programs, like health clinics, legal services, social services, and open, lit parks ; citywide lighting design that both promotes safety and energy; and even incentives for private-sector services such as banks, grocery stores, and drug stores to serve the public in the evening.
While city planners use all sorts of data to determine the vitality of a neighborhood—rents, vacancy, density, parking, peds per hour, crime stats—they should also use time, AM to PM, as a metric to gauge a neighborhood’s success
Thinking about the 24-7 nature of a district is another way of thinking about mixed-use versus single-use districts. While Pike and Pine in downtown Seattle seem like vibrant mixed use districts, they aren’t because just like residential neighborhoods, they shut down at night. As the planners move forward on this project, they should grab onto an element they’ve simply defined as “Lighting” and use it to guide them toward a more enlightened approach about the use of public space.
…so, I’m excited that nightlife is entering the realm of proactive public policy. I hope, however, that municipal governments don’t miss this city-building opportunity by relegating nightlife to club life rather than to life life.