The night-time economy has emerged with striking force in recent times and is the subject of considerable dispute between inner-city residents, entertainment seekers, business groups, the police and local councils. It is not an entirely new phenomenon, but there is no doubt that recent trends have begun to turn many places - even non-metropolitan towns like Newcastle - into “24-hour cities”.
In a few generations, Australia has moved from the “six o’clock swill”, through the late-night rage, to the round-the-clock party. Just as paid work is now often casual and exceeds nine-to-five time limits, so leisure resists confinement to the hours of six-to-midnight. In this more flexible society, both men and women work and have disposable incomes. The “meat and three veg” meals prepared by “Mum” and consumed almost exclusively in the home are now supplemented by a range of exotic cuisines and fast foods provided by the hospitality industry.
The closure of inner-city factories, public utilities and warehouses has created new space in the inner city for both residences and licensed premises. Many urban planners have seen these changes as an ideal opportunity to arrest the decline in the heart of the city and the drift to the suburbs.
This new civic cosmopolitanism is characterised by shop-top and apartment living, innovative restaurants, high-tech clubs, bohemian cafés, late-night bookshops, and so on, all co-existing in new, exciting, culturally diverse ways. This image of southern-European style sophistication, however, often contrasts with the reality of life within a night-time economy that is commonly alcohol-based. Questions of social order have come to the fore, with demands to combat alcohol-fuelled, anti-social behaviour, and to curb the lucrative after-dark culture organised around youthful drinking and “clubbing”. Many contributions to these debates are poorly informed by research, however, and represent only the perspectives of organised interest groups.
Research into the night-time economy has been pioneered in Britain in response to the post-Thatcher club and pub-led revival of its inner cities. The vast growth and concentration of night-time leisure in that country has created an army of private security staff, barely regulated by government, who have virtually taken over the roles of the public police force. At weekends in the centre of Manchester, for example, researchers estimate that up to a 100,000 people on a night out are controlled by around 1,000 “door-supervisors” (known to the rest of us as “bouncers”) and only 30 to 40 police officers. The police/patron/bouncer ratios in Nottingham (a city closer in size to Newcastle/Lake Macquarie) are similar - in other words, about 30 bouncers for every serving police officer, and one bouncer for every 100 “24-hour party people”.
The night-time economy raises many matters of “muscle and money”, including who should control the urban space where legal and illegal drugs are consumed, and the potential for protection rackets, violence and drug dealing among those who control that space. The current trend of concentrating liquor outlets in densely packed “strips” and the extension of hours of trading has exacerbated these problems. The British experience is instructive for an Australian context that is developing its night-time economy along similar lines.
These issues need to be publicly debated, with the “honey pot” effect of night-time leisure zones having an impact on all citizens, irrespective of where they live. Much discussion to date has been dominated by issues of after-dark safety, policing and licensing issues, with residents (many of whom have recently relocated in later life from quiet suburbs) and earlier-closing local businesses especially vocal. While they may have valid concerns, wider issues of diversity and inclusion have not been as loudly aired.
Such questions concern how a rich cultural life can be sustained in the inner city without intrusive surveillance and repressive control of people, places and activities, and how those who may be or feel excluded from these commercialised environments can assert legitimate claims over them. It is also important to consider what might be substituted for current uses and activities, given that the solution to a problem in one night-time economy space might simply transfer problems to other parts of the city, and to the people who inhabit them.
The challenge of the night-time economy is not to shut it down, but to seek a reconciliation of its undoubtedly rich cultural promise with the often disappointingly monocultural and dangerous reality of life in the cities that never sleep.
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