To build a strong nighttime economy, our city planners need to learn to feel the music

You can tell these guys are good because the photo is in B&W and out-of-focus. Image: Drew De F Fawkes via Wikimedia Commons

Cities in the UK, from London to Belfast, are updating their local plans to outline how land will used from now through to 2035. These plans are blunt, top-down instruments to outline what land is earmarked for residential, employment, commercial and so on. 

Historically, master plans have skirted over how culture and the night time economy might fit within these expansive spacial plans, but this impacts how equipped each plan is to support and develop such uses for the next 15-20 years. While employment land can differentiate between light industrial or commercial, for example, a cultural use is often assigned long after the local plan is written, after extensive consultations and amendments.

Often they are placed into a more general commercial use, or in some cases, sandwiched into tourism objectives. If culture is specifically mentioned, the use is often based on specific plot of land; we want that theatre there, this arena here, and so on.  This can be encouraged through the creation of a cultural quarter – such as the redevelopment of London’s Olympic Park - but this is defined through tenants.  A museum arrives and a cultural quarter is born.  The issue of incorporating the nighttime economy in these long-term plans remains a challenge. 

There’s a problem here. These plans are not in line with other discussions, often held outside of planning circles, about the types of cities we want to live in.

You can already smell the armpit of the guy next to you, can't you. Image: Shawn Tron

Take music as one example.  Since 2015, over three-dozen cities around the world have harboured public aspirations to become ‘music cities’, from Gothenburg in Sweden to Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Hastings in the UK and Bogota in Colombia.

But the needs of music, be it for performers, consumers or investors, are conceived as just inserting music into pre-determined, already accepted plans.  This leads to assessing the value of music through the industry’s lens, such as how much the industry is worth in a particular place. While important, music is inserted into the discussion too late. What happens are issues that planning cannot fix, which leads to licensing, regulation and restriction. If music was incorporated more bluntly into local plan making, this could change. 

Using St Paul's at night to illustrate the nighttime economy? Groundbreaking. Image: Allan Engelhardt

The same goes for nighttime economy. Much of its literature is framed on restriction, rather than promotion. This is because our land use planning, zoning and use classification did not delve into how night-time uses (such as leisure) and day time uses (such as commercial or residential) can co-exist. While homes exist above venues in Belgium and Germany, it is unheard of in the UK.  As a result, cities were not planned to be 24-hour organisms, ultimately limiting opportunities and causing friction, instead of pragmatically approaching nighttime uses in the same way we see daytime. 

As a result, in local plans, the terms ‘music’, ‘culture’ and  ‘night time economy’ have been markedly absent and when they are included, their focus is on stopping people from doing something, rather than encouraging more varied activities and planning accordingly. Again, the egg came after the chicken and cities were stuck with managing their music and nighttime economies with existing local plans that neither mentioned the term, nor planned its land to accommodate such practices.

A Bel-fast approach to the nighttime economy is no good. Image: Thardas via Wikimedia Commons

With cities continuing to expand at record levels, we need to change how we plan them for the future. To do so, we must bring music and the nighttime economy into the fold of the planning process.  Music’s role at the earliest stage of district or development planning can be anchors in getting people to want to move to a new area. Nighttime activity, when managed carefully and considerately, can coexist with residential space and flourish with commercial life, with libraries, gyms, cafes and restaurants. 


For this to happen in the UK, we need to plan for the other 9-to-5 in our local plans. And in doing so, we must still prioritise housing and local services, but ensure local plans outline – in the broadest sense – why people move to a place and what makes it worth living in. And if successful, cities will be rewarded with more jobs, greater access to services and greater community inclusiveness. We must plan for the night as we do for the day.

To do so, we need global standards to include music and night time economy in the earliest stages of master and local plan making. We need planners and musicians to converse as much as councillors and residents. And we need to think long and hard about the cities we wish to live in by 2035. 

We do this for transport, health care, sewage and utilities; it’s time to do it for music and the nighttime economy. 

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What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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