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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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”