Book Review: Managing Cities at Night. A Practitioner Guide to the Urban Governance of the Night-Time Economy

reviewed by Alessio Kolioulis

13 Sep 2022, 4:17 p.m.
Alessio Kolioulis

Managing Cities at Night book cover

Michele Acuto, Andreina Seijas, Jenny McArthur, and Enora Robin, Managing Cities at Night. A Practitioner Guide to the Urban Governance of the Night-Time Economy, Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2022; 142 pp.; ISBN: 9781529218282, £23.99 (pbk)


Like most living things, human settlements respond to light and dark following a 24-hour cycle. As Joachim Schlör has shown in his superb Nights in the Big City, the diffusion of electricity in the big metropolises of the 19th century marked a profound shift in the number of night-time activities that were possible in urban contexts, and in the response to them, authorities developed a great number of regulations to control what happens in cities at night.

Strangely, however, the politics of how to govern cities at night continues to be under-researched. This is surprising considering two trends affecting city economies. First, capitalist globalisation is sustained by 24-hour markets that run 7 days a week, with complex business chains that depend upon the existence of nocturnal factories, flexible working hours and night shifts. Let us think, for example, of the expansion of call centres in Northwest India serving customers in the UK, or factories in South-East Asian countries operating throughout the night and enabling the continuous operation of global supply chains.

Secondly, more than 300 networks of local stakeholders in as many cities were created in the last decade to specifically address how to govern cities at night. Such networks have formed new urban stakeholders, including night-time mayors and night business committees, that are now critical to examining the formalisation of night-time management around the world.

It is surprising, therefore, that until now no book of urban economics and urban governance has seriously tackled the question of night-time economic governance. Managing Cities at Night is therefore a welcome addition to both the literature on night-time studies, which has for too long neglected to take a holistic view of the night-time economy, and the scholarly works on urban economics governance, which almost completely overlooked the city economy at night.

Managing Cities at Night is a practitioner’s guide for night-time officials and advocates, and a research agenda for scholars studying the urban governance of the night-time economy. It offers a comprehensive overview of the ways in which night-time governance is being shaped at the global scale, against the backdrop of increased planetary urbanisation. It does so by mapping a series of international city case studies and vignettes – these are numerous and cover more than two dozen cities, from Bogota and Tbilisi to Berlin and Tokyo – to evidence who governs the night and which areas of urban policy should be prioritised and why.

With a strong international outlook, the authors place night-time governance at the nexus of urban entrepreneurism and public affairs, offering an important reflection on the challenges of the translocal diffusion of night-time policies and agendas. Among these challenges, a frequent recurrence is the replication of models that may be labelled as neoliberal, in contexts where bottom-up approaches initiated by local advocates could be more effective in the inclusion of marginalised and oppressed groups that are nonetheless central to the city’s night-time, such as artists in the creative industries and night workers.

In doing so, the book argues that the increased attention of cities towards night-time management ‘has the potential to shape substantially the management of our neighbourhoods, streets and squares. This is a book about that potential, the ways it is being managed (or not) across the globe and the value of night-time thinking for urban governance’ (p. 3).

Beyond the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, this argument is especially important, not only as it provides an agenda for city managers and night-time advocates beyond the role of night-time economy for economic growth, but precisely because it develops a framework to holistically analyse the city economy, with its perduring urban inequalities and insufficient development of key infrastructures. Chapter 6, ‘What Night-Time Agendas’, and Chapter 7, ‘Whose Night-Time is It’, are particularly significant in this regard.

The chastening experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which night-time activities such as care work, food delivery, arts and culture became more visible, has shifted the way in which citizens and businesses think about their priorities. Cities are now orientated towards building more resilient and equitable economies rather than pursuing full efficiency. That is creating mandates for city development strategies to safeguard against future shocks.

As Chapter 4, ‘A Public-Private Affair?’, convincingly asserts, the future of night-time governance will depend on the quality of collaborations between public institutions and the private sector. With empirical examples from London, New York and Sydney, the chapter underlines the importance of thinking at scale when the night-time economy becomes an object for policy, and how night-time governance can take different institutional trajectories based on idiosyncratic stories of regulatory cultures and socio-economic contexts.

‘Urban night-time governance happens very much “inside-out” of a municipal structure. […] These governance relations, however, also underscore that in municipal politics, public-private linkages are not always collaborative, even between the same actors, and that partnerships might shift to adversarial linkages.’ (p. 53). Interestingly, the book recognises universities as potential actors to iron out such conflicts and, among the propositions of the book that look for solutions to the dire conditions of night-time workers globally, it invites more multi-stakeholder planning to resolve issues of nocturnal social justice and labour inequalities.

Moving to the necessary critique of the book, Managing Cities at Night presents two limitations that merit further discussion. The first is an ‘internal’ critique, by which I mean a mismatch between different parts of the book’s argument and theoretical foundation. The authors use municipal governance as the framework to both analyse the city economy and suggest practical recommendations. The overall impression is that multi-stakeholder governance, a spin-off of urban entrepreneurialism, is not sufficiently assessed against its negative outcomes, namely its impotence with regard to the precarious effects of market-based solutions applied to the night-time economy.

Zero-hour contracts that are predominant at night, racism against migrants performing after-hour work and structural inequalities that pervade sectors such as tourism, hospitality and the creative industries are the result of neoliberal policies that are still hegemonic among municipal actors. A more careful critique of neoliberal night-time policies could have strengthened the book’s conclusions.

Relatedly, my ‘external’ critique concerns the authors’ analysis and understanding of the (night-time) city economy. The book should have paid closer attention to the application of economic criteria to the analysis and management of the city economy. To better understand the links between day and night economies, Managing Cities at Night should have provided practitioners with more tools to understand the economic structure and performance of each city in relation to the night-time economy.

As city economies are complex and evolving, solutions must consider how processes of globalisation and decentralisation are transforming the spatial and temporal organisation of social relations – including those within the night-time sphere. However, a clear merit of the book is its articulation of how local governments can play a major role in all areas of night-time policy through good management of the night-city economy, recognising the possibilities and limitations of public intervention.

An indispensable book for all urban scholars, very well written and clearly structured, Managing Cities at Night ends with eight propositions, which excellently condense the intention of the book. To summarise, night-time governance is an emerging but critical field for city managers. It is so because of the foundational role of night-time economies for cities. Planning for the night with appropriate policies can address issues of urban equity and social justice. While enjoying night-time activities remains a privilege, the sustainability of a wide range of sectors – from arts and culture to hospitality and tourism – must be a responsibility of municipal actors, in that it accounts for the livelihoods of those citizens and workers relying on infant and mature night-time economies.


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

The night-time city. Four modes of exclusion: Reflections on the Urban Studies special collection by Phil Hadfield

This article presents commentary and analysis on the Urban Studies special issue on the night-time city.

Governing the night-time city: The rise of night mayors as a new form of urban governance after dark by Andreina Seijas and Mirik Milan Gelders

Permanent nocturnal governance structures are challenging traditional approaches to urban governance by encouraging greater dialogue and experimentation, argue Seijas and Milan Gelders.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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