Cities and Urbanization

Rethinking 24-hour cities: night-time strategies to address urban challenges and thrive

The night-time economy in cities like New York bring in billions of dollars annually and create millions of jobs.

The night-time economy in cities like New York bring in billions of dollars annually and create millions of jobs. Image: Unsplash.

Andreina Seijas
Associate and Urban Strategy Manager, Gehl
Jody Barnett
Senior Vice President, Global Lead, Public Sector Center of Excellence, Mastercard
Saiful Salihudin
Lead, Urban Transformation, World Economic Forum
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Cities and Urbanization

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Night-time economies generate billions of dollars in economic activity and generate hundreds of thousands of jobs.
  • Yet a lack of reliable services and safety issues are hampering cities’ ability to take full advantage of the second half of the day.
  • The World Economic Forum and Mastercard are bringing together public and private sector leaders to create accessible and thriving night-time economies.

The night-time economy brings in billions of dollars annually to cities and creates millions of jobs. In New York City, the value tops $35.1 billion annually and supports 300,000 jobs. In London, the night-time economy contributes £26 billion and supports more than a million jobs.

As downtown cores and business districts in cities experience varying rates of recovery, the night-time economy is often an overlooked pathway for revitalization. Cities that are prepared to take the steps to effectively tap into their unrealized economic potential and rethink the way they operate, while enhancing services at all hours of the day, will experience accelerated recoveries.

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The increasing impact of the climate crisis on urban living forces cities to look for adaptation tactics to maintain and grow economic activity, liveability, and vibrancy. Gehl's methods and digital tools to study people's lived experience reveal that public life at night is very different from public life during the day.

For instance, due to the high temperatures in Saudi Arabia, it is common to see families picnicking in local parks after dark, an informal practice that calls for new policies and design guidelines that enable these activities to continue and expand. From cities in the US to the UAE, parks, beaches, and public spaces are being opened at night and fitted with lights as city dwellers adjusted their routine, working hours, and spending pattern to accommodate for the impact of extreme heat on their daily lives.

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Managing cities around the clock

As a concept, the 24 hour city is not new. In the 1980s, the American sociologist Murray Melbin drew an analogy between the scarcity of land and the scarcity of time, turning the latter into the “new frontier” in the urbanization process. A few years later, the term “24 hour city” emerged almost simultaneously in different parts of the world as a platform to improve night-time safety in urban centres and as a catalyst for regeneration processes.

Thirty years later, the 24 hour city takes on a broader meaning: using time as a strategic resource to improve cities. In other words, designing urban strategies that allow a city to monitor its night-time economy—the broad spectrum of productive, social, and cultural activities that take place from 6pm to 6am—and improve the conditions to support the rest of the day.

Beyond an economic boost and climate adaptation, activating cities’ assets and services 24/7 makes cities safer and more inclusive. Having public spaces, public transportation, and commercial activities around the clock ensures cities are more accessible for night shift workers, including emergency services, hospitality, retail, food services, and workers in factories, warehouses and production facilities.

The question is, who should lead this effort? More than 60 cities worldwide have appointed “night mayors” or created departments responsible for managing the city’s night-time ecosystem and proposing innovative solutions to enhance the other half of the day. These urban actors face many challenges: from the lack of mobility options for those who work at night, to the need to design safe and inclusive public spaces, to mediating between those who want to party and those who want to sleep.

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How is the World Economic Forum supporting the development of cities and communities globally?

A platform for night-time innovation

As relatively new urban actors to mainstream city governance, creating spaces for night mayors to listen and learn from each other is essential for them to thrive. In 2022 Mastercard’s City Possible Network launched the 24-Hour Cities Network, an online community of cities, academics, experts, activists and select private sector partners. Co-chaired by the cities of Bogota and New York, this community met during four thematic workshops—night-time governance, safety and inclusion, night-time mobility, and economic development—and shared innovative solutions to manage urban areas after dark, such as:

  • In partnership with ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft, Orlando created special nightlife hubs to improve safety and reduce traffic congestion between midnight and 3am—the closing time for all bars and clubs. This was done by repurposing bus lanes into geofenced pick-up and drop off areas, and providing public restrooms, food trucks, music, and seating where people could feel safe while making their way back home.
  • London is working on solutions to improve the quality of life for those who work the “graveyard” shift. Concretely, the city is creating a Night Work Centre—a physical place for night-time workers to access services, use hygiene facilities, rest, and recharge. In a city where 1.6 million people—a third of its workforce—works in the evening or at night, there is a growing need for quality spaces that are clean, safe and inclusive.
  • The Mastercard Economics Institute has been analysing the spending patterns across New York City and noticed a rise in restaurant and bar spending since the pandemic. For instance, a study revealed that the financial district saw a notable increase (135%) in night-time spending particularly on Fridays to Sundays since 2019.

New challenges ahead

Over the past year, new night mayors have joined this community – they need a space where they can connect with their counterparts. Additionally, new challenges such as the surge of digital commerce and remote work have significantly changed commuting dynamics, impacting many small businesses and services in high-density areas.

To continue this conversation and address these pressing challenges, in 2024 the World Economic Forum Centre for Urban Transformation will join Mastercard in convening this international community. By creating new opportunities to discuss and share innovative practices, the Forum hopes to help cities and businesses leverage the potential of the night-time economy. Mastercard aims to continue supporting cities at the forefront of innovation to develop more sustainable, inclusive, and efficient economic development.

To kick off this collaboration, Mastercard and the World Economic Forum Centre for Urban Transformation invite cities around the world to submit their ideas of how after-hour activation can help address challenges that their city faces. Selected cities will work together with the community to develop a strategy, putting insights into action.

Over the coming years, this community aims to gather all efforts and relevant stakeholders on shaping the future of urban night-time economies, identifying challenges, highlighting best practices, and supporting the implementation of effective and inclusive night-time strategies. This requires broad-based collaboration between city governments and other public sector agencies, private sector businesses, as well as experts and civil societies. It demands a careful consideration of various factors including urban planning and design, data, mobility, social nuances, and economic development, and the cultural context of each place. In the modern 24-hour world, city life does not stop when the sun goes down. A resilient, equitable, and prosperous city must work for everyone, at every hour.

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