Hot Issues - Rethinking Alcohol

Rethinking alcohol in the night time economy

Over the past 15 years, cities across Australia have seen a rise in the number and concentration of late trading licensed venues. Resident and visitor numbers have also been growing, prompting the need for a better functioning night time economy (NTE). Transport and other vital infrastructure and services have failed to keep pace, and the result puts pressure on the reputation and amenity of our cities as safe, welcoming, vibrant and diverse night-time precincts. The high media profile of alcohol in the NTE and the antisocial behaviour that is associated with it has put local councils on the front-line of a challenging public policy area. The debate on alcohol is particularly polarised in Australia, and for many years established positions and problem definitions have generated established “solutions”.

In 2011, the City of Sydney sought to step away from set responses and redefined the question. We stopped asking “how do we fix alcohol-related violence”, and instead started asking “how do we transform our city at night?” This shift in perspective changed the nature of the debate and the response. No longer were we just battling against an entrenched problem. All of a sudden we were in an open and positive discussion about what our late night city could be.

The response was incredible. We ran 10 forums, interviewed over 300 people on the street and attracted 11,000 unique visitors to the website. We launched a major research program, including a report into the world’s best practices in managing NTEs in major international cities and a detailed study of who uses the city at night and how. We commissioned Australia’s first-ever cost–benefit analysis of the NTE, which revealed it contributes $15 billion a year to the Sydney economy.

The city engaged cultural institutions, retailers, event organisers, entertainment venues, tourism bodies, academics, clubbers, residents, transport groups, business chambers and many others including police, the liquor industry and public health bodies. What emerged from this dialogue was a response to the challenges of the NTE that was all encompassing and not just about the problems associated with alcohol. Ideas came from all quarters, and were compiled into the discussion paper “OPEN Sydney: Future directions for Sydney at night”.

People told us they wanted the drinking culture to be addressed. But they also consistently said they wanted better transport; more diversity of choices at night for all age groups; good quality late night food and shopping; creative lighting to beautify the streets; more public toilets; more innovation and popup events and a greater focus on collaboration and partnership.

Managing issues around alcohol requires collaboration between local and state governments, police, licensees, residents and others. There are few easy solutions. But by asking the questions differently, we have put the issues into the broader context of what the community wants its city to be and how we can fix existing problems. More options for more people will lead to a more diverse crowd coming into our city at night. It has helped form our vision for a diverse, iconic, safe global night time city that balances the needs of residents, businesses and visitors. We are absolutely confident in this vision not because it is what we think Sydneysiders should have, but it’s what they actually want.

Suzie Matthews
Manager Late Night Economy and Safe City, City of Sydney Council, New South Wales

Hot Issues - Rethinking Alcohol
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