Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The Dutch capital’s concept is already spreading to other major cities.
Do big cities need a “Chinatown for night culture”? This is a concept currently being explored in Amsterdam by former club promoter Mirik Milan. By creating special districts for after-dark businesses, the 35-year-old Milan suggests, cities like his hometown could balance many local desires for a lively night life with the wishes of others for peace and quiet.
“I think that to really build a 24/7 economic system in Amsterdam, we should focus on creating one 24-hour area in the city,” Milan tells CityLab. “You could have working spaces there, and a library open 24 hours a day for students. It would also be a place for food. In Holland you can't have a proper meal after 9.30 p.m., and when friends arrive late from out of town, all you can really offer them is fries.”
The idea might sound ambitious, but then forward-thinking about Amsterdam after dark is actually Milan’s job: he’s the Dutch capital’s “night mayor.” This innovative office, unique to Amsterdam when created in 2014 (as the development of a project itself begun in 2003), has helped to clear up a blind spot that many cities face. Too often, public officials view their city’s nighttime existence with suspicion—as a sinister doppelgänger of its daytime form but with added sex and crime, sleep-spoiling noise, and sidewalks slicked with vomit. Even liberal politicians can have little experience with this twilight zone, given that they’re often tucked up in bed by 10 p.m.
It’s the role of the night mayor to bridge this gap. The incumbent’s job is to manage and improve relations between night businesses, residents, and City Hall. Milan and his team have proved so successful in Amsterdam that the concept has taken off internationally. Paris, Toulouse, and Zurich now all have night mayors, while London and Berlin are considering creating their own. Within the Netherlands two other cities, Groningen and Nijmegen, also have their own professional nocturnal managers, part of a total of 15 Dutch municipalities that have some form of night mayor role.
This April, all these forces are coming together, when Amsterdam hosts the world’s first ever Night Mayor’s Summit. Open to any city that’s interested in the role—it comes the day after an international conference for, uh, regular mayors—the event looks forward to a day when night mayors could one day become standard in all major cities.
Already, the night mayor’s office has done some good in Amsterdam, often using arguments that might not occur to a standard elected official. For instance, Milan has pointed out that by extending hours of business, a city can actually reduce rather than increase disturbance.
Until recently, Amsterdam enforced what by continental European standards is a fairly strict curfew: nightclubs had to close by 4 a.m. on weekdays and 5 a.m. on weekends. The city often had problems with noise and disorder at the exact moment when all the clubs closed, filling narrow inner city streets with rowdy people.
To solve this problem, the night mayor suggested not less, but more time for people to go clubbing. He has helped push through the granting of 10 24-hour licenses for nightclubs. Crucially, all of them were located not in the dense city center but in thinly populated districts around Amsterdam’s outer ring road. The result was a marked reduction in street noise.
“Often people in nightclubs don't want to go home at 4 a.m.—only some of them do,” says Milan. “By having free opening hours the club can decide when they want to open and close, which means that 1,000 people aren't suddenly thrown out on to the street at five in the morning. Instead, they start leaving in a steady, manageable stream around 3 a.m. and continue until around 8 a.m. That's better for the neighborhood noise-wise, and it’s also better for the programming of the club because then they can have more DJs in and sell more tickets.”
The result is not just less disturbance, but a resurgence for Amsterdam’s reputation as a nightlife capital. The night mayor isn’t necessarily all about getting people to party longer and louder, however. In Rembrandtplein, a bar-filled square in central Amsterdam, the mayor’s office has set up a project to manage and reduce street noise by introducing rules for behavior and a (very) soft enforcement service—dubbed “square hosts.”
“Every Friday and Saturday, we have 10 people who walk the street and try to de-escalate any problems,” says Milan. “They're not police or security; they're also your friend, but they’re still trying to explain to you the rules. Sometimes people just aren't aware that they have anti-social behavior, so they come out of a nightclub and don't realize they're shouting. Just explaining to them that people live there can make a difference.”
The title of night mayor may sound grand, but the office itself doesn’t hold any executive power. Milan is really the head of a small advisory NGO, “elected” by a combination of online votes from the public, attendees of a music festival, and a jury of five experts. Equally funded by the city and night businesses, Milan and night mayors like him are really go-betweens who represent nightlife to the city and its residents, and vice versa—self-defined “rebels in suits” who are nonetheless able to talk to officials on their own terms.
As Milan explains, this helps refine the reactions of officials whose experience of the city after dark is limited or buried in their past. “We're a small NGO, so we don't have any power, but we try to influence people—to be that bridge between all the parties,” he says. “When it comes to night culture, there's always a lot of misunderstanding. The night is always treated differently to the day. If we have a problem at night the first thing policymakers will often do is say: ‘We can't do it anymore.’ They decide to ban things and end up killing an industry. Our role is to explain why the night is so important.”
Milan’s defense of the night is one worth listening to. The resurgence of cities such as Berlin may be due in part to lower rents, but without its busy night scene, few would have expressed much interest in the city in the first place. Indeed, one key argument put forward for the new 24-hour club licenses was the regenerative effect they could have on far-flung neighborhoods. Given Milan’s attempts to influence Amsterdam’s City Hall, it’s perhaps wise that he tots up nightlife’s benefits in primarily economic terms like these—terms that other cities with strict curfews and nocturnal regulations would do well to listen to.
“In the nighttime economy, there's a lot of talent,” he says. “Think of all the graphic designers, party promoters, DJs—all these people that use the night as a serious playground to develop their skills and in the end, have their daytime job. Definitely the creative industries are really important for Europe and especially for cities like Amsterdam or Berlin, but actually for everywhere in the world.”