Nightlife precincts in Australian cities have come under intense scrutiny in
recent years following a spate of “one punch” assaults and other incidents.
Places like Sydney’s Kings Cross, Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley and Perth’s
Northbridge have been framed as unsafe and unruly “problem spaces” – the
kind of places that parents warn their teenage children to avoid.
The championing and criticism of nightlife spaces create something of a
paradox. On the one hand, the promotion of vibrant nightlife spaces may be
seen as an invitation to people to revel and consume. It’s thought that
failing to attract enough people to these spaces spells economic disaster for
venue operators and for the city itself.
On the other hand, violence and fear discourage or exclude people from
participating in nightlife. And labelling nightlife precincts as disorderly or
“out of control” stigmatises these spaces and revellers, leading to more
The policy challenge is to establish the right amount and types of regulation
so that nightlife spaces allow for mild transgression in a safe environment.
When security excludes
Part of the response to these issues has been tighter regulation and security
in nightlife spaces. “Lockout laws” were introduced in parts of Sydney,
following the example set in the trials in Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane.
These laws wound back the operating hours of licensed venues in popular
Other responses from governments and private operators have included
expanding CCTV surveillance, introducing ID scanners at venue entrances,
increasing police and private security presence, and slowing or suspending
the issuing of new liquor licenses.
These measures are intended to make people safer and to make
them feel safer, to reduce the exclusionary effect of fear. Ironically, these
hyper-visible forms of security can in fact make people These regulatory
interventions are more than just about tackling violence and threatening
behaviour. Ultimately, they are about imposing particular ideas of social
and moral order not only within nightlife spaces but the city more broadly.
Gentrifying the night
Alongside the expansion of hyper-visible security, major public and private
investment has flowed into nightlife precincts and surrounding areas over
the last decade or so.
These developments have Northbridge, which has been gradually
gentrifying. The rapid rise in the number of small boutique bars, high-end
restaurants and apartments is evidence of this.
The gentrification of Northbridge and other nightlife precincts across
metropolitan Australia – whether through new “sophisticated” venues
replacing older downmarket ones, or through displacing nightlife
altogether – is not a recipe for less exclusionary spaces. Rather, these
developments produce a different kind of exclusion due to two factors.
First, certain groups may be priced out of more upmarket venues offering
an “exclusive” or “sophisticated” experience. Second, these venues and the
types of customers they attract can make other individuals and groups feel
out of place. If they don’t fit the written and unwritten admission criteria
they may be denied entry altogether.
Making space for transgression
In reshaping the moral geography of nightlife precincts, securitisation and
gentrification are suppressing one of the fundamental appeals of nightlife –
the opportunity for behaviour that transgresses social, cultural and even
Participating in nightlife spaces in cities has been a way to briefly escape
the often-mundane orderliness of everyday home and work life. Nightlife
spaces have historically been important for minority, subcultural and
countercultural groups – minority ethnic groups, punks, goths, and so on –
to socialise and to express their individual and collective identities.
The increasingly expensive cost and overbearing regulatory regimes
governing nightlife seem designed to attract the “right type” of people and
to make them feel safer.
The risk of all this is that we might be sleepwalking into the creation of
sanitised and yet more homogeneous and exclusionary nightlife spaces.