Sydney at night

Remember as a child the thrill of going into the city at night? As well as the sense of adventure at being allowed out after dark, there was something magical about seeing the city illuminated, all glittery and sparkling.

In Sydney we’re blessed once a year with our Vivid festival, which allows us to recreate that childhood feeling of night-time awe but on a much grander scale. Adults and children alike love the light spectacle.

Vivid is now recognised as the best light festival in the world and its expansion into a broader cultural event can light the way – s’cuse the pun – for how we think about our city, its lighting and its night-time cultural landscape throughout the rest of the year.

But mention Sydney’s nightlife, and the topic immediately shifts to the issue of lockout laws. It’s a topic that riles both sides and one that’s been recognised as both a barrier and an enabler to a vibrant night-time economy. There’s no doubt that a sophisticated global city – one that Sydney aspires to be – needs to have an energetic and dynamic night life and that includes allowing bars and restaurants to trade and thrive after dark. Safely.

But there are many things that our city can do at night to attract visitors, those from overseas as well as those that are just a train or bus ride away, to keep people in the city after work and that keeps the “open” sign up at the door when the lights come on.

Surely the biggest lesson Vivid can teach us is about lighting. There’s a whole science that’s grown up around how we light our cities in ways that not only make us feel safe as pedestrians and keeps crime rates down, but also provide interest and focal points at night.

Technological innovations in LED lights can help reduce the bill to the taxpayer of keeping our city alight, but also provide valuable data on where people congregate at night and light up in a “smart” way when walkers and cyclists come by. Night-time lighting can provide safety and be simultaneously artistic, shaping urban life after dark. Well-designed lighting can foster our sense of community, bringing us outdoors at night and making us unafraid to walk through a park or down a street.

With the light rail works in progress at the moment we have a great opportunity to introduce lighting in an innovative, attractive and functional way. What about a series of self-directed Night Walks around the city, following red, or green or blue lights in the pavements so they are easy to keep track of, lighting a cultural route on a specific theme?

And lighting shouldn’t be our only claim to fame. Our city absolutely lends itself to a vibrant nightlife. We benefit from a climate that makes being outside at night a viable option for most months of the year. We have a compact CBD enhanced by other “pockets of interest” that are attractions in themselves and we have strong cultural infrastructure already in place.

We could coordinate and align our cultural events to create “Culture Night” every Tuesday or Wednesday when our world-class museums and galleries stay open until 10pm. This would embed a predictability and momentum around night-time cultural activities that would encourage other establishments (retail and restaurants) to keep their doors open. In the summer, there could be an evening art market on the same night where local artists could sell their works and street artists could perform.

And our foodie culture could be harnessed in many different ways; extending the Night Noodle Markets and linking other street food events and offerings; opening a central food market much like Melbourne’s Victoria Market when the Sydney Fish Markets are redeveloped; embracing the EatWith concept, first started in Tel Aviv but now global; opening some of our green spaces in the evenings for picnic nights rather as an alternative to expensive ticketed events to get people out.

It’s not hard to think beyond nightclubs and bars when thinking about Sydney’s nightlife. It can be classy, inclusive, artistic, invigorating and safe. It should cater to a variety of price-points and be walkable and/or accessible by public transport. Church Street in Parramatta has been revitalised as an active, safe and inclusive restaurant precinct showing how it’s possible to appeal to a wide demographic, limit car use and at the same time encourage people into an area to enjoy the night-time social life.

And yes, we should consider the nightclubs and bars too. They’re part of the mix of an energetic after dark culture as we outlined in our submission to the independent review of the NSW liquor laws.

But it is our design of public spaces and footpaths, and expanding available night-time activities (thereby reducing the concentration of alcohol-centric activities) that will improve the safety and vibrancy of our city at night.  We don’t need to arbitrarily condemn all bars to early closing if we ensure that the mix of people on the street is broader than bucks’ night revellers choosing an alcohol-fuelled evening.

Whilst Sydney may not want to be a 24 hour city that never sleeps, we should at least be encouraging it to stay open later – and not just on a Friday and Saturday night. London has plans for a six-month assessment of how to protect and manage their night-time economy, something we could undertake. Encouraging ideas, utilising our natural advantages and expanding on things we already know work, like Vivid, can give us insight in to how people want to use our city at night and stop being blinded by the impact of lock-out laws on the night-time economy.

Johanna Pitman is deputy chief executive of the Committee for Sydney.

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  1. I had the privilege to present Arup’s take on “Nighttime Design” to the Committee for Sydney last week.

    Cultural activities are a natural engine for the nighttime economy. Johanna’s focus on a concerted effort to vitalize hours after dark with a “culture night” – late closing of museums – fits neatly with performance times for theater and concerts.

    We also discussed ways of designing self-guided light paths as part of a lighting strategy.

    Finally, once projects are identified for strategic nighttime design, a Vivid program could be developed for artist interpretation of these projects – a chance to do social research about the public’s responses and the viability of concepts and technologies to implement in the future.

    Kudos Johanna for bringing the issues and potential solutions to light!

  2. Great article Johanna. Optimistic to the max!!!
    Big role here for arts groups too – a night time arts scene – music, dance, light installatons all add to vibrancy.
    Always amazed at Vivid – so many smiles, so many families from 3 weeks to 93 year olds – the city is for everyone.
    MCA is leading the way around the Rocks – Thursday late opening and the Friday once a month art bars – more could step into this space – AGNSW Wednesday nights – cant wait to the extensions re-activate towards the ‘Loo.
    Trains and buses need to co-operate – 30minute between trains is a big disincentive…