In recent years, late-night violence and crime fuelled by alcohol use in the entertainment areas of Australian cities has become the subject of public and media debate. In this eBulletin, we've invited City of Sydney Council's Suzie Matthews to discuss what can be done to make our cities not only safer, but more desirable places to be after dark.
Cities at night: not just for drinkers
by Suzie Matthews, Manager Late Night Economy & Safe City, City of Sydney Council. In 2011, Suzie received a Churchill Fellowship to explore how global cities manage alcohol in their night time economies.
In early 2011, growing community concern about Sydney's night-time drinking culture erupted into a public debate, spurred by new research showing more than half of all reported assaults in the inner city happened within 50 metres of a liquor outlet. No-one disagreed that alcohol-fuelled violence was damaging to its victims and to the reputation of Australia's leading global city. But views differed widely on where responsibility lay, and what should be done about it. Those who advocated reining in trading hours and less saturation of venues were branded as nanny state wowsers, while their opponents stressed the importance of personal responsibility and the freedom to choose.
A global challenge
The issues were not new, and nor were they exclusive to Sydney. For more than a decade, policymakers, police and parents in cities across Australia and around the world have faced growing challenges in managing their night-time environments as liquor licensing laws have been relaxed and the number of licensed premises has surged.
The trend is part of a broader cultural change toward a society that increasingly is connected at all hours, for work, for leisure and for life's necessities like shopping.
The value of night-time economies is increasingly being recognised – our research valued Sydney's at more than $15 billion a year – and growth in our night-time economies should be pursued. There is enormous scope for financial benefit for business and the broader community when it is done well.
Unfortunately, much of the growth to date has been based on flawed assumptions that licensed premises alone are the way to make a city vibrant and active at night.
Cities are complex, and focusing solely on alcohol misses the needs of large and growing groups of people who live and work in them, visit them, and form the social fabric that can make them thrive.
Diversity the key
Australians today work longer hours than previous generations, though statistics also show we have more leisure time than ever before. More people are living in our inner cities, which are no longer just the stomping grounds for young singles, with more families and older people moving in. With this comes a growing expectation that more traditionally daytime services – government offices, hairdressers, supermarkets, gyms - will be on offer after hours.
This presents an enormous opportunity to expand the scope of what our cities are like after 6pm. Internationally, cities that are getting the balance right at night offer a diverse mix of activities, especially later shopping, pop-up markets and food stalls, activation of parks and under-utilised spaces and culture around the clock. In Asia, later retail and layered street life has been part of city life for centuries. In Europe and South America, shops open later in the morning so they can trade later at night. Leeds in the UK has been trying to tempt workers to linger and shop after work with its "Alive After 5" program involving live music, lighting installations and markets. Cities across Europe have run "White Nights" for many years where cultural venues open for 24 hours. Italy's version, "Notte Bianca", cost €3 million to run in 2005, but generated €30 million in revenue.
Rich diversity at night depends on services and infrastructure. Transport that is safe, frequent, and runs late is critical. New York City is a fine example – the subway runs 24 hours a day and it's used all night by workers, visitors and the residential population. Getting the basics right is essential, including public toilets, good directional signage, free wi-fi, excellent cleansing and visible policing. Beauty is also an important part of our cities at night, where garbage and graffiti contribute to a sense of neglect and urban decay. Creative lighting, inspiring public art and design make our cities places we want to be after hours.
Our cities are unique, so what works for Berlin may not be right for Sydney, or for Perth. Parts of our cities are also different, and those differences need their own special approaches. Getting the right information is important to understanding what each of our cities means to us, and how residents, business and visitors use them.
A vision for Sydney
When the debate broke out about alcohol-fuelled violence in Sydney in 2011, the City of Sydney decided to do something different. It embarked on a comprehensive, robust and collaborative process to develop a vision for Sydney at night and a strategy for its night-time economy. It reframed the issue of alcohol-related antisocial behaviour around what Sydneysiders want their city to be after hours.
The City undertook a series of studies, including the first cost-benefit analysis of the night-time economy of any Australian city. We found that parts of our city after midnight are far busier than parts of our city by day, and that some areas experience unacceptable levels of anti-social behaviour. We found that food, rather than alcohol-led businesses were key drivers of our night time economy. A comprehensive review of international studies found that many global cities share problems around alcohol-focussed night life, and that finding alternatives was one of the keys to improving the way cities run at night.
More importantly, that is exactly what Sydneysiders told us when we asked them what kind of Sydney they want at night 20 years from now. We held more than 10 forums, 333 on-street interviews and had over 11,000 visitors to our online forums. They wanted better transport, more diversity of options at night beyond alcohol, more shopping, great late night food, beautiful streetscapes and more basic facilities like public toilets.
This resulted in the OPEN Sydney draft strategy and action plan. It's a roadmap for achieving what residents, government, business, academics, visitors and others told us they want to create a world class night time city that is safe, inclusive, inviting and welcoming to all.
Public exhibition of the draft closed in August and community feedback is being included in the final strategy which will be released by the end of this year. But we've already started trialling many of the good ideas, such as Precinct Ambassadors that add a layer of public assistance and security on city streets late at night, and food trucks that offer a gourmet alternative to fast food. The feedback is extremely positive.
Some of the things that can make the biggest difference, such as public transport, and liquor licensing and planning laws, are not local government responsibilities. But addressing the issues facing our cities and making the places that we want them to be requires cooperation across the board, at all levels of government, with businesses, residents and anyone with a stake in the future of our cities. This is a big challenge, and one that we cannot face alone. Together we are all responsible for the future of our cities.