“One of the few truly beautiful and sublime practices available to us”: on the pleasures of walking at night

American Legion roof spotter Benjamin Franklin enjoys the New York Skyline, c1940. Image: Keystone/Getty.

In an extract from his new book, Dr Nick Dunn discusses how noctambulation can change our perceptions of the city.

The history of walking through cities is as old as that of cities themselves, and, as a practice, subject to a multitude of different uses and interpretations. Walking at night, however, offers something different, having the capacity to alter our ingrained, seemingly natural predispositions towards the urban surroundings, and our perceptions along with it.

It also allows the architecture of the city to be sensed differently. Architecture, through its presence and function, is typically a reflection of the values of the society that built it. Yet no matter how permanent our buildings may appear, there are temporal relationships occurring inside and outside – weathering, occupying, adapting – that subtly alter the fabric of the city.

By venturing into the urban night it is possible to experience the materiality of the city as distinct from its character in the daytime. It appears somehow more porous; the shadow play across its edifices is rich, deep and gelatinous.

In addition, and perhaps of greater significance, it fosters a different way of thinking. In an age of hyper-visibility, encountering anything genuinely new seems incredibly remote, weirdly distanced from us yet at the same time ever-present and depthless. As the feedback loops on all forms of culture tighten, we seem to have reached a terminal inertia of restless regurgitation. The need for a time-place to imagine alternatives becomes increasingly urgent. The point here is not necessarily where this occurs but when.

We can develop a tendency to think of the places we live as being the same, static or even boring. But just because something appears commonplace does not make it so. Surrounded by what largely looks to be identical backdrops to our lives, it is easy to forget this is an environment. On the one hand it is very familiar: we recognize its streets, its architecture and its composition. But on the other hand we enter its strangeness, a different domain that yields its features: sometimes readily and sometimes requiring considerable excavation.

The city is not simply out there – a built construction separate from ourselves – but in the here of our bodies: its particles inhaled and exhaled; its materiality and textures informing our gait and steadily reshaping our footwear; its smells, sights and sounds comforting us or perhaps causing concern. And, of course, pertinently the here of our mind where we reconstruct the city many times over, forging new maps and narratives in response to its restlessness. It lives within us and us within it. The artificiality of the built environment is transformed at night, a loose third place between the natural world and the stark configuration of the daytime city. This is the nocturnal city.


London's Soho by night, c1960. Image: Getty.

Architecture may be the original situated technology, supporting social relations and connections. It is also time-bound and has a relationship to space, whether sensitive to its context, indifferent or defiant. Gleaning place from space is no mean feat. But this is what architecture does all the time for good or ill to our sense of our surroundings.

At night, though, architecture’s power transforms the sense of location and orientation in a very different manner. Hitherto barely detectable features take on an altogether different quality in the dark. Urban crevices, interstitial spaces and the city’s margins loom forth in their confidence. The footnotes in these places are rich palimpsest, disclosing temporary inhabitation, sharp tangs of detritus and passage, dank and dripping, sunk and slippery against the more rational and acceptable materiality of the city. These charged voids of the night purr with anticipation of comings and goings, indiscriminate toward their dwellers’ predilections and cravings. To be on your own in the city at night is not to be alone. The architecture follows you, in close conspiracy with the city’s streets.

Noctambulation is at odds with the contemporary city. To be in a city is usually to be surrounded by life, the urban buzz of people, traffic, sights, sounds, smells and tastes all combine within the built environment. Unlike a static backdrop, frozen, or an empty vessel awaiting activity, the city wraps around and passes through you as its heady concoction pulls you into its rhythms, patterns and signals. During the daytime, cities may fizz with energies and exigencies, stirring the body within its soup and conforming it to within acceptable movements and behaviours. Anything and everything seems possible. But it is not. All is not as it initially appears to be. You don't need to look around for long for the signifiers of control and coercion to instruct you. Metal plate and plastic diktats applied on the city's surfaces telling us what to do, typically by virtue of informing us what not to do.

By contrast, the agency of the nocturnal city is a skeleton key to past, present and futures. It allows the unlocking of the city at night to reveal its latent energies and jewels. If we close ourselves down to the nocturnal city, favouring instead the simulacra of representations of life through digital devices, then we are condoning the elimination of the fragile physical aspects of our world that are essential to our reading of it. We are losing fundamental relationships with our surroundings and our understanding of them.

Walking in cities at night, therefore, enables us to sense, connect and think with the city around us. We are able to give things our undivided attention, a welcome respite from the ongoing erosion and subdivision of our time and sense of belonging in the world. Deliberately moving out of the glare and stare of our commoditised and highly structured daily routines and into the rich shadows and patina of our cities at night may be one of the few truly beautiful and sublime practices available to us.

Professor Nick Dunn is chair of urban design and executive director of ImaginationLancaster, an open and exploratory design research lab, at Lancaster University. His book “Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City” is published by Zero Books


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.