How we boost the economy, creativity and community to thrive after dark
Creative pioneers and industry leaders – Michael Rodrigues, Jess Scully, Sara Saleh, Carla Theunissen and Steph Harmon – give insight into why and how we revitalise nightlife and culture in our cities.
How do we use this moment to recreate, or even create a more diverse and vibrant city? One that doesn’t just revolve around inner cities and around bars and booze? That’s the question host, Steph Harmon, Culture Editor of Guardian Australia, asked our expert panel at the Sydney Ideas 'Lights on: Bringing the nightlife back to our city' event, held on 2 March 2022.
The pandemic has created time for us to slow down and think: ‘What could the potential be?'
NSW 24 Hour Economy Commissioner, Michael Rodriguez isn’t sure we ever had it right. He rejects notions of returning to the ‘Good old days,’ preferring to rewrite the story of Sydney as a 24 hour city from scratch.
“The pandemic has created time for us to slow down and think: ‘What could the potential be?’’” he said.
“At the heart of the 24 hour economy strategy is an ambition to tell the story of people and place across Greater Sydney… I see myself as someone who is there to help revitalise and pull levers to allow that storytelling to happen.”
The aim of his storytelling mission is to make the city more liveable, more vibrant and more exciting, and what comes with that is citizen amenity – ensuring that everyone can participate in going out experiences in a way that they feel comfortable with and that make them feel like they are part of a community. He sees the 24 Hour Economy Strategy as a way to reimagine the economy of the future.
What nightlife and creativity and social life brings us is connection and belonging.
City of Sydney's Deputy Lord Mayor, Jess Scully, said that creating destinations that are more intentional and designed to attract people has been working well in the city.
“What has worked is turning more space over to social lives and creativity … Because we’ve got to do a lot to seduce people off their couches again,” she said. "Cities need to work more collaboratively and harder to entice people out.”
She believes that the 24 hour economy is about more than attracting capital and talent to Sydney. “What nightlife and creativity and social life brings us is connection and belonging.”
Award-winning writer and poet Sara Saleh believes there is something missing from the conversation around how we become more inclusive. Describing her experience of being student at the University of Sydney who wasn’t particularly interested in pub culture, she said: ‘To find something a bit more inclusive, I had to go out west.’
It’s this need for an alternative to pubs that has led to the rise of alternatives such as the Bankstown Poetry Slam.
“Bankstown Poetry Slam was started a decade ago to create spaces that were geographically accessible and also not constantly held at bars and pubs – to share and exchange our art and out storytelling – it has never stopped thriving.”
Sara is also inspired by the way people embraced their local communities recently.
“What’s also really amazing to see is that we’re so invested in our local communities that we have been the first to be there to support and try and do what we can to address some of the issues that have come out over the last five years.”
Carla Theunissen, Senior Manager, Place Activation and Strategy for Sydney Olympic Park within the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, is trying to meet the community where they’re at: in the sports and outdoor spaces of western Sydney. She’s working with creative practitioners to try and get them to use the many spaces around Sydney Olympic Park. Some, like the Armoury, have already started hosting events.
“Lots of assets at Sydney Olympic Park can be used and I am having conversations with venues to bring creative communities into those venues.”
According to Jess Scully, the pandemic taught her that every space works really hard.
“One of the great things that came out of the pandemic is a sense of ownership over public space… we’re trying to give people good reasons to come back to the city. We’ve got precinct activation grants to encourage people to work as creative teams to come and activate and bring unique character and flavour to different parts of the city.”
She spoke of the extraordinary response City of Sydney received to trading hours reforms in 2018, before the lockdown spoiled the party.
“The best is yet to come with this stuff,” she said.
What I fight for everyday is city spaces that are actually public spaces that want people in them, that aren’t exclusive.
What do our industry experts consider the ideal night out?
Carla Theunissen wants an inclusive, safe option. 'A fantastic kind of green outdoor area where they’re putting the art back into partying, where queer people are really welcomed, where an 18-year-old girl can go, and where I can take my dogs, that’d be great.'
Sara Saleh said she prefers books, animals and coffee, and she’s passionate about creating inclusive spaces.
“What I fight for everyday is city spaces that are actually public spaces that want people in them, that aren’t exclusive.’
Jess Scully hopes for active spaces. “I would love to see a future where we feel that we are participants and not just observers of culture in our city, and that it’s part of our everyday life.”
Michael Rodrigues wants opportunities to get everyone up off the couch again. “I want going out in Sydney to be as many options as Netflix or whatever is at home, and it should be affordable and accessible across price points,” he said.
“I’m trying to encourage the storytellers to fill the pages. My job is to help the publisher in this scenario.”