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Has alcohol hijacked our nightlife?

Since the release of On the Beach (1959), Melbourne – and more widely Australia – has been fiercely asserting itself against actor Ava Gardner’s slight. Apocryphally, she described Melbourne as “the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world” (In actuality, it was said by a Melbournian).

We hear a lot about our cities being vital tourist destinations and how we need to have ‘24-hour cities.’ But what exactly does a 24-hour city mean?

Frank Sinatra made famous the classic New York New York, introducing us to the city that never sleeps. It includes the ironic line, ‘I wanna wake up in a city that never sleeps’ – meaning that someone must be sleeping! In actual fact New York ranks 32 in the global 24-hour city stakes (bear in mind this study actually looked at online activity during a 24-hour day).

The economic rationale for the night time economy is obvious. Cities in decline have revived their prosperity by introducing late night shopping, public transport extended into the early hours of the morning, and, of course, entertainment. But when did the fixation to extend it to 24 hours begin?

Most of us want to live in a vibrant metropolis that provides us with the services we expect, including entertainment, activity, learning, a sense of community. Certainly shift work and changing terms of employment gives rise to the need for interesting venues, shops and businesses that are open whenever your working hours are complete.

However, are we prepared to accept the inevitable issues that arise from these amenities like litter, noise and violence?

The dissent that comes from a 24 hour city concept is the alarm raised by the growing number of crowds and the late night throngs that have accompanied the relaxation of licensing laws.   Melbourne City receives around 4,000 complaints per year in relation to noise and Sydney tops 100,000. Safety is another issue. As violence escalates due to alcohol consumption, Governments try to remedy the situation by implementing regulations to reduce the violence.

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Many Australian cities now allow longer trading hours than other so-called international cities, including New York, where licensed venues close at 4am, Vancouver (3am), London (5am), Edinburgh (4am) Paris (breaks between 2 am and 7am) and Amsterdam (5am).

Recent uproar about how restrictive Sydney is if you can’t get a drink after 3am begs the question: why is continued access to alcohol such a point of anxiety for people? Is it truly impossible to keep having fun after however many drinks you’ve consumed up to that point?

Research from the UK highlights that the increase in corporate-owned nightclubs – whose business model relies on the profits from alcohol sales to 18-35 year olds – were driving out other types of commercial uses. They described  that the urban centres that were being turned into youthful playscapes at the expense of other demographics and limiting business opportunities.

In March 1986, John Nieuwenhuysen produced an 847 page report to advocate that the Melbourne pub and bar scene as it was then should evolve into something more sophisticated. He had a vision of a European-style culture; civilised drinking and the sensible reform of liquor licensing. Between 1995-2009, the number of active liquor licences and BYOs permits doubled to more than 19,000. It is difficult to imagine that this expansion accords with Nieuwenhuysen’s vision, as it was soon followed by a sharp increase in reported alcohol related harms. It’s hard to be sophisticated when your main activity is drinking alcohol.

The 24-hour city concept has provided 24-hour alcohol, but where’s the rest? Where’s the sophisticated city promised by the likes of Nieuwenhuysen?

Why are there no 24-hour libraries, 24-hour galleries, 24-hour cinemas, and other leisure activities that provide a mix and balance in our lives?

What else belongs in a 24-hour city?

Let us know what would bring you into the late night city.