Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

The Nocturnal City

Robert Shaw




The Nocturnal City has an interesting premise: studying urbanism from a temporal rather than a spatial standpoint. As it states early on, “A key aim of this book is to put the night front and centre in the research agenda” (page 2).

Shaw explains that though human activity has long continued (though in reduced form) at night, this ramped up with industrialization, specifically through gas and electric lighting and mechanized capitalist production. These developments made it possible for large numbers of people to spend time outdoors at night, without being seen as suspect. They also galvanized a night-time economic and social life, leading to the contemporary situation where the dynamism of a city’s nightlife is seen as a key attraction for tourists and the creative class.

Overall, the shift has been momentous. Mass employment at night became a feature of factory, healthcare, and other work. In more recent years, the globalization of work has resulted in some workers keeping to time zones that are out of sync with their local environments, such as Indian call centres working to European time zones. As Shaw puts it, “the electrification of cities was a major innovation that fundamentally altered the nature of cities” (page 58). Ecologically, the increase of night-time activity has been associated with greater light pollution, carbon emissions, and encroachment on the patterns of nocturnal animals.

The technology still isn’t universal. Hundreds of millions of Indians lack access to electricity, for instance, and frequent electricity cuts plague a number of low-income cities (as well as regions facing extreme weather events). And technology alone doesn’t compensate for social patterns that disproportionately target or necessitate certain groups entering public space at night: including women, sexual minorities and refugees. It may be that night-based activity has deepened the divide between certain groups, such as between youth and the elderly, thus reshaping urban social patterns.

The advance of the urban night has also had an invisibilizing effect on certain kinds of work and workers. Construction, maintenance and cleaning often take place at night, away from the view of urban masses. This creates a sense that a city, like a body, replenishes itself at night. This process doesn’t affect everyone equally, of course. Night workers and shift workers tend to be lower-income, and can become both metaphorically and literally hidden to the office workers, transport users, and others who can easily take night-based work for granted.

The Nocturnal City is sometimes on the arcane side, with references for example to ‘haecceity’ and ‘ecosophy’. Overall, though, it presents interesting and sometimes provocative arguments that the night is a useful subject of study for urbanists.


Further reading:

Isenstadt, Sandy, Margaret Maile Petty, Dietrich Neumann (2014), Cities of Light: Two Centuries of Urban Illumination, Routledge, 216 pages.

Valentine, Gill (1989), “The geography of women’s fear”, Area Vol 21, No 4, pages 385–390, available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/20000063.pdf?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.


Book note prepared by Christine Ro

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