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The spatio-temporal geographies of public spaces at night and their regulation as source of conflict. The cases of Montpellier and Bologna

Les géographies spatio-temporelles des espaces publics pendant la nuit et leur régulation comme source de conflit. Les cas de Montpellier et de Bologne
Emanuele Giordano, Gabriele Manella, Tommaso Rimondi and Dominique Crozat


This paper explores the relations between nocturnal practices, their negative impacts and the regulation, design and planning of public spaces. Focusing on the case of Montpellier and Bologna, two cities that have experienced the rise of several nightlife-related problems, it analyzes the variety of measures and regulations adopted by local administrations and their impacts. It suggests that the “disciplinary” approach adopted by these cities, that consider nightlife-related conflicts a problem of public order connected to excessive behaviors, often associated to alcohol consumption in the public space, has limited or even counterproductive results. A more structural action that takes into account the urban night in both urban policies and planning is needed to effectively tackle the night-time economy’s negative impacts. This implies to fully consider how the physical, social and cultural dimensions of public spaces influence night-time practices.

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1. Introduction

1Nightlife in the city has recently increased its social, cultural and economic importance, and now is a prominent part of everyday life for many urban populations. At the same time, this process has produced a higher and higher complexity. “Going out at night” has become a social practice that often involves multiple practices as well as a variety of spaces at different times. If the night-time economy is often a strategy to boost local urban development and regenerate disadvantaged neighborhoods, it is also increasingly a source of conflict. In several cities the expansion and commodification of youth-oriented nightlife in central areas has involved the rise of critical problems regarding the coexistence of residential communities and alcohol-fuelled nightlife entertainment leading to worsening of community livability during night-time hours.

2In order to address the conflicts produced by temporal and spatial overlapping of residents’ and nightlife consumers’ practices and interests, many city administrations have implemented a variety of measures and regulations. They often have the aim to discipline night-time practices and reduce their temporal extension. Restrictive licensing and planning rules, closing of public spaces at night, increasing police control, closing nightlife retailers earlier, limiting alcohol consumption; these are just some measures of this “disciplinary” approach [Walker, 2017]. Recent studies, however, have pointed out some concerns about their effectiveness as well as the ambivalence of their results [Nofre and Eldridge, 2018]. Yet, despite this growing interest, some issues remain unaddressed in night-time studies. Existing researches have focused mainly on national capitals. How these dynamics have affected medium-sized cities remains largely unconsidered [Mallet and Burger, 2016]. At the same time, within the international literature, there is a disproportionate focus on the British experiences, while other geographical areas remain little studied. For instance, the development of the night-time economy in the case of Mediterranean Europe, remains largely unconsidered. This is surprising if we consider that the night-time economy in the UK was often associated with debates about a ‘British disease’ of binge drinking in contrast to a more civil and ‘sensible’ Mediterranean drinking culture, often associated to limited controls and regulations [Roberts et al., 2005; Jayne et al., 2008]. While this narrative was a key element to justify the liberalization of licensing and the evolution of the UK night-time economy planning policies in the, only recently scholars have started to consider nightlife in the Mediterranean cities [Nofre et al., 2018; Giordano and Crozat, 2018].

3At the same time, this focus on British cites is also probably one of the reasons why both academic research and public authorities have mainly focused on the regulation of private spaces [Roberts and Eldridge, 2009], while the public space at night has received consistently less attention.

4In order to contribute to this debate, this paper analyzes how local administrations have tried to regulate the night-time economy in two medium-sized university cities located in Mediterranean Europe that in the last years have experienced the grow of their nightlife scenes – Montpellier (France) a city of 283.000 with more than 46.000 university students and Bologna (Italy) a city of 389,261 with more than 60.000 university students.

5By comparing the two cities we critically question the existence of a Mediterranean nightlife “model”, characterized by both a more civilized consumers’ behaviors and laissez-faire attitude in term of regulation. We show how nightlife in Bologna and Montpellier is highly regulated and it produces several negative impacts.

6At the same time, we analyze the relations between nocturnal practices, their negative impacts and the existing regulation, design and planning of public spaces.

7We suggest that the “disciplinary” approach adopted by these cities, that consider nightlife-related conflicts a problem of public order connected to excessive behaviors, often associated to alcohol consumption in public spaces, has limited or even counterproductive results. We argue that the reduction of accessibility of some public spaces due to control and enforcement measures exacerbates social tensions. A more structural action that considers the urban night in both urban policies and planning is needed to effectively tackle the night-time economy’s negative impacts. This implies to fully consider how the physical, social and cultural dimensions of public spaces influence night-time practices.

8The first section presents an overview of current debates around the management of the night-time economy. The second section presents the research methods. The third section is dedicated to the case of Montpellier while the fourth describes the case of Bologna.

2. Spatial and temporal geographies of nightlife in the city

9The social and economic changes of recent decades have generated important restructuring in western cities. The transition from a Fordist to a post-Fordist economy has been characterized by a proliferation of consumption styles and by the creation of new spaces for competitiveness [Crivello, 2009]. This change has affected urban policies too: David Harvey [1989] talks about the transition “from managerialism to entrepreneurialism” to stress that city administrations are more and more requested to provide strategies to attract people and resources instead of being just managers of urban services.

10The result of this transition has been an increase in strategies aimed at fostering a cultural mood to promote diversity as well as the proliferation of leisure facilities, services and opportunities twenty-four hours a day [Bianchini, 1995]. These are the so-called cities that buzz [Storper and Venables, 2004], which must be equipped with amenities [Peck, 2005], pleasant places, exchange and daily interaction opportunities. Richard Florida [2002] talks about plug and play communities to describe this trend. In this context, investments in nightlife entertainment have become a frequent strategy to stimulate local economy and make the city image more attractive [Chatterton and Hollands, 2003; Roberts and Eldridge, 2009].

11Initially adopted by some British cities in the late 1990s, the use of the night-time economy as a tool of urban development has become a global phenomenon [Shaw, 2015a]. Van Liempt et al. [2015, 409–10] note that “originating in the UK’s post-industrial cities, strategies to [re-]position the urban night in terms of economic opportunity and revitalize (parts of) city centers, which are underpinned by rationalities of urban competitiveness in a globalizing economy have steadily diffused through Europe, North America and Australasia and are now also pursued, albeit in modified form, in cities in the global South”. Yet, the initial optimism about potentialities of the night-time economy [Bianchini, 1995] has been replaced by concerns including health risks caused by drug use and alcohol abuse as well as the increase of violence and forms of incivility. The “world of the night” has emerged not only as an opportunity but also as a source of risks [Fagiani, 2011; Minardi, 2015].

12Beyond these problems, night-time recreational activities have also generated conflicts related to simultaneous and often antagonist uses of urban spaces caused by the overlap of different social times [Nofre et al., 2017; Bergamaschi, Castrignanò, 2014]: a “right to the night” is claimed by many actors that have often antagonistic requests. In many cities the development of the night-time economy has produced the exacerbation of conflicts between residents and other urban populations, for making noise in a time traditionally dedicated to rest [Gwiazdzinski, 2005; Walker, 2015].

13Many cities have applied regulations to mitigate this “dark side” of nightlife: early closings of shops and retailers, prohibition or restriction to sale alcoholic beverages, more restrictive regulations on licensing and on the use of public space. The aim is often to reduce the temporal extension of nightlife and limit the overlap between the "party city" and the "sleeping city" [Méle, 2004; Comelli, 2016; Walker, 2017]. However, the results have often been limited if not counterproductive, resulting in the exclusion from nightlife of some populations on the base of social, class, race, gender and religion, and its intersections [Hadflield, 2015]. Instead of influencing the temporality of nightlife, these regulations have rather changed its spatiality, often causing a displacement towards less regulated areas (parks, public spaces, private homes), which are designed for other uses and not adequately equipped [Nofre and Eldridge, 2018]. At the same time, the increase of young people (mainly university students) in central parts of many western cities [Moons, 2016] and the change in the circadian rhythms of the population, which tends to going out more often and later in the evening [Boffi et al., 2015], makes difficult to imagine a decrease in night-time recreational activities in the near future.

14In this context, several authors have begun to explore the complexity and heterogeneity of such practices [Nofre and Eldridge, 2018; Guérin et al., 2018]. What emerges is the need for urban decision-makers to manage night-time recreational activities taking into consideration the different ways of going out and socializing, as well as the growing variety of temporality and place uses. This complexity is illustrated, for example, by night-time practices of university students in Utrecht and Rotterdam [Brands et al., 2014]. This study shows not only the different spatiality and temporality patterns, but also the fragmentation of recreational activities. Each city is characterized by several ways of spending the night depending on location, the number of places visited, temporality, and duration of the visit. As such, in the last years both researchers and local authorities have proposed several changes in the way in which the night-time economy is regulated and managed in order to foster more sustainable nights [Roberts et al., 2005, Roberts and Eldridge, 2009; Guérin et al., 2018]. Yet, most of these proposals have focused on the different regulations and controls that interest private spaces (evolution of the licensing systems, changes in the closing hours, environmental regulations regarding sound levels). Despite its key role in shaping nightlife related conflicts [Comelli, 2016], public spaces have received consistently less attention. This is particularly relevant for Mediterranean cities that due to the combination of warm climate, specific everyday rhythms [Edensor, 2006] social values and drinking cultures [Jayne et al., 2008] are characterized by a peculiar and intense use of the public space at night during the whole year.

15In order to better understand how the design and regulations of the public space can reduce (or increase) nightlife-related problems the rest of the paper focuses on the measures adopted by the city of Montpellier (France) and Bologna (Italy) and their impacts.

3. Montpellier and Bologna studies: research methods

16Initially, an analysis of the spatial distribution and concentration of night-time venues exercises in Bologna and Montpellier was carried out. Their different nature (pubs, restaurants, discos) has been analysed to characterize the nocturnal districts even if it has been difficult to do it with accuracy given the hybrid nature of many nocturnal activities. However, this allowed us to evaluate the kind and localization of the supply that characterizes the two cities. How local authorities have responded to the rise of nightlife-related problems was analysed through different research methods. Legislative and statutory provisions were analysed through the study of municipal ordinances and the cities’ planning documents. In the case of Montpellier, face to face interviews with different local authorises members were also conducted. The interviews were realized with: the head of the night brigade of municipal police, the bureau of hygiene and public health, the people responsible for the authorization of installing terraces and giving license to sale alcohol, the director of study centre of the local public transport company, the person responsible for the city temporal policies. This allow the researchers to evaluate: (i) local authorises perception of the “problematic” nature of the night-time economy; (ii) the rationales beyond the local nightlife-related regulations; (iii) the different controls that were put in place to enforce them; (iv) the level of compliance and the perceived results; (v) other useful information like the integration of the urban night in the existing planning strategies and documents.

17At the same time, local government statements were compared with the opinions of other stakeholders. In the case of Montpellier a face to face interview was realised with the person responsible of the "Right to sleep" association, a group of local residents that has been critical of the municipal action, considered insufficient both in term of legislation and enforcement. In the case of Bologna interviews were conducted with: shopkeepers of the city centre, residents, students, members of resident associations, workers from public services (transport, library, university).

18Finally, direct observations were conducted in the nightlife districts of the two cities (two years in the case of Montpellier, one year in the case of Bologna). This allow the researchers to directly evaluate the level of compliance of local nightlife-related regulations (closing time of the establishments and some public spaces) and to develop a better understanding of the nocturnal social practices that characterize the two cities. Particular attention was dedicated to investigate the different uses of the public space at night.

4. Montpellier

Nightlife in Montpellier: an unplanned development

19The city of Montpellier, capital of the Hérault department, is located in southern France, 15 kms from the Mediterranean Sea. It has experienced an important demographic growth between 1962 and 2015, when the population increased from 123,000 to 283,000 inhabitants, and Montpellier moved from the 28th to the 7th French city. This growth is linked to several factors: the growth of the administrative functions related to the status the regional capital of Languedoc-Roussillon, a dynamic economic system and especially the presence of three universities and several research institutions. The presence of students is not recent in Montpellier: the law school was founded in 1260 and the medical school in 1289. Over the last decades, however, university students who live in the city have increased to over 46,000. This change has clearly affected the city image. Once nicknamed the "sleeping beauty", Montpellier is now a perceived as a dynamic, attractive and young city (people between 15 and 29 years represent the 31.6% of the population while the national average is 17.6%).

20One of the elements that helped to create this image is the growing perception of a vibrant nightlife. For years, Montpellier had the slogan “the city where the sun never sets” in its tourist office. More recently, French railways have marketed tickets to the city with the slogan “Montpellier. Party all night with friends”.

21Montpellier nightlife is spatially concentrated in Ecusson, an historical district of the city center which is the most densely inhabited area [Giordano et al., 2017]. The neighborhood is characterized by a high concentration of bars, pubs and restaurants and by an intense of use of many public spaces (squares, streets, parks, stairs of buildings, etc.) during the night. However, this concerns just the early and central part of the night. Most bars and restaurants close at 1am (2am in June, July and August). There are just a few establishments authorized to stay open until 7am. Most of the discotheques (especially large ones) are located in peripheral areas however, often in neighboring municipalities.

22The spatial concentration of nighttime entertainment activities in the city center has not been planned by local government, but it is rather the result of individual choices of retailers. The city of Montpellier has never had a planning strategy or tools dedicated to the night, and the subject is rarely dealt with in traditional planning documents such as the Plan Local d’Urbanisme (PLU).

23However, although not intentionally, the development of nightlife in Ecusson was favored by city policies. Since 2003 Montpellier has implemented the “Grand Coeur” project with the aim of revitalizing the commercial and residential side of the city center. As a result, several public spaces have been regenerated and part of the neighborhood has been pedestrianized. While these actions successfully increased the attractiveness of the area, the results have gone beyond the temporal limits imagined by the city officials, leading to the growth of nightlife and the multiplication of establishments. According to municipal data, the number of licenses in the Ecusson has increased 20% since 2005.

24This trend has led to more and more conflicts with residents, as is seen from the number of municipal police reports about excessive noise, and also from a loss of quality of public space [Louvet, 2010; Giordano and Crozat, 2018].

The governance of “party city”: between public order and economic profit

25To respond to residents’ complaints, local administration has adopted some measures to regulate the night in Ecusson. They assume that the problems are mainly caused by non-compliance with rules and excessive behaviors connected to alcohol abuse. The measures, therefore, have been focused on public order with two main objectives: a more stringent control on the closing times of public establishments at night, and to reduce alcohol consumption, especially in the public space.

26In 2014 the city of Montpellier created a new body of municipal police to fulfill these objectives: the night brigade (brigade de la nuit). This body is in service until 3am (4am in summertime) with the mission to check the respect of regulations about public space and closing hours. The brigade is also required to respond to complaints about noise and other nightlife related problems (residents, however, can contact them only until 0.30am). Finally, the brigade collaborates with the local hygiene and health service to carry out the technical controls related to noise regulation.

27Regarding the nighttime closing hours, the people interviewed agreed that they are generally respected by bars and restaurants, while infringements are more frequent in night-time supermarkets. At the same time, most establishments comply with the rules about noise and they use the help of sound technicians to soundproof the venues.

28Most of the noise problems, however, do not occur inside but outside the establishments, and are linked to the presence of numerous terraces in the public space. They represent a central element of Montpellier's nightlife as the favorable climate allows them to be used all year round (Figure 1). Of about 800 establishments in the city around 600 have terraces. They also are a central element of the economic model of many establishments allowing them to increase the number of seats. This is a fundamental aspect given the small size of most of the night establishments in the city center. However, even if the strong concentration of terraces is often indicated by the residents as one of the main causes of noise, not only no measures have been taken to limit the number, but their installation has been favored the by the local administration.

Figure . Terraces in Place de la Candolle, Montpellier (30th of June 2018, 11:35pm)

Figure . Terraces in Place de la Candolle, Montpellier (30th of June 2018, 11:35pm)

Source: photo taken by the author

29In 2016 the municipality lowered the annual cost for the installation of terraces, justifying it with the economic difficulties of many commercial activities. Nevertheless, the rent for installation is still an important source of income (around 1.5 million Euros a year). For these reasons, despite the protests of residents, requests for installation are regularly accepted, highlighting the ambiguous attitude of local government. On the one hand, they denounce the conflicts produced by nightlife; on the other hand, they do not seem willing to renounce the economic benefits it produces. At the same time, it should be noted that rules for the installation of terraces does not consider the problem of noise. No sound reduction device, nor a study of potential propagation are required.

30If the noise from terraces is one of the main causes of noise, the complaints of residents are also linked to the occupation of public spaces by groups of people (Midi Libre, 2013). According to the municipality of Montpellier, the problems produced by these practices (noise disturbances, degradation the quality of public spaces) are mainly due to alcohol consumption in public places. For this reason, a series of ordinances have been approved to regulate and reduce it at night.

31In 2005, an ordinance prohibited the sale of take away alcoholic drinks from 10pm to 6am throughout the municipal territory. In 2012, a further prohibition was introduced in the historic center with an ordinance to close establishments that sell takeaway food and night-time supermarkets from 2am to 6am.

32These measures on alcohol and closing hours have been combined with a greater regulation of public spaces. In 2015, the city promulgated an ordinance on “public peace”: from May 1 to October 15, prolonged occupation of public space was prohibited as well as any form of alcohol consumption outside the terraces and organized events. Among the official motivation of the act is the fact that “abusive consumption of alcohol contributes to create problems to public tranquility, especially because of noise pollution” (City of Montpellier, 2016). Starting from 2017, the ordinance is active from April 15.

33However, even if alcohol abuse certainly contributes to aggravate the problem, noise pollution is a structural element, linked to the characteristics of the center of Montpellier. The intense use of public space at night is linked to different elements: (i) the favorable climate (ii) the pedestrianization of the historical center (iii) the concentration of many establishments in a limited space. In fact, while the Ecusson is about 5% of the municipal land, it is the only nightlife district in the city where 70% of licenses is concentrated. The combination of these factors favors an intense use of public space that takes different forms: groups of people at the entrance establishments due to the ban on smoking inside, young people who spend their time outside (Figure 2), but also many pedestrians that circulate during the night hours.

Figure . Esplanade Léo Mallet, Montpellier (22nd of July 2018, 00:47am)

Figure . Esplanade Léo Mallet, Montpellier (22nd of July 2018, 00:47am)

Source: photo taken by the author

34All these activities, although not necessarily characterized by excessive behavior or alcohol consumptions, cause a soundscape often perceived as annoying by residents. This problem is exacerbated by the structure of the historic center. Mixed-use neighbourhood as the Ecusson, characterized by narrow streets and small size blocks, are prone to suffer noise problems and experience disturbance more acutely [Roberts and Eldridge, 2009]. As a result, Ecusson is the district of Montpellier with the highest number of officially registered complaints against noise [Louvet, 2010; Giordano et al., 2017]. Despite the structural character of these problems linked to the concentration in a district characterized by a specific morphology, to date there is no strategy aimed at decentralizing the night-time offer. Instead, local government has adopted regulations that have furtherly reduced the night-time accessibility of some public spaces and encouraged a further concentration of activities.

Accessibility of night space as an element of conflict

35The solution of the municipality to reduce the temporal conflicts produced by the overlap between the party time and rest time has been the increase of regulations and controls. This resulted in a closer monitoring of the closing hours of commercial activities but also of some public spaces. An example is the Esplanade du Peyrou, a fenced park of five hectares in the city center. It is traditionally an important nightlife space of the city, especially during the summer when the closure is postponed from 9.30pm to midnight. Every night during summer the park is occupied by hundreds of people. If there is certainly a strong presence of students who consume alcohol, our direct observations have highlighted the co-presence of other populations and practices at night: families with children, people playing musical instruments or playing boules, etc. At the same time during our direct observation no conflicts between the different groups of visitors were observed. Nevertheless, local government has reinforced the controls in the last years. Until a few years ago, closing time was rarely respected and the practice of climbing over the gates to stay in the park beyond that time was relatively tolerated. Now the controls are much stricter: right after midnight, the municipal police enters the park and asks people to leave.

36According to local administrators, these controls are not necessarily connected to noise problems (the park is overhead compared to the rest of Ecusson and there are just a few adjacent houses) but to the diffusion of uncivilized behaviors (people who urinate in the lawn or the fountains, etc.) and the amount of waste produced during the night by who stays in the park.

37The direct observation confirmed the presence of uncivilized behaviors. However, no structural intervention has been put in place to face these problems. There are no permanent toilets in the Peyrou, nor are there temporary chemical toilets. At the same time, the problem of waste is exacerbated by the lack of dedicated infrastructures. The park is heavily frequented throughout the day. For this reason, all the baskets are often full already at the beginning of the evening and at night only one dumpster remains available to throw away the waste. If the problems inside the park are partially linked to the lack of infrastructures, the midnight closure causes other conflicts between people present at that time and the municipal police (Metropolitain, 2018 a).

38The closing of the park also favors a further concentration of people in the city center, given that most of the visitors continue their night in the surroundings. In addition, since most people still have not consumed all the alcoholic beverages purchased, they prefer to stay in public space rather than going to pubs and bars. As reported by a participant to an illegal rave party in the city center: «In the past, we met with hundreds of people in the Peyrou, but since the park closes at midnight and the police intervene, we had no place to continue the party» (Metropolitain, 2018b).

39More generally, the problem of noise due to groups of people in the public space is exacerbated by the lack of available public and private spaces during the final part of the night. At the closing time of pubs and bars, there is a shortage of equipped spaces available. In the city center there are few discos, often small, that fill quickly. The result is the formation of a long queue at the entrance. According to some residents who live near these establishments, the noise problems are not caused by indoor music, but rather by hundreds of people waiting in the street to enter.

40If for the clubs located in the city center there is a problem of overcrowding, for the discos in the suburbs the problem is accessibility. Except for the discotheques in Saint Jean de Vedas, other clubs are not located near the tram lines (the only form of public transport operating at night because the buses stop circulating around 9am). This especially affects university students, most of whom do not have a car.

41Therefore, the municipality of Montpellier established a bus line in 2009 to connect the city center with most of the discotheques in the suburbs. This service, however, has some limits related to the number of trips. There are two lines with three rides for each, between midnight and 1.40am: many respondents said that it is too early, especially in summertime when bars and pubs in the center are open until 2am. Moreover, a return bus from the discotheques is active only in June and July. For this reason, many students we interviewed prefer to continue the night in Ecusson even after the closing of bars and pubs, going to apartments of friends or staying in public spaces.

5. Bologna

City and university: a long but complicated relationship

42Bologna had 389,261 inhabitants at the 31st of December 2017. Like many medium-large Italian cities, it experienced an important decrease of population since the 1970s, when it had about 80,000 inhabitants more. This trend has been partially halted in the last decade. It was not a loss of attractiveness, however, but rather a suburban flight; almost all the towns of the Bologna first belt have increased their population in the same period.

43Talking about Bologna inevitably means talking about the University: founded in 1088 (the oldest one in the western countries), it is deeply rooted in the city’s history, also because its headquarter has always been in the center.

44The University of Bologna had four campuses and 85,244 students in the academic year 2016/2017. 62,569 of them were enrolled in courses at the Bologna campus (73.4%). The impact of university on city life is confirmed from other points of view: the number of services for students (internet points, copy centers, etc.), the number of bars, pubs, and restaurants, etc. The rental market is also dramatically affected by the presence of students in the city: according to some estimates, 40-50% of them rent a room or an apartment in Bologna during the academic year.

Zona Universitaria in Bologna: population and night-time places

45Students and their vitality have always been part of Bologna: there is also a term from the local dialect (biassanot) to indicate young people (usually university students) who spend their night circuiting.

46Although many university facilities have been decentralized in the last decades (some faculty campuses are in the outskirts, in the suburbs or even in other Emilia-Romagna towns), the core of university life is still the Zona Universitaria, a historical area in the city center (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Bologna: the city and the Zona Universitaria. The detail shows the city center.

Figure 3. Bologna: the city and the Zona Universitaria. The detail shows the city center.

Source: Comune di Bologna

47Zona Universitaria has a slightly different population if compared to the rest of Bologna. Apart from the large number of students who live here, residents are younger, more Italian, and more educated than the city average (on the base of 2011 census data). In fact, over 71% of Zona Universitaria residents are working age (15-64 years) vs the 62.8% in Bologna, 15% of them are under 15 (vs the 11.8% in the city) and 19.9% are over 65 (versus 25.4%). Foreign born are the 14.3%, slightly lower than the Bologna rate (15.4%). Regarding education, we find the greatest peculiarity: 40.7% of residents in Zona Universitaria have a degree compared to 23.5% at the city level, while people with compulsory education or a diploma are 7% (vs 16.8%) and 15.3% (vs 22.7%). This area, therefore, is not only more “active” but also more “educated”.

48The transformations of city are more and more related to consumption spaces, increasing heterogeneity and conflicts among urban populations [Conte, 2014]. Piazza Verdi, the main square of Zona Universitaria, is no exception. Even if it maintains some historical peculiarities about the conflict between residents and students, it also has strengthened the image of a place of protest from the 1970s onward. However, the political and cultural vocation of this square has left more and more place to a “nightlife zone” where very heterogeneous populations gravitate: drug dealers, students, punks, the homeless, residents, etc... These populations tend to divide their spaces and times, but the problem of coexistence remains unsolved.

49This conflict affects three main aspects: noise, social degradation forms, and crime episodes.

50The presence of many establishments certainly contributes to the concentration of people at night, especially in the summertime, both in Piazza Verdi (Figure 4) and in the nearby streets.

Figure 4 – People “night-time squatting” in Piazza Verdi, Bologna (28th of June 2018, 10:30pm)

Figure 4 – People “night-time squatting” in Piazza Verdi, Bologna (28th of June 2018, 10:30pm)

Source: photo taken by the author

51The major alarm, however, is probably related to the other two factors: decay and crime. If the area has a mixed population during the day, some social groups become prevalent in the evening and dominant in the night. Part of them adopt criminal behaviors: drug addicts who use substances in the street, homeless stationed in public space, drug-dealers who sell their stuff. In addition, although less frequent, we can report episodes of muggings, assaults and fights. It is easy to imagine how this combination of factors negatively affects the image of the area, that is frequently seen as out of control and beyond the control of the law.

52The local press has often described this situation, giving voice to residents or members of neighborhood associations. If we look at some journal titles, they talk about “degradation in Piazza Verdi” and “aggressive pushers” (Resto del Carlino, 30th of June 2017), “Stolen bikes, smoke, cocaine, abusive alcohol” (Corriere di Bologna, 11th of May 2017), “drug and beer pushers in Piazza Verdi” (Repubblica Bologna, 24th June 2017).

53From the observations and the interviews carried out, both in our study and in previous ones [Bergamaschi, Castrignanò, 2014], two “hotspots” seem to characterize the Zona Universitaria. The first one is Via Petroni, a portico street with access to Piazza Verdi. It suffers serious “mobility” problems, especially from 5pm until late at night, when it becomes the realm of low-cost alcohol and is filled with people who drink and stay in the street. The second hotspot is Via del Guasto, which connects Via delle Belle Arti to Piazza Verdi: here there are frequent cases of use of the street as a toilet, drug dealing and “boarding” of passers-by with various requests (money, cigarettes, buying stolen bikes, etc.).

54The geography of Bologna nightlife includes at least two other places, located outside the Zona Universitaria but inside the city center: the area of Piazza Santo Stefano and the one of Via del Pratello and Piazza San Francesco. A third hotspot is emerging in the last few years: the Mercato delle Erbe in Via Belvedere (a regenerated market in the city centre). On the other hand, most of the nighttime establishments (clubs and discos) are located in northern outskirts of Bologna. We think it is an important difference between the nocturnal activities in these two cities. As we can see, the Italian one is more “polycentric”: several “night spots” are disseminated in Bologna while the Montpellier activities are much more concentrated in the Ecusson. On the other side, however, we have to consider that all the Bolognese spots are all inside the city center, even if relatively far ad independent from one another.

55If we look at the accessibility of Zona Universitaria, the area is almost entirely pedestrian at night. This measure is part of a process started in 2008; in other words, it is more recent than the one in Montpellier (Ecusson is pedestrian since 2004). The first step in Bologna was the pedestrianization of some Zona Universitaria streets. After that, the "T-Days" were launched in 2013: they consisted on the pedestrianization of the three main streets of the city center in the weekends. These measures have been combined with an increasing restriction of car access to the center, which is now almost completely reserved for residents. Despite all these limitations, our direct observations have reported the impression that the Zona Universitaria is relatively accessible through the public transport at night, probably more than what observed in Montpellier. Despite there being no public transport inside it, many bus stops are very close and make this area easily reachable, with a good frequency until 1am (every 15-20 minutes) and a more limited one after that time (every 60 minutes). The situation in the outskirts is much different: they are also connected through many bus lines with a similar frequency during the day, but the accessibility is dramatically lower in the night. Moreover, many entertainment establishments are not located near public transport stops, and the use of cars to reach them is often necessary (but just a few students have a car and, as it happens in Montpellier, most of them prefer to stay in the Zona Universitaria streets even after the establishments are closed).

The regulation of nightlife in Bologna: between laboratories and ordinances

56The relation between students and residents, as we have said, remains perhaps the main problem of the historic center and nightlife in Bologna. In this sense, the recent history of Bologna is very similar to the one of Montpellier. Piazza Verdi and its surroundings have become a symbol of the Bologna decline in the last 10-15 years, as well as the object of many measures and ordinances. Even the public debate about university students, in some ways, is concentrated on their presence and the related problems in that area in the evening and night. Different “levels of responsibility” are attributed to them: they are considered responsible for noise and occupation of public space in summertime, less responsible for some forms of decay and even less for the crime problems.

57The local government promoted several participatory workshops to foster urban regeneration through the involvement of local stakeholders, probably more than what happened in Montpellier. The main aim was establishing shared rules and good practices in the Zona Universitaria.

58Workshops started in 2010 with the project Piazza Verd(i)e to stimulate the mixed-use of the area through pedestrianization of the square and the surroundings as well as the introduction of new street furniture. The tools to support this process were participatory urban planning laboratories (Laboratori di Urbanistica Partecipata) which were organized as institutionalized representations of the conflict, managed and organized by Urban Center Bologna [Gambini, 2014].

59A further step was the participated laboratory Convivere Zona Universitaria, promoted by the Municipality of Bologna in 2013 and 2014. Several focus groups were done with students, retailers, residents, and local administrators, as well as workshops to stimulate a reflection on the ways of cohabitation to achieve greater collective well-being, to define shared principles and rules, and establish a climate of reciprocal listening. All these aims were connected to the main problems that characterize public spaces in Zona Universitaria: the disturbance of public peace, environmental degradation, lack of basic hygienic-sanitary conditions, and micro-crime episodes (

60If we look at the reports on the activities carried out, however, the night is explicitly never mentioned. We can find it indirectly through some aspects of the process: the declarations of participants to the laboratory, the attention to act on opening hours of public establishments, the purpose of planning a schedule of events to attract people in the area. In fact, many people complain about alcohol abuse and the lack of respect for public spaces and coexistence rules.

61We can clearly see the intention of considering the Zona Universitaria problem through a wider strategy also from final document of this participated laboratory: the sign of a pact of coexistence (October 2014). Here we can find many further measures to revitalize the area: diversification of commercial and entertainment activities, promotion of cultural associations, more attention to the quality of public spaces cleaning services and maintenance of street furniture, etc.

62Yet, the urban night has been largely neglected during these “participatory” actions and the local administration has addressed nightlife-related conflicts through an increase control of the use of public space (for example, the installation of anti-bivouac benches) combined with local ordinances on safety and decorum.

63Ordinances, however, seem just a partial output of the requests that emerged from the workshops, the most “directive” part of a much more comprehensive strategy. This part, moreover, started even before the participated path: the first ordinances were issued in 2011 and were limited to Via Petroni, one of the hotspots of Zona Universitaria. Over the years, however, the field of application was extended: first to the neighboring streets and the adjacent Piazza Verdi, then to other parts of the historic center, and finally to some neighborhoods in the first urban fringe.

64Municipal ordinances issue different rules for shops (esercizi di vicinato, most of which stores are managed by migrants from Pakistan and Bangla Desh), shops who sell fresh food (laboratori artigianali) and for the uses of public spaces at night.

65All these measures consider three topics:

  • regulation on night closing times: from 9pm to 7am for stores, from 10pm to 7am for food labs, while the other establishments may remain open until 1am;

  • keeping refrigerated alcohol: it is forbidden for all shops and labs for the whole day;

  • consumption of beverages in glass bottles in the public space (both alcoholic or non-alcoholic) is completely forbidden.

66The violation of these rules implies fines between 100 and 500 euros.

67Even in Bologna (as in Montpellier) the problem has been managed ambivalently. Despite the ordinances, licenses for the opening of commercial activities continue to be provided. We have observed a constant turnover in Zona Universitaria as well as the rise of new conflicts with residents, retailers, and local government, especially in spring and summertime. Residents continue to feel threatened by other populations of the area and their behavior is often sees as a deprivation or an intrusion in their everyday space.

68Moreover, if ordinances have been “legitimated” by the laboratories, other aspects have indirectly affected the requests for more control. First, the increase of municipal actions to revitalize the city center: a recent example is the big EU-funded project ROCK - Regeneration and Optimization of Cultural heritage in creative and Knowledge cities, launched in 2017 (​bologna/​piano-innovazione-urbana/​progetto-rock). Second, an aggressive territorial marketing strategy implemented over the last ten years, as it also happened in Montpellier: in the Bologna case, for example, we can find an aggressive international promotion of its brand as a food city. Third, the dramatic increase of Bologna as tourist destination (2.4 million visitors in 2016). All these elements have had a positive effect on Bologna’s economy, but they also contributed to the escalation of conflicts between the city of users (or consumers) and the city of residents [Castrignanò, 2009].

69In any case, the night seems to remain “invisible” in Bologna’s urban policies: never explicitly mentioned even if many measures affect it as regards limitations (closing times, alcohol consumption) and opportunities (promotion of events, involvement of local associations, etc.).

Final remarks

70The cases of Montpellier and Bologna confirm the increasing importance of nighttime in contemporary cities, and it seems particularly true in case of cities with an important student population. As we have seen, however, this importance is not only an opportunity for development. It can also create conflicts between the different urban populations. Zona Universitaria and Ecusson have recently become a symbol of this ambivalence: nighttime is a “new frontier” for city entertainment and economic activities but also a potential source of social conflict. In both cities, the nightlife is characterized by excessive alcohol consumption, often associated violence and disorder in public space. This allow to mitigate the idea of a dichotomy between a more civilized Mediterranean nightlife (where drink and alcohol consumption is high but unlikely to result in intoxication, being socially embedded in everyday life) and northern European countries such as the UK (where alcohol consumption is more likely to result in intoxication). At the same time, the cities differ in term of spatial distribution of their nightlife. While in Montpellier the establishments are concentrated in the historical city center, Bologna’s nightlife is characterized by a more decentralized structure. These findings highlight the difficult to talk about a homogeneous “Mediterranean” nightlife model and the need to further analyses the heterogeneity of the nocturnal social practices and regulatory regimes that characterize the Mediterranean cities. Yet, despite their differences, Montpellier and Bologna share some common traits.

71From the cases of Montpellier and Bologna clearly emerges how public spaces play a key role in shaping both nocturnal social practices and their negative impacts. As such, they need to be considered both from a physical (design and equipment) and a regulatory standpoint (authorisation to utilize public spaces for private uses). This is particularly important for Southern European cities due to the social and environmental peculiarities of their night, but it is relevant for all cities.

72At the same time, in term of regulation both local governments have applied stricter regulations to respond to these challenges and mitigate the negative impact of what is perceived as the “dark side” of nightlife. Their policies have been different, with the Bolognese administration that have probably tried more do adopt a participatory approach to solve the problem. Nevertheless, the measures in both cities have been similar: more focused on the “public order side” with strong limitations to opening hours of public establishments, more control from the local police in squares and parks, prohibitions on alcohol consumption on the street.

73In both cases, however, the impression is that of a “disciplinary” approach with just the aim of “normalizing” consumers’ behavior. All the problems produced by the spatial and temporal overlap between the “party city” and the “sleeping city” are considered just the consequence of some excessive behaviors often linked to alcohol abuse. Local policies have resulted in a series of ordinances with limited or even counterproductive results. Our direct observations and interviews have not reported a reduction of social conflicts. This is perhaps due to the fact these problems are linked to some social, cultural, and institutional changes in which the night-time economy unfolds. This suggests the need to consider the night from a wider point of view in all the projects of urban planning and revitalization, in order to avoid partial solutions. For instance, in both cities the pedestrianization of the Ecusson and of the Zona Universitaria appears to have contributed to the development of the nightlife in both districts, yet this effect was not taken into consideration by the local authorities.

74It is important to not criminalize night-time recreational activities. Although the excessive and uncivil behaviours have to be addressed with disciplinary measures, some of the conflicts are also related to the absence of adequate services and infrastructures. It is important for local government to consider the diversity of everyday(night) practices and their spatial and temporal impacts.

75The goal should be to identify and equip spaces (either private or public) and develop policies, infrastructures, services and regulations to meet the growing demand for night-time recreational activities and minimizing the impact on other populations. Rather than criminalize and limit the different forms of occupation of the public space at night a more nuanced approach, capable to integrate these uses in the existing planning and design practices is needed. This will contribute to both guarantee the “access to the night” to the entire population and foster the peaceful coexistence of the different urban populations.


76This work was financially supported by Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères (MEAE), Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur, de la Recherche et de l’Innovation (MESRI) and by Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca (MIUR).

77This work was financially supported by the Agence National de la Recherche (ANR) [ANR-18-CE41-0005]

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List of illustrations

Title Figure . Terraces in Place de la Candolle, Montpellier (30th of June 2018, 11:35pm)
Credits Source: photo taken by the author
File image/jpeg, 548k
Title Figure . Esplanade Léo Mallet, Montpellier (22nd of July 2018, 00:47am)
Credits Source: photo taken by the author
File image/jpeg, 536k
Title Figure 3. Bologna: the city and the Zona Universitaria. The detail shows the city center.
Credits Source: Comune di Bologna
File image/jpeg, 776k
Title Figure 4 – People “night-time squatting” in Piazza Verdi, Bologna (28th of June 2018, 10:30pm)
Credits Source: photo taken by the author
File image/jpeg, 65k
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Electronic reference

Emanuele Giordano, Gabriele Manella, Tommaso Rimondi and Dominique Crozat, The spatio-temporal geographies of public spaces at night and their regulation as source of conflict. The cases of Montpellier and BolognaEspace populations sociétés [Online], 2019/1 | 2019, Online since 17 June 2019, connection on 23 June 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Emanuele Giordano

École d’Urbanisme de Paris, LATTS, UMR 5281 ART-Dev

Gabriele Manella

Università di Bologna

Tommaso Rimondi

Università di Bologna

Dominique Crozat

UMR 5281 ART-Dev, Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3

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Licence Creative Commons
Espace Populations Sociétés est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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