The modern world is blurring the boundaries between night and day

The Tyne by night. Image: Billdorichards/Flickr/creative commons.

Night has always been a difficult realm for humans: we’ve had to learn to cope with the cold and the dark to thrive in it. Since the industrial revolution we’ve found ways to adapt our homes and cities to operate during the night. But as our conquest of the dark continues, the border between night and day is becoming increasingly blurry.

In 1988, sociologist Murray Melbin described the night as a frontier not unlike the American West. As early American settlers expanded westwards across the continent, so too, he argued, was society beginning to expand into the night.

Melbin’s metaphor treated the night as a separate social entity and he argued that, just like geographical frontiers, it was inhabited by “pioneers”: individuals and groups seeking work or leisure opportunities outside mainstream society, whether through desire, or necessity.

Taking back the night

For example, the night time tends to have a higher percentage of black and minority ethnic workers than the day. Likewise, the LGBTQ community in the mid-20th century – and still today, in some contexts – found that, with society sleeping, they could gather in bars and clubs that acted as community centres as well as places of leisure.

Political action has often found a home at night, too: from evening meetings of activists in community centres or the back rooms of pubs, to more radical political activism. In her autobiography, Sylvia Pankhurst for example described the suffragette arson campaign: “Women, most of them very young, toiled through the night across unfamiliar country, carrying heavy cases of petrol and paraffine”.

Despite this, the night is not necessarily a welcoming space for all. The dark hours can be threatening for oppressed and marginalised groups and movements. Those sleeping rough struggle to fall asleep, fearing for their personal safety. And movements such as Take Back the Night have had to campaign hard for womens’ right to use the city at night time to be taken seriously.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

So proud to have walked with this lot last night  #reclaimthenight #reclaimthenightmcr @manchestereveningnews

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But things are changing. The night has become more open and our homes are now connected like never before. First 24-hour news, then mobile and internet communication, have made the domestic setting more porous – you might be reading this on a phone or tablet in bed at 2am. No longer is the night cut off from mainstream society; instead, people are able to communicate and engage with the outside world.

Two worlds collide

Even in the UK, which has long had earlier business closing hours than most other countries, many shops and services now stay open long into the evening. Some large cities have 24-hour transport networks: London’s night tube is perhaps the best known, but night buses can be found in most larger cities. Though 24-hour businesses are not widespread, they are much more common than they once were.

Indeed, the night itself has become more day-like. LED street lights produce a white light which is much closer to daylight than the orange glow of their sodium gas lamp predecessors. LEDs can reduce the “glare” of light pollution, but in 2017 the British chief medical officer’s annual report warned that they could also change people’s circadian rhythms, and affect their health.

After-hours festivals and cultural activities are now commonplace, and, though pubs and nightclubs still dominate our darkened city centres, more cafes now open into the evening. It has been argued that the traditional night time will soon be lost altogether – that an era of “24/7 society” is inevitable. I would argue that this goes too far.

Go to any suburban street in almost any world city, and you’ll find nights to be darker, quieter and less active than in the city centre. Even notorious drinking and party spaces have their downtime. At 4am, Newcastle’s Bigg Market – a known hotspot for revellers – contains little more than a few seagulls picking at abandoned kebabs.

Leftovers from a long night. Image: Community photography 'now & then'/Flickr/creative commons.

Night is undoubtedly still a challenge – lighting is expensive, and society pays for it in money and emissions of carbon dioxide. Night time mobility remains limited and the night bus and rail services run on much reduced networks.


Still in the dark

So, the night time is not disappearing entirely. Instead, its traditional form is fragmenting – splintering across time and space. Islands of “day-like” activity are starting to appear in city centres, while traditional night time activities are creeping into the day.

Political organisation has now found new spaces of online activity, reducing the reliance on evening and late night meetings. Companies such as Uber and Deliveroo are creating a new employment model – one that moves away from “day shifts” and “night shifts” towards shorter, more frequent periods of work. More broadly, research has found a trend towards people spreading their work out across 24 hours.

Rather than a “loss of night”, we might therefore instead be seeing a transformation of both night and day, with both taking on more varied and more flexible characteristics.

The day is definitely encroaching on the night, as our behaviours and economies are increasingly unrestrained by sunrise and sunset. But until our cities offer the same services and experiences at 4am as at 4pm, the night will retain some of its mystery.

The Conversation

Robert Shaw, Lecturer in Geography, Newcastle University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.