Australia

Pandemic presents perfect opportunity to plan for vibrant Sydney

Even the most introverted among us must be craving some kind of late-night revelry after the long period of subdued social activity forced on Sydney by COVID-19. The outbreak has placed a cloud over daily life and mental health, making us value human interaction like never before.

If implemented, the state government's new 24-Hour Economy Strategy, announced last week, will ensure we are able to connect in a safer and more dynamic Sydney when it is safe to do so.

Strong night-time economy needed: Sweethearts Rooftop in Potts Point.

Strong night-time economy needed: Sweethearts Rooftop in Potts Point.Credit:SMH

The issues plaguing Sydney’s nightlife are no secret, inspiring endless articles and much spirited pub banter over the years. When the lockout laws were first implemented, the desire for a vibrant nightlife was viewed by some as a concern only for youth (wayward youth at that), an indulgence rather than a serious economic and cultural issue.

However, the prevailing attitude now is different. Nightlife is for all ages. And a strong night-time economy benefits the wider economy. After all, a job is a job whether one clocks on at 9am or 9pm, and every person employed means one less JobKeeper or JobSeeker payment.

It may seem odd to discuss nightlife at a time when social distancing measures are in place. After all, vibrancy seems irrelevant when businesses are obliged to operate at heavily reduced capacities and dancing is essentially prohibited. However, this moment creates the perfect opportunity to plan our city’s future.

COVID-19 has highlighted just how lucky we are to call Sydney home. Surely this is one of the best cities in which to spend time in pandemic-induced purgatory. With the world under varying degrees of lockdown, our inner-city beaches, proximity to wilderness areas, diverse food and drink scene and, importantly, our effective COVID response so we can enjoy them have given our city a leg-up over other cities in liveability. A robust plan for a 24-hour economy will mean that Sydney is able to hit the ground running when the world inevitably opens up again.

Multiple ministries devised the strategy, including tourism and Treasury, in consultation with organisations with a stake in a safe and active night-time economy. These include the Sydney Business Chamber, Committee for Sydney, Stay Kind, the Night Time Industries Association, the Restaurant and Catering Industry Association, the Live Music Office, Keep Sydney Open and Theatre Network NSW. This wide-ranging consultation led to a broad take on nightlife.

The strategy calls for a "co-ordinator-general" to work across multiple government departments while working with industry and community groups. This new role, sometimes referred to as a "night mayor", essentially mimics similarly created positions in other global cities such as London, New York and Amsterdam.

The strategy will map existing and emerging 24-hour hubs to provide a better understanding of Sydney at night. The lockout laws focused attention on the inner city, but other areas such as Alexandria, Chatswood, Campbelltown, Burwood and the Sutherland Shire also enjoy night-time activity, presenting opportunities for further growth. It’s crucial that these hubs are linked with safer late-night transport options, and this is acknowledged in the strategy and will be easier once the map, or "neon grid", is complete.

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A 24-hour "economy acceleration program" will work with local councils across Sydney to fast-track night-time business. The sector suffers from a tangle of regulations and red tape that make live performances difficult to organise. Harmonising regulations and supporting well-run events in every LGA will get the cultural sector humming again.

Other key tasks include marketing and promotion campaigns; creating affordable spaces for creatives; a grants scheme to help precincts diversify their night-time offerings; streamlining processes around noise regulation and making it easier for retail and commercial spaces to host performances.

In all, there are 35 action points that, if carried out, will open Greater Sydney to cultural and economic opportunities by attracting small and large investment in the sector.

Key questions remain unanswered around service times, the ongoing lockout in Kings Cross and the highly controversial use of drug sniffer dogs, but there is no doubt we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were several years ago.

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That it’s taken a global pandemic to make this happen is lost on no one, but what matters is that change is here. Planning for the recovery of the night-time economy has merged with COVID-19 recovery, and rightly so. The adage "never waste a crisis" may have been overused lately, but there is truth to it. A tangible improvement has been the relaxation of outdoor dining regulations by the City of Sydney, and these ought to be permanent long after a vaccine becomes widely available.

We weren’t able to enjoy the lifting of the lockout laws earlier this year, but that, combined with this new holistic approach to nightlife, will provide a foundation for a safer and more diverse experience after dark than ever before. Who knows? Maybe we’ll coax some of the critics out for a dance, too.

Tyson Koh is the director of Keep Sydney Open.

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