Cities Journal
City Life

Are Restrictions On A City’s Night Life Damaging To Its Culture?

1.Are Restrictions on a City's Night Life Damaging to Its Culture?
Photo credit: andy.desyatov / Flickr

Think of the cities you visit — and think of why you visit them. If you’re traveling for pleasure, you certainly don’t want to suddenly find yourself in a bustling city half a world away that feels surprisingly like — home! At least, most travelers don’t want that.

You want to experience the new, the unfamiliar and the unexpected, and to drink in at least a measure of local culture to carry home with you. In short, you hope to collect stories that you can remember and repeat to your friends back home. Otherwise, you could just watch a travelogue or, better yet, a movie with beautiful people on the big screen.

How Much Protection is Necessary?

Society as a whole, and many cities in particular, have grappled with the concept of limiting behavior — what kinds, how much, and how to enforce the limits — and the debate goes on. One way to influence behavior, of course, is to regulate business, both its operation and its locations.

The most often-cited reasons for limitations of any kind take the form of protecting public health and safety; public nuisance laws provide justification for enforcing bans on noise, traffic and certain types of commerce. And, there is general agreement on laws enacted to protect children.

What is certain is that there is no clear cut agreement, even in the best of situations, about what constitutes other desirable regulations. Many times, charges of infringement of rights are leveled against something as seemingly benign as authorized hours of operation.

Late night — the Seedy Side of Life?

Free-wheeling nightlife is the attraction in many cities around the globe. Can you imagine New Orleans without its jazz clubs and street cocktails, Las Vegas without its all-night casinos, or Amsterdam without the Red Light District, coffee houses and smoking bars? Most large cities have certain areas where those in the know can find entertainment at all hours.

Whether the attractions are blatantly touted for tourists, or quietly tolerated as back-door, late-night, private clubs, they exist and are often so much a part of local culture that they can seem the reason for a neighborhood’s existence.

There is a trend toward more regulation, rather than less, especially in the United States. Cities large and small increasingly greet requests for new entertainment districts, restaurants, clubs and live music venues with demands for engineering studies, zoning precedents and traffic projections. Additional requirements deal with distance from schools, day-care facilities, churches and hospitals. “Adult entertainment,” alcohol, tobacco and firearm regulations and simple building inspection requirements can wreak havoc on development plans.

Is that culture important?

Critics claim that gentrification homogenizes a city’s culture. Proponents of regulation point to the ills of the night — drunken and disorderly conduct, crime and drugs, homelessness and abandonment of home life. The book, Planning the Night-Time City, by Marion Roberts and Adam Eldridge, speaks of the onset of darkness as a time of fear, and explains that the “night-time city” allowed the type of entertainment “verging on the unholy.”

The city at night is thought of as being in flux, according to some assessments; and it is seen in terms of either danger or pleasure.

Two things are certain for those on both sides of the discussion. It does not seem possible that the debate will be decided totally in favor of either view. It is, however, apparent that as more cities consider urban redevelopment projects, and as more and more people travel, there will be more call for late-night entertainment venues.

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