It’s easy to forget the work that goes into making a city inhabitable for the morning, with workers pushing through the night to ensure everything from road infrastructure to stray litter is taken care of. Dr Rob Shaw, a geography lecturer here at Newcastle University, knows more about the night-time city than most. His new book, The Nocturnal City, explores how the infrastructure of cities adapts at night and how the trend of people staying out later is altering this.
Rob became interested in Newcastle’s night scene while studying for his PhD at Durham University. He was infatuated with the everyday characters who help Newcastle hit the ‘reset’ button so it’s ready for the next day. “I became interested in all the people who help facilitate the night-time economy,” he explains.
“If they weren’t there cleaning up the leaflets and the fast food wrappers, you’d be walking through a gloopy, sticky mess the next day. The nurses working at the hospitals, as well as the people working in distribution and logistics, are also playing a vital role in terms of keeping things ticking over.”
He adds: “There’s a nice metaphor that we sometimes use of the city ‘resetting’ itself through the night. It’s a bit like people going to sleep – they wake up, their body has been reset and they are ready for a new day. The same thing has to happen with a city!”
Writing the book has resulted in Rob becoming a bit of a nocturnal animal himself, something he admits can be draining given his young family at home. But he says it’s ultimately worth it, as writing the book has given him access to people often forgotten by mainstream society.
“You meet so many characters at night,” he reveals. “There was this woman who was a night-time bus driver, who used to be a bouncer, and she enjoyed working at night because it gave her more time during the day. She was on shift when I saw a goose that had been hit by a car. She went outside in her hi-vis jacket and carefully picked the goose up, as she had experience with animals. The goose spent the night at the bus depot and she nursed it back to full health!”
Aside from meeting the cogs that keep the night-time economy moving, Rob is also concerned about the way that light pollution is changing cities such as Newcastle. Due to the expansion of major cities, daytime has expanded into the night, which has led to a proliferation in street lighting. Shaw says this is disrupting the nocturnal patterns of animals, such as rodents, frogs and owls.
He has also observed how people are getting more comfortable going out later, with many not beginning their nights out until after 9pm. He explains: “There’s been a real increase in diversification in the night-time economy. Whether it’s more cafés opening later, or a wider range of night-time food markets and festivals through the summer. There are also lighting festivals and activities, particularly within the run-up to Christmas.
“We are becoming closer to the continental economy, whereby people are using the city centre through till 8, 9, 10pm for a wider range of activities, rather than everything shutting down at 6pm.”
We have to adapt in a globalised world, as the reality is that cities are going to continue to be active through the night.
Rob believes the trend of major European cities like London, Amsterdam and Paris employing night mayors, who are responsible for making sure they run smoothly through the hours of darkness, is a good move. Yet, he advises them not to focus their energy in the wrong places: “[London’s] night tube, which runs 24 hours a day on certain lines to ensure people can get around the city at night, is completely ignoring the fact that what we consider a night-time economy – pubs, bars and clubs – only makes up 20-25% of the people who work at night.
“Sure, it’s a chunk of what’s going on, but actually there are a lot more people working in healthcare, as well as an increasing number of people in distribution and logistics. The night tube is not particularly doing anything for them. There needs to be something put in place that benefits everybody [who works at night].”
Although Rob concedes some people from the south visit Newcastle purely as a pilgrimage for stag and hen parties, he says the city is becoming known for other evening activities. The rise of late-night cafés such as Quilliam Brothers, food events like the Quayside’s new Hawker Market, which is on the Gateshead side, light festivals, and museums extending their hours, are giving residents and visitors greater choice. And, looking forward, Shaw says cities such as Newcastle will need to look beyond hedonism when working out their night-life strategies.
He concludes: “We have to adapt in a globalised world, as the reality is that cities are going to continue to be active through the night. I believe that more and more people will find themselves working either fully or occasionally at night. We’re going to need facilities and services which support a wide range of things that people do in night-time cities.”
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