The dark night rises: Brisbane’s Night Time Economy

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Brisbane's Story Bridge by night.

Brisbane’s Story Bridge by night. Image: Alistair Kitchen

Fortitude Valley is home to Brisbane’s Night Time Economy (NTE), but is it a good idea to concentrate most of the city’s nightlife in one designated locality?

Like moths to a flame, once night has set in, the inner Brisbane suburb of Fortitude Valley springs to life with the emergence of activity throughout the streets and venues of this once prominent commercial centre. It is here you will find Brisbane’s concentration of the Night Time Economy (NTE), with an array of restaurants, bars, clubs and hotels that have come to characterise the Australian experience of the night. Meanwhile, much less activity and movement is observed in other centres throughout the city after dark.

So why Fortitude Valley, and what is the impact of concentrating these activities in a designated locality?

These were the questions I sought to answer as part of my undergraduate thesis in 2013, and remain relevant today. Whilst the decision to focus on the NTE was one led out of personal interest (enjoying some beers across Brisbane under the guise of research was a great way to cap off the final year of my studies), the problems with the NTE have been highly publicised in recent times, led by the proposed lock-out laws in Queensland. This article does not enter the debate over the appropriateness of the lock-out laws as a means of addressing anti-social behaviour during the night, but rather presents a timely opportunity to again review, and perhaps transform how we plan for the NTE.

The Valley

In the early 2000s, the Brisbane suburb of Fortitude Valley was embroiled in social and political confrontation, caused by land use conflict between existing live music venues and expectations of newly developed residential apartments. Effectively, this resulted in one of Brisbane’s most iconic venues being forced to cease live music, altering the culture and fabric of Fortitude Valley. This led to the popular “Save the Music Campaign” in a bid to save identity of “the Valley” as a place for live music and an active NTE. Following this heavily backed campaign, Brisbane City Council introduced a number of amendments to its planning scheme. These changes sought to offer greater certainty to venue operators in Fortitude Valley, ensuring that the suburb maintained its character as Brisbane’s primary night time entertainment centre.

Whilst Fortitude valley had organically grown to become the night time activity hub of Brisbane, changes to the planning laws solidified this character, essentially implementing a place-based approach in planning for the NTE.

The place-based model was unique in the Australian context, providing a comprehensive localised framework of spatial control and promotion. This approach has been recognised by many for its success in achieving its purpose of protecting the live music industry compared with the comparative decline in other cities. However despite this, criticism of the place based model has emerged, largely in recognition of the effects of clustering and cumulative impact upon the locality.

The Problems

Issues associated with the place-based NTE of Brisbane include:

  • Crime and anti-social behaviour
  • Social exclusion
  • Lack of accessible public transport
  • Land use conflict from mixed use development

These issues are not unique to Brisbane, and are evident across Australia, linked to the socio-cultural dominance of aclohol related industries in the NTE. The high concentration of activity within Fortitude Valley however may have exacerbated the localised problems.

With Brisbane’s population continuing to rise, the sustainability of a place-based approach is called into question and an alternate solution may be required.

The Tipping Point

Used as a means to create critical mass, the place-based model of focused activity can be highly beneficial, particularly in the case of driving a cultural shift towards the night. Overconcentration as a result of this model however can be problematic, where the area reaches a point of saturation.

Where a concentration of venues occurs, the area gains a reputation as a night time hotspot and consequently attracts crowds in the public realm over and above what would be attracted in a dispersed model. This situation creates an environment which exacerbates issues due to large (primarily intoxicated) crowds, moving between venues in the public realm.

To say that Fortitude Valley has reached a point of saturation may be a step too far based on the limitations of the research. But if Fortitude Valley has not already reached saturation, it is only a matter of time before it does if current trends continue.

The Alternative

An alternative to the place-based model is offered in the form of dispersal, which seeks to control overconcentration of a given locality by spreading activities. The rationale behind dispersal of the NTE in terms of managing negative externalities rests in the belief that disorder is a result of problems predominantly generated by the overconcentration of activity in space and time.

Melbourne presents an example of a dispersed model and has long enjoyed a reputation as the nation’s culture capital, bolstered by its thriving NTE. Government structure and organic growth are certainly contributing factors, however Melbourne’s NTE is also supported by a planning framework that encourages dispersal, opposes overconcentration and provides greater consideration of cumulative impact assessment and venue saturation policies in the planning process.

While the place-based approach in facilitating the NTE may have been appropriate in Brisbane at a point in time, issues associated with overconcentration suggest that as the NTE grows, its dispersion becomes more appropriate.

The Plan

It doesn’t matter who we are (now), what matters is our plan.

The plan for improving Brisbane’s NTE needs to extend beyond the treatment of alcohol related industries. However, recognising the Australian culture, it remains a starting point and the investigation of saturation policies is one such approach to consider how we plan for the NTE.

As a whole, to ensure that we make the most of what the NTE has to offer, the plan needs to identify strategies to:

  • Support the growth of the NTE
  • Capitalise on our culture (music and arts, not beer)
  • Create diversity in activity
  • Design spaces for the night and take advantage of our climate
  • Partner with business
  • Incentivize night time activity

To achieve this, planning is not the (only) answer. Rather, a multi-pronged approach including cultural policy, planning, licensing, policing, and health and safety initiates are needed to work together to regulate and promote the NTE.

Further research and the development of Queensland specific strategies are needed to advance the benefits of the NTE and advance Brisbane in becoming the new world city it desires to be.

This article was originally published in Queensland Planner, Volume 57 No. 1 (Autumn 2017). 

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