To build a strong nighttime economy, our city planners need to learn to feel the music

This article first appeared in CityMetric

Image: Drew De F Fawkes

Image: Drew De F Fawkes

Cities in the UK, from London to Belfast, are updating their local plans to outline how land will used from now through to 2035. These plans are blunt, top-down instruments to outline what land is earmarked for residential, employment, commercial and so on. 

Historically, master plans have skirted over how culture and the night time economy might fit within these expansive spacial plans, but this impacts how equipped each plan is to support and develop such uses for the next 15-20 years. While employment land can differentiate between light industrial or commercial, for example, a cultural use is often assigned long after the local plan is written, after extensive consultations and amendments.

Often they are placed into a more general commercial use, or in some cases, sandwiched into tourism objectives. If culture is specifically mentioned, the use is often based on specific plot of land; we want that theatre there, this arena here, and so on.  This can be encouraged through the creation of a cultural quarter – such as the redevelopment of London’s Olympic Park - but this is defined through tenants.  A museum arrives and a cultural quarter is born.  The issue of incorporating the nighttime economy in these long-term plans remains a challenge. 

There’s a problem here. These plans are not in line with other discussions, often held outside of planning circles, about the types of cities we want to live in.

Take music as one example.  Since 2015, over three-dozen cities around the world have harboured public aspirations to become ‘music cities’, from Gothenburg in Sweden to Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Hastings in the UK and Bogota in Colombia.

But the needs of music, be it for performers, consumers or investors, are conceived as just inserting music into pre-determined, already accepted plans.  This leads to assessing the value of music through the industry’s lens, such as how much the industry is worth in a particular place. While important, music is inserted into the discussion too late. What happens are issues that planning cannot fix, which leads to licensing, regulation and restriction. If music was incorporated more bluntly into local plan making, this could change. 

The same goes for nighttime economy. Much of its literature is framed on restriction, rather than promotion. This is because our land use planning, zoning and use classification did not delve into how night-time uses (such as leisure) and day time uses (such as commercial or residential) can co-exist. While homes exist above venues in Belgium and Germany, it is unheard of in the UK.  As a result, cities were not planned to be 24-hour organisms, ultimately limiting opportunities and causing friction, instead of pragmatically approaching nighttime uses in the same way we see daytime. 

As a result, in local plans, the terms ‘music’, ‘culture’ and‘night time economy’ have been markedly absent and when they are included, their focus is on stopping people from doing something, rather than encouraging more varied activities and planning accordingly. Again, the egg came after the chicken and cities were stuck with managing their music and nighttime economies with existing local plans that neither mentioned the term, nor planned its land to accommodate such practices.

With cities continuing to expand at record levels, we need to change how we plan them for the future. To do so, we must bring music and the nighttime economy into the fold of the planning process.  Music’s role at the earliest stage of district or development planning can be anchors in getting people to want to move to a new area. Nighttime activity, when managed carefully and considerately, can coexist with residential space and flourish with commercial life, with libraries, gyms, cafes and restaurants. 

For this to happen in the UK, we need to plan for the other 9-to-5 in our local plans. And in doing so, we must still prioritise housing and local services, but ensure local plans outline – in the broadest sense – why people move to a place and what makes it worth living in. And if successful, cities will be rewarded with more jobs, greater access to services and greater community inclusiveness. We must plan for the night as we do for the day.

To do so, we need global standards to include music and night time economy in the earliest stages of master and local plan making. We need planners and musicians to converse as much as councillors and residents. And we need to think long and hard about the cities we wish to live in by 2035. 

We do this for transport, health care, sewage and utilities; it’s time to do it for music and the nighttime economy.