After Hours | Importance of Nocturnal City Spaces

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When the sun sets and with it, daytime routines subside, cities become alive with a renewed energy after dark.  The nighttime urban experience stands in contrast to the day, inducing feelings of intimacy and adventure within the city.  When I think of nightlife in a city, I immediately imagine the term which refers to the social or entertainment amenities that exist in urban spaces.  Nightlife activities come with sets of associations and cater to a younger crowd often revolving around alcohol consumption and partying.  This demographic is seen by residents, property owners, and policy makers as undesirable.  However, there are other night dwellers outside of this vocal minority who deserve recognition.

As a designer, I am constantly filtering decisions subjectively through my own set of beliefs and assumptions about the world.  When I think about people in the night, who comes to mind?  Am I reacting based of my assumptions and fears of the dark or am I thinking critically about other types of users who live lifestyles different from my own? 

I believe that too much of our designed urban environment responds to the 9-5 condition.  As designers, we must embrace lifestyles and activities apart from those which we easily identify with.  For example, many people work shifts at night that begin and end at odd times.  Some people suffer from social anxiety or anxiety from driving in traffic and prefer to spend more time out and about during the nighttime hours to avoid crowds.  My point is that there is a continuum of people typologies who deserve the same recognition as those who operate under more standard “business hours”.  Additionally, the effects of climate change, especially in warmer climates are driving more people to come out in the evening or at night.  Nocturnal users are subject to the same needs as their day-time counterparts, which leads me to consider the value of 24/7 services.


24/7 services refer to a commercial industry which operates constantly.  Businesses such as 24-hour dinners take advantage of a consumer base looking for a greasy 2:00am snack after a night on the town but they also offer a haven for people who do not feel comfortable being in public during the day.  The 24/7 industry includes services such as hotels, self-serve laundry facilities, and convince stores as well as call and data centers.  Additionally, there are some services that mandate 24/7 use because of their essential function within a city.  My appendix does not care what time of night it may be when it decides to become inflamed.  Hospitals, police stations, and other emergency facilities provide urgent care around the clock. 


There is a third form of service which falls in between emergency response providers and those commercial businesses which seek to capitalize on nocturnal activity.  These services I will call Dilemma centers.  Dilemma centers consist of services that walk the line between essential and convenient.  It may not always be important for them to be open at night, however, in a pinch, the absence of a functioning Dilemma Center can quickly become a severe problem.  Some examples of Dilemma Centers include counseling facilities, safe injection sights, animal hospitals, auto repair, and pharmacies.  These places provide services that are essential to society but exist on a slightly lower priority from emergency response services like fire departments and hospitals

Often, public spaces in the city are designed to simply become an extension of the day.  Over lit spaces extenuate the same, diurnal characteristics, rather than augmenting the night.  However, the role of the designer is to design for all and for safety.  I believe that spaces can be designed to accomplish safe inhabitation at night by considering three objectives: Passive Surveillance, Formal Preemptiveness, and Activated Space.   

Passive Surveillance

I was first exposed to the concept of passive surveillance in Jane Jacobs book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’.  In her book, Jacobs details the concept of ‘eyes on the street.  Jacobs loved watching the movement of people on the street from her apartment and believed that people watching from buildings incited a safer environment.

You can’t make people watch streets they do not want to watch. Safety on the streets by surveillance and mutual policing of one another sounds grim, but in real life it is not grim. The safety of the street works best, most casually, and with least frequent taint of hostility or suspicion precisely where people are using and most enjoying the streets voluntarily and are least conscious, normally, that they are policing.
— Jane Jacobs

In the Frauen Werk-Stadt project in Vienna, the primary circulation of the buildings are pulled to the exterior and enclosed by glass to magnify passive surveillance by interior users.  People are most attentive of their surrounds while in motion so by moving the building circulation to the perimeter, the number of eyes to the exterior are maximized.



Formal Preemptiveness

English philosopher. Jeremy Bentham proposed a building meant to “irradiate bad behavior”.  Benthams proposal consisted of a circular building with a tall watchtower in the center.  This model has been widely criticized for being overly intrusive.  Instead, I believe security should be built into design from the initial conception.  Public spaces like the Parc André Citroën in Paris integrate sight lines and clustered, visible open spaces to maximize security.  These spaces anticipate insecurity and seek to combat these conditions through initial form.  This formal primitiveness incorporates aspects of vision including sight lines and lighting but also gives way to other senses.  Night spaces should be designed with high levels of tactility and audible sensitivity.  These spaces should also be intentional to not create dead-ends or secluded spaces.  Circulation should be clear and overlapping.



Acticated Space

Possibly the most intuitive; spaces are safest when they are filled with people.  Activating a space with specific nocturnal programming will draw people to the area at night.  Programs like skate parks, restaurants, outdoor theaters and venues fill public spaces with people.  However, these elements often take time to take hold.  By understanding the potential of a space and the movements of people around it, elements can be placed that catalyze movement and occupation.  Tactical urbanism techniques may define a space for pedestrians through markings on the ground plane, lighting is added, and street furniture allow passers by a place to sit and relax, soon a hot dog stand moves in to take advantage of the new gathering space, in turn, attracting new visitors.  This step-by-step approach eventually can build into greater site programming as investors and stakeholders mount.


 Nocturnal city spaces hold an important straw within the urban framework.  By defining these spaces more intentionally, I believe that they can become safer, and more beneficial to society.  When recognizing nocturnal spaces, designers also act more inclusively to all user groups and address important issues concerning climate change, and relative norms within work cycles.  I believe that designers and we as society, should seek to recognize a greater capacity for nocturnal inhabitation.