Cities After Dark - Right to the Night

Who is allowed to be part of the urban night and who is excluded?

In episode four of our six-part series, our co-hosts Shelby Bassett and Michele Acuto talk with Will Straw, Su-Jan Yeo, Emilia Smeds, Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall about access and equity in cities at night.

  • Transcript

    Shelby Bassett:

    Imagine it's 3:00 AM. Say you've just clocked off from a City night shift and now you need to get home. You don't have a car, it's dark and the streets are quiet. People around you are workers too and the odd party-goers stumbling back home, trying to figure out exactly where the train stop is. There aren't many shops open to grab some milk that you forgot to buy yesterday or a snack to eat on the ride home. There's no direct train back home for another few hours. It's two buses and a bit of a hike. So what do you do now? Your answers will change a lot, depending on who you are and where you are...

    Cities after Dark: A Global View of Urban Night, a podcast series from Connected Cities at the University of Melbourne. Hi, I'm Shelby Bassett and I'm an urban policy researcher at Connected Cities

    Michele Acuto: And I'm Michele Acuto, I'm the Director of Connected Cities.

    Shelby Bassett: Well, thanks so much for joining us again, Michele.

    Michele Acuto: Love to be back.

    Shelby Bassett: So tonight we're thinking about the right to the night. Can you tell me a bit about what that term means?

    Michele Acuto:

    Yes. It means, the right for urban dwellers and all urban dwellers, including the nurse that clocks off at 3:00 AM, to have a voice on how the city works at night. It is about the right to traveling and socializing and feeding your family. It's a broader conversation about how the nighttime in cities should also be about the right to shape and enjoy the built environment after hours. It is about the right to be in the dark, to be protected, to be under the discrete veil of the shadows. And I suspect it will be a bit of a conversation busy with the voices of those who don't normally get to speak about their nighttime needs.

    Will Straw:

    Think of say the second half of 2019, images come to mind, the We Will Go Out movement on the part of young women in cities, in India, working in the tech sector and demanding the right to be able to go out for a drink or something to eat after work, without being harassed. A lot of what we can call #activism. The fight for women's rights to safety and inclusiveness in the night, go back at least as far as the 1970s in the UK, and to a certain extent in North America, the Take Back The Night movement. I think the movements to be honest against repressive policing are in part about the ability of people of color to go out into the night, and those certainly came into focus during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, following the murders by police of black citizens in the United States.

    Shelby Bassett:

    We've heard from Will Straw a couple of times already on Cities After Dark. He's a professor of urban media studies at McGill University. Will said that a big issue when it comes to rights to the night, is the way cities are governed.

    Will Straw:

    There's also other things. I mean, I think that some of the victories include the fact that prior to COVID, although in many cases intensified by it, cities are being pushed to recognize that certain kinds of culture that we might have thought of as simply frivolous or simply commercial or too popular are being recognized now by cities as a kind of heritage or patrimony that they are being pushed to defend in the face of all those forces that might make them disappear and even to support. So for example, club culture in Berlin, has been kind of officially recognized as a kind of cultural heritage, if even a recent one. In Paris, they ruled that café-concert, these cafes where you have small performances, are a kind of heritage or patrimony that the city should be engaged in protecting, just as it protects statues and other kinds of monuments.

    I think there's in the last few years... in part because the cultural sector overall this had gotten more politicized, there's been spinoffs of that, that are about redefining the night and how cities treat the culture of the night.

    I think now we're thinking of things like a right to transport at night. In Brazil, for example, in big cities in Brazil, where if you're going to have a lively, nighttime culture, people have got to be able to move often between the peripheries of the city, which is where so much of the exciting creative culture happens. You need the right to be able to travel in public transit. You need, again, the guarantees of certain kinds of safety, you need amenities. One of the things we found through COVID in Canada is that truck drivers who drive all through the night, bringing supplies could no longer go to the bathroom or buy a coffee because the institutions, the businesses that service them were closed because of the lockdown. Well we need to think of those people of having certain rights, if they're so fundamental to the smooth operation of the economy and so on. So there's a whole kind of provisioning of the night that some cities and some countries do much better than others....

    Shelby Bassett:

    Emilia Smeds is a researcher at the University College London. You might remember, I talked to her in the episode about night shifts. Emilia said, nighttime can be very important to some marginalized communities, but to others, access is inequitable.

    Emilia Smeds:

    The nighttime can be a space that's sort of quite important or quite dominated by people who may be marginalized in different ways, either that or more subversive activities, I'd guess. There's a lot of evidence across the board beyond the nighttime workers that we looked at, that there's really inequitable opportunities for enjoying nightlife in the case of people of color and kind of accessing, safe pedestrian well-lit sidewalks, different types of... maybe it can even extend to taxi services or whatever, different types of services for low income people, women. And again, going back to people of color, I mean, obviously there's a lot of racial policing of a nighttime space, issues with some people who work in the nightlife industry like bouncers and things like that. So yeah, the daytime is sort of the dominant hour of society, I guess, where we plan for white men and I guess that extends to the nighttime as well. But the differences between planning and needs is perhaps even more stark.

    Su-Jan Yeo:

    In my experience, living abroad in Singapore, I noticed a sense of ease in terms of expectations and attitudes about how the night should be spent in wakefulness or in sleep for the young and old.

    Shelby Bassett:

    Su-Jan Yeo is a professor in the urban planning department at University of British Columbia.

    Su-Jan Yeo:

    I think one lesson, perhaps not just for the West, but beyond the West is to consider how the night can be made more multi-generational. That to me is an interesting cultural perspective worth exploring because if children and the elderly are able to attain a sense of safety and a sense of belonging, a right to the city at night, a right to the night, then that makes the city at night potentially safe and convivial for all. If we can find a balance such that crowd behavior and management can be empathetically managed, so that young children and the elderly and youth and people of all identities can feel welcome, we can actually take the lights out from the night. Darkness in architecture is not something to be abolished or eliminated because of fears and danger. It was in fact celebrated. We can make the night a little bit more diverse if we can get a truly cross-disciplinary consortium of folks working on this issue. I think we'll see a sort of urban life after dark, beyond the bars, pubs and clubs.

    Michele Acuto:

    And London has been at the center of this right to the night debate. With the colleagues at University College London, working closely with the city's Night Czar, but also community groups across the city. And who better than Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall from the Bartlett School and the UCL Urban Lab, who have been investigating questions of spatial justice and the community value of the nighttime when it comes to LGBTQI groups and their night venues. Let's hear from them.

    Lo Marshall:

    Starkly the night has been incredibly important to members of LGBTQ communities, I suppose, in many ways, because that's the time, in our kind of 24 hour cycle where we can be together. We might not be within our communities, in our everyday working or family lives or even friendship circles. So the night is a time of togetherness, that has been really important. In particular in things like connecting people and countering issues around social isolation, but also finding community, exploring identity and also engaging with queer cultures. Drag is an increasingly well known and widely appreciated form of queer cultural production that has its heart within LGBTQ spaces and performers.

    Ben Campkin:

    yeah, I would just add that I think, the night somehow has a protective function and has historically for minority groups. So when those groups have not wanted to be visible or it hasn't been possible for them to be visible because of the threat of violence or other forms of oppression or discrimination, then the night has provided some kind of protective cover. So you get nighttime venues, which on the surface might be leisure spaces, serving a whole range of other functions to do with education, to do with health, to do with wellbeing. Many of the venues that we've looked at have been really multipurpose and multifunctional.

    Certainly and I think the idea of infrastructure and the usefulness of that framing was really clear in the research that we've been doing since 2016 on LGBTQ nightlife in London. Which was in response really to the closure of a lot of venues. The interconnections between those venues and their value to the communities that use them emerged really strongly as something that was vital as in terms of community value.

    For us one of the things that's been interesting about thinking through infrastructure is that, many of the LGBT venues have been in repurposed ex-industrial infrastructure. And I think that's quite common for cultural spaces internationally, it's not just London. But for example, railway buildings and then one of the venues that we looked at was in a Victorian coaching house another one was in a stable that used to be attached to a high street store, others have been in particular types of railway building, railway arches because they've made good club spaces, those kinds of things. So there's a very literal sense in which they're infrastructural spaces, but they've been repurposed as social infrastructure spaces.

    And also there isn't a binary between day and night time spaces for these communities. So the nighttime spaces are used during the day for different functions. HIV and health education and testing for example, has come up in quite a few spaces, but then there's this slightly longer history of night spaces serving LGBT groups through the 1980s, 1990s, the kind of peak of the crisis around AIDS in the UK context for LGBT groups. So those spaces provided really important function at that time, but that continues in other ways now, in terms of people being able to gather around particular issues. So for example, trans healthcare at the moment, [isn't] that something that is particularly current in terms of people needing to gather and to gather resources.

    Michele Acuto:

    I think they make a very important point there, that the night can and should be a discreet and protective space, not to be feared but rather be treasured and seen as an integral part of the infrastructure of the city. That the night is about community and communities need a functioning city after hours too.

    Shelby Bassett:

    If we think back to our first episode where we spoke about the nighttime economies, one of the key concepts correlated to that is the 24 hour city. Do you think that that has helped or hindered equity at night?

    Michele Acuto:

    Yes. I think there's a fundamental problem with the 24/7 logic of the city that never sleeps. Something that has gone hand in hand with the colonisation of the nighttime as a frontier, by making it a bit of a space for unchecked consumption and growth. Today there's definitely a growing need for the night. Policymakers need it for vitality and the economy, but urban dwellers also need it for urban life and very mundane urban life. The night remains and has to be a space for experimentation, a world beyond certain eyes, a place for community building. And I'd say Ben and Lo probably explain this even better than I can.

    Ben Campkin:

    I think the policy attention on night spaces has only attended to the surface. So in our research, we've looked at a whole range of different types of informal and formal space, but in terms of how the mayor thinks about LGBT spaces, they're only counting licensed premises, which is just the top surface. So I think that although queer groups and there's a certain kind of queer politics attached to some venues, which is somehow intention with urban governance and the idea of making the night more visible and controlled, and those kinds of things. I think because of the property dynamics in London at the moment, particularly around 2014, 2015, there was a crisis around many venues closing or being threatened with closure, and so I think it was really important to bring that to the context of policy and planning and to try and use those systems to safeguard spaces.

    I Think in that sense, it's been a productive attention to nighttime spaces, but at the same time, you've got lots of queering of the night that happens undercover still, and that's as it should be, nobody would want... to map all queer space would be a quite strange thing to do. There needs to be this kind of organic and flexible and adaptive infrastructure of spaces, that's constantly reinventing itself and has been very resilient in doing so over the centuries.

    Lo Marshall:

    And I think that brings up a really interesting tension that the planning system really has become a battle ground that is being increasingly used by communities and campaigns to protect and push for the re-provision of closed venues. So that's interesting in itself, if you look at planning commissions, there'll be hundreds of comments from people contesting the closure of venues or the repurposing of venues and so on. So that's a particularly interesting dynamic that's emerged. But like Ben says, of course, planning in its nature has to be quite reductive because that's just the way that it functions, and so we'll never capture, there's always going to be a limit to the way that it is able to support or be used in relation to LGBTQ communities and protecting spaces.

    Another interesting example is the LGBT Venue Charter that has been produced by the Mayor of London and the Nights Czar, which is largely intended to help protect sites or support usually non LGBTQ operators in saying, this is to continue and protect this as an LGBTQ venue. Here are five ways, here are five characteristics that need to be shown or need to be followed. So it might be displaying a rainbow flag symbol somewhere on the venue or having majority LGBTQ programming and advertising yourself as an LGBTQ venue and all of those kinds of things, sort of a tick box, I suppose, of what a venue is. However, of course, this isn't exactly what an LGBTQ venue is in every kind of incarnation of a venue and a lot of particularly queer folks they're just like, "well, actually, no," and don't agree with this characterization or "how dare you tell us what a venue looks like," or there's kind of different, interesting responses to that. And I think that's an interesting frontier perhaps between planning in the communities the planning is intending to serve and support, that there's a kind of a tension there.

    Shelby Bassett: And finally, to conclude this episode, let's hear from Su-Jan Yeo.

    Su-Jan Yeo:

    I suppose if I may leverage this podcast as a call out to those interested in this issue, because it is a pertinent issue and will become ever more pertinent, I believe. I'm making a call out for a cross disciplinary consortium of public space designers and lighting professionals and public health experts and community engagement specialists to consider creative approaches to a more empathetic management of crowd circulation and behavior at night. This is the challenge that we really need to consider. And the question I suppose we might begin with is, how can we leverage innovative lighting design and interactive public art installations, as well as community derived programming, that would make urban life after dark inviting and welcoming and safe for all to enjoy? I'd like to put that call out there.

    Michele Acuto:

    I think this is mainly about the need for the urban night to be for all, not just the selected few. The voices of workers, minorities, homeless people should be integrated in the way we plan cities. I think we've also learned that if we move to a 24 hour thinking, then we need to do so inclusively. It's probably more about opening nighttime nurseries, supermarkets and train lines, than it is about 24-hour gyms. And assure that the needs of all those who inhabit the night, are also heard.

    Shelby Bassett:

    I completely agree Michele. The people who keep our society running 24/7, don't have access to 24/7 services. If our cities are to be equitable, then there needs to be equitable access for all. Michele, thank you so much for joining me for these episodes of Cities After Dark.

    Michele Acuto: All thanks to you.

    Shelby Bassett:

    Thank you to Will Straw, Emilia Smeds, Su-Jan Yeo, Ben Campkin, Lo Marshall, and my wonderful cohost Michele Acuto. This episode was produced by Kate Marie, sound production by Beck Barry, and brought to you by Connected Cities. You can find more information about Connected Cities and the researchers in this podcast in our show notes, and you can join the conversation on Twitter using #CitiesAfterDark.

    Connected Cities acknowledges the indigenous peoples of the lands upon which we work and meet to create this podcast. For us at University of Melbourne, we pay our respects to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. Wherever in the world, you're listening to this, we invite you to pause and consider the traditional owners of the land upon which you stand.

Links and references

Join the conversation on Twitter using #CitiesAfterDark

Prof Will Straw, Professor of Urban Media Studies at Department of Art History and Communications Studies, McGill University

Su-Jan Yeo, lecturer in the School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) at University of British Columbia

Emilia Smeds, PhD Candidate at University College London

Prof Ben Campkin, Professor of History and Theory of Architecture and Urbanism, The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London

Lo Marshall, Research Fellow in The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London

LGBTQ+ Venues Charter, Mayor of London

LGBTQ+ nightlife spaces in London - website on the research of Prof Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall


Co-hosted by Michele Acuto and Shelby Bassett

Written by Shelby Bassett and Kate Murray

Sound Design by Bec Fary

Produced by Kate Murray

Special thanks to Andreina Seijas and Jennifer Dam

More Information

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