Why We Need Nighttime Mayors

Urban nightlife researcher Andreina Seijas has devoted herself to helping cities become successful, 24-hour urban landscapes.

Shiin Night Market, Taiwan

Courtesy Flickr User LWYang

Andreina Seijas has an enviable title: urban nightlife researcher. Seijas first realized the value of urban nightlife growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, where she witnessed firsthand artistic and cultural interventions that countered people’s negative perceptions of the city after dark and encouraged people to engage with the city’s nightlife. Since then, Seijas has devoted herself to advocating for policies and partnerships that can help cities become successful, 24-hour cities. I recently caught up with Seijas to discuss her research on how to make cities more livable and productive at night, the emergence of a new role—that of the Nightlife Mayor—and how architects, urban designers and planners can start to think about their role in supporting the global urban night-time economy.

Rebecca Greenwald: What are some of the different factors or indicators that you look at when assessing the quality of a city’s nightlife or nightlife economy?

Andreina Seijas: When it comes to assessing the nighttime economy in a city, I often talk about the notion of the 24-hour city, which goes beyond just the city’s nightlife. It also refers to taking advantage of the night’s social and economic potential. It can refer to, for instance, places for nighttime sports or nighttime culture, going beyond nightlife understood as just bars and restaurants.

When it comes to assessing the quality of the nighttime, it’s really hard to talk about a magic formula for this, but I do often refer to 3 main elements that need to be in place for a city to start moving toward a 24-hour economy. The first is the infrastructure, or the hardware, which refers to quality and diverse nighttime spaces that have the 3 Ls: light, local transportation, and life.

Light refers, of course, to well-lit streets and public spaces, which are key to creating a sense of security for people at night. Local transportation is really important: 24-hour subways, 24-hour nighttime buses, affordable taxis, car sharing schemes, private shuttle for employees, for instance.

When I refer to life, I always come back to Jane Jacobs. She used to say that vibrant cities are   those that combine density, mixed primary uses, short blocks and a diversity of buildings.** All these elements, when combined with sound nighttime strategy, can help make a city safer and more alive. As Jacobs said, “nobody likes to watch an empty street” because when streets are filled with people they feel much safer than when they are deserted.

The second element is the regulations, or the software, which refers to the licenses and the policies around the hours of operation for shops and nighttime venues. These range from more restrictive policies such as curfews to more “enabling” policies, such as the 24-hour licenses in Amsterdam that allow for the reutilization of venues for different uses throughout the day.

The third element is institutions, or the people who are responsible for managing the night. Inspired by Amsterdam, many cities around the world are now designating a night-time manager or mayor as a means of facilitating night-time governance.

RG: What cities around the world are doing a good job of promoting, planning for and enacting good policy around urban nightlife?

AS: When we talk about nighttime governance, the city that’s definitely leading the pack is Amsterdam. In 2014, the city created a new government office dedicated to nightlife with its own nighttime mayor. The current nighttime mayor is Mirik Milan. He presides over a non-profit organization that works closely with Amsterdam’s City Hall to support and promote the city’s night culture for both those who visit and those who live in Amsterdam. He used to be a nightlife producer and promoter when he was in his early 20s. Now, he’s dedicated himself to putting order into the city’s nightlife and promoting the nighttime mayor model outside of Amsterdam.

Following his example, cities like Paris, Zurich, Cali (the 3rd biggest city in Colombia), and even London are beginning to designate their own nighttime mayors. London in particular is really interested in doing this because many of the traditional music venues have been closing as part of the process of gentrification. The nighttime mayor would be able to manage this and to create a balance between the different tensions and actors that are involved in the night scene in the city.

Something that’s common to many cities is that noise is a very big problem. When you have a nighttime area or when you have a bunch of nighttime venues that are concentrated in a residential area, then problems start. People start complaining. Cities like Amsterdam are encouraging bottom-up tactics to regulate nighttime districts such as Rembrandtplein.  This area now has a group of hosts—community workers that oversee the area at night—that assist locals and visitors and help them stay out of trouble (fights, substance abuse). Similar models have been implemented successfully in other cities.

RG: What are some of the things that urban designers, planners, and architects can do to create cities that are more nightlife-friendly?

AS: I believe that a 24-hour city goes beyond design—in large part it’s a governance issue. But of course, design is key as well. For instance, several institutions and organizations are starting to do research on the relevance of light from a social perspective. People are starting to become interested in the impact light and darkness have over social life and over social behavior, and light is becoming a more important element when it comes to designing quality nighttime spaces. For much of Latin America, the nighttime is associated with negative things, such as insecurity and noise. So improving night-time lighting and designing urban interventions that invite people from different parts of the city to co-exist after dark are key to changing the negative perception of the night.

A common feature of many Latin American cities is the existence of beautiful, historic city centers, many of which are recognized by UNESCO. Though many people work in these areas during the day, they become dark and deserted after 6pm. How can we bring people back to city centers to explore these areas after dark? This is a great opportunity to connect locals to their culture and to invite them to preserve their heritage. Most city centers are commercial areas or office areas. As they have few residents, their uses could be expanded to accommodate creative industries and night-time venues without affecting residents’ sleep.

On a similar theme, how can cities optimize the way they use spaces throughout the day? For instance, a museum or a cultural center can have other social uses at night—not necessarily related to alcohol consumption or to partying. Libraries or sports facilities could also become 24-hour spaces, and create more opportunities for people to co-exist and to explore at night. This does not mean creating new spaces, but rather reusing ones that already exist. That’s a more efficient way of looking at city centers and nighttime spaces in general.

** Jacobs’ four generators of diversity mentioned in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

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