The urban nightlife – a lecture

Last Thursday evening, I wandered along to the headquarters of the Magic Circle – for a lecture on how to deal with problems and benefits caused by urban nightlife. The evening was hosted by The Civic Trust – which is a charitable organisation founded in 1957. Its prime purpose is to help improve the general quality of urban life.

Our guest speaker was the American head of the Responsible Hospitality Institute (RHI), Jim Peters. His organisation works with local governments, businesses etc in the USA to improve nightlife environments.

He comes from a background in working in the drinks industry – and as I am sure most of us would agree, some people will over indulge on a Friday night and cause problems for the local residents and/or businesses. The RHI works out how to minimise – or at least control these alcohol induced side effects.

It was actually surprisingly interesting and a lot of very novel ideas were discussed – with the audience, mainly filled with local planning officers firing questions at the end of the evening.

Incidentally – the evening was sponsored by Diageo – the drinks giant.

Noting that most of his comments were about US-centric issues, he explained that urban town centres are becoming increasingly busy as the areas fill up with young students thanks to a mini baby boom about two decades ago, but also with people at the other end of the spectrum as parents whose children have left home are increasingly moving from the suburbs back into the town centres.

You therefore have a conflict between the nightclub generation and the older generation.

However, what looks like a conflict can actually become an asset it seems – and this is all down to peer pressure and behavioral changes.

For example – in Croydon, South London there is a street with several large pubs aimed at selling as much cheap lager as quickly as possible to as many people as possible – and it is frankly a damn unpleasant street to be near on a Friday night. There is also absolutely no nightlife in Croydon apart from that. If however, the council was to try and spread the nightlife out a bit and introduced more sedate pubs and cafes, you would bring in the more mature crowd into the town centre.

You might – understandably – think that more people in the town centre would make things worse, but in fact what they find is that if you start mixing the ages of the customers around and not go for the mono-culture of young adults (or all old people), then people change their behaviour slightly. The rowdiness in the young adults seems to calm down a bit. So, increasing the size – and social mix of a town centre can actually reduce problems, not increase them.

This is quite important as the conventional thought to deal with urban problems is to simply throw in more police and apply ever increasing restrictions on how pubs/clubs operate. People out for a good time don’t like being pushed around by bouncers and tight social rules – and tend to push back, which simply exasperates the situation. You can actually reduce trouble, though subtle social controls.

The other issue he talked about really quite interesting, and that is what he termed a “soft closing time”, where pubs are allowed to stay open later, but not to serve alcohol. I am sure most of us will have been in a pub late at night when last orders are called and grabbed one last pint before wandering home, usually via a dodgy food venue.

Shoveling down that last pint (or two) in quick succession does not actually cause a surge in drunkenness, but the sudden hit on the bladder does result in a lot of young men being kicked out of the pub just as they need to visit the loo – so tend to find a local doorway. Not nice. The soft-closing though allows the pub to stay open an hour later, but stop serving alcohol at the usual time. People have more time to drink down and visit the toilets before eventually heading off home.

This significantly improves behavior on the homeward journey.

While it may sound like a cost to the pub to stay open an hour longer without selling booze – we should consider the opportunity to tap that drunk hungry crowd with easy to cook hot food (chips etc) plus soft drinks – and take some of the cash which would be spent anyway in the local kebab store. Pubs could actually increase their takings, while also improving social behaviour of their customers in the local community.

I found that to be a very exciting concept.

He also went into some detail about how urban planning can improve areas – such as cutting double road widths in town centres to single lanes at weekend evenings so that there is more space on the pavements to walk. Encouraging cafes etc to spill over into the wider pavements in the evenings so that the streets become more socially active and passers-by would tend to moderate their behaviour more.

Again – all very subtle social conditioning, but much nicer than a town centre covered in CCTVs, bouncers and police in near-riot gear.

It makes the area more welcoming, which in turn pulls in a wider mix of customers, leading to more jobs and tax revenues for the local councils – and thanks to the social moderation which occurs, you end up needing less security.

It can go wrong though if a council is only half-hearted about this. An example was given of Boulder City in the USA which has a large student population and a substantial bus service during the day carrying them to/from university. Alas, the bus service shuts down at night, and residential pressure groups had pushed all the pubs into the town centre. Net result was that at 11pm, all the pubs disgorged young drunk adults who walked home and caused more problems than ever before.

So, the city council laid on buses at night – but only two per hour. Net result, fights as people tried to get on the buses. They made the problem worse.

Eventually, an action plan was worked out and they laid on lots more buses – but also got bus drivers who were not the typical surly types who seem to dominate the bus industry, but were themselves young adults who had a better understanding of their passengers. I used to work in an off-license, and it is very important to be able to banter with the young drunks who come into the store – and that applies just as well to the buses and other public transport.

I wonder how many problems on London’s night buses could be solved simply by getting more socially flexible bus drivers?

A lot of the talk went into quite some detail about how the groups carry out studies before they try to improve an area – and the Boulder City example explained how important that is.

Overall, it was a very interesting lecture – and it was exciting to hear that it is possible to improve drunken loutish behaviour though means which do not involve flooding a town centre with a hundred police in battle gear – but to create an environment where people learn to control themselves. Well, most of them will.

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