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The Institutionalization of the Night: a Geography of Geneva’s Night Policies

Raphaël Pieroni


This paper is about the institution of the night as a public problem in Geneva. The main arguments can be summarized as follows. First, the urban night is a permanent construction, never stabilized, of a non-linear and contentious process of institution as a public problem. Secondly, this process produces more than the urban night as a space-time but also enables sets of practices and subjectivities. Institutional practices as well as from the civil society are produced through a complex process of what has been conceptualized as governmentality by Michel Foucault. Thirdly, night studies benefit from a geographical approach in terms of policy mobility. Night policies are circulating between cities through global microspaces such as public events, conferences, seminars and by way of experts, consultants and researchers. Consequently, their movements are the result of an uncertain topological process of relations. Finally, it is assumed that urban night could be part of what McCann proposed as an agenda for research into the spatial, social, and relational character of globally circulating urban (night) policies, (night) policy models, and (night) policy knowledge.

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  • 1 I wish to thank Dr. Julie De Dardel for her valuable remarks and comments on this article and Mark (...)

1Although the theme of cities at night is growing ever more important on the public agenda, it seems that no city has emerged as a successful model that could “circulate, informally, more formally through international or national networks, or very strictly in the form of legislation” (Roberts & Britain, 2004, p.7). Therefore, City authorities might still have to elaborate innovative models and policies related to the city at night. For want of applicable models, cities and policy makers arrange, invent and experiment best-practices which contribute to what is called in this paper the institution of the urban night as a public problem (Gusfield, 1984). This paper seeks to understand the modalities and the consequences of this process of institution with the city of Geneva as a case study. Like many other European cities, Geneva is facing different issues related to its activity at night. Some of these issues relate to social conflicts between and opposite demands from different sets of actors such as the claim by social movements for more spaces and facilities for independent culture, the increase of cultural and entrepreneurial activities and the demands by residents’ associations for more quietness at night. Those conflicts were motors of what is described in this paper as a process of institution that has been followed in Geneva during the time of a PhD thesis.

Presentation of the case study

2Geneva belongs to the Swiss Confederation in which citizens are subject to three different legal jurisdictions: the municipal, canton and federal levels. As it is a federalist country, the Cantons have a great autonomy from the Confederation. This means that the Canton of Geneva has its own parliament (Grand Conseil) and its own governement (Conseil d’Etat). The Cantons usually delegates some prerogatives to their municipalities equally made up of also by a parliament (Conseil municipal) and a governement (Conseil administratif). The city of Geneva is therefore responsible for various domains such as security, urban planning, finances and housing, culture and sport and social cohesion.

3Despite its rather conservative political history, Geneva has the particularity of having been “the most squatted city in Europe(monde diplomatique, 2007). in proportion to its population during the mid-nineties. The occupied buildings called squats provided an array of services such as cheap restaurants or bookshops but equally organized important venues for nightlife. A strong network of independent venues emerged from this period facilitating the establishment of a counter culture based on principles such as autonomy and solidarity (Pattaroni, 2005), and strongly linked to nightlife. Starting in 2002 this alternative lifestyle was gradually dismantled through a policy of criminal law enforcement that sought to undermine a policy of tolerance vis à vis squats which had been the norm up until then. The shutting down of these places is considered to be a starting point of a period of crisis for alternative lifestyles and nightlife in general as witnessed by a militant from the Union for Independent Cultural Places (UECA): “the closing of Artamis [former largest cluster for Independent Cultural Places in Geneva] is a tragedy for the alternative scene in Geneva, for young people who could have a great time without spending too much and for people who were coming from France and neighboring Cantons […] this is the reason why today there are so many young people outside who don't know what to do at night” (UECA activist, December 2011). During the autumn of 2010 conflict spread beyond the alternative scene with the shutting down of different commercial nightclubs in Geneva. It was at this juncture that a series of demonstrations involving several thousands of people protesting against the dearth of nightlife options occurred.

UECA’s flag during a protest in Geneva for more independent venues, 2010. “Culture and noise against concrete and profit”

UECA’s flag during a protest in Geneva for more independent venues, 2010. “Culture and noise against concrete and profit”

Source: Journal “20 minutes”, Picture: Keystone, Martial Trezzini, october 2010

4At this same period, the Cantonal Police Service for Strategic Studies recorded a significant rise (+40%) in instances of complaints against people making noise at night. This issue has been largely covered by the local media and particularly by the press (more than 170 articles written between 2012 and 2014), contributing in this way to the emergence of the night in Geneva as a public problem. Among the different sets of factors mentioned in the press to explain the noise problem at night, people regularly referred to the introduction in 2009 of a law prohibiting smoking in public venues, the high density of the population and the urban morphology. According to the statistical office of the Canton (OCSTAT, 2009), the city of Geneva shows quite a high density of population with around 12’000 inhabitants by km. According to the Geneva statistical office, it is far more than other Swiss cities such as Zürich (4’200) or other European cities of the same category such as Milan (7’000) or Lyon (2’300). Only big cities like Athens (20’300), Paris (20’200) or Barcelona (15’200) have a higher population density. Beside that, there are a very few of urban wastelands that are commonly used for cultural regeneration and nocturnal activities (Bianchini & Parkinson, 1993; Evans, 2002), because of the lack of an industrial sector. This makes Geneva the 14th Canton out of 26 with 15 hectares of urban wastelands, which is far less than Zürich (219 ha) or Bern (85 ha). Further more, according to the Master Plan of Geneva, the city itself doesn’t have any large urban wastelands and those with the most potential are entirely occupied and already very dense.


5This paper relies on a set of 30 semi-structured interviews with local policy makers, urban planners, journalists, nightlife researchers and policy experts, activists for independent culture and representatives of residents’ associations. This data has been analyzed to understand the role of each set of actors and the processes through which the night in Geneva is instituted as a public problem.

6The method of participant observation was chosen in order to stay as close as possible to public action and its actors. In particular, that of the Department of Culture and Sports (DCS) which, as it will be described, became a major contributor to the institution of the night in Geneva. Two main observation fields were chosen; the first consisted of a diagnosis of Geneva by night for which a French geographer (Luc Gwiazdzinski) was hired by the DCS. I participated as a committee member in the organization of a Night-crossing (Traversée de la nuit) that was held in September 2013, commissioned by the DCS. The second site consisted in the creation and the establishment of a new instrument of governance for nightlife in Geneva. It took the form of an association named the Grand conseil de la Nuit (GCN) composed mostly of professionals, practitioners and researchers. The name was taken from the Geneva parliament to symbolize its ambition to become an unavoidable actor of nightlife policies. I was able to participate in the establishment of this tool as a researcher, and contribute to the public decision-making and discussions while still keeping the position of an outsider. This enabled me to maintain the necessary critical distance to observe the actors and processes of the institution of the night in Geneva.

7These two sites were also the opportunity to collect a large number of reports, notably two publications about Geneva at night commissioned by the DCS, Voyage au bout de la nuit (VBN, 2010) and Genève explore sa nuit (2013).

8Participating in several sites of observation that overlapped overtime implied both difficulties and advantages for the researcher. Being an insider in the GCN, I was automatically an outsider for the public authorities and especially for the DCS with which I was collaborating for my second site of observation. This difficulty was partially resolved by eliciting my position as a researcher and explaining the goals of my research at every possible time, especially during the interviews performed for this research. Nevertheless, I chose to stay discrete on my research intentions with the team of experts hired by the DCS in order to avoid influencing them in their choices and methods. Even if some members of the team of experts were interviewed, this choice implied a delicate position, which was not easy to maintain. In retrospect, it would have been more efficient and appropriate to elicit my intentions avoiding the establishment of an artificial distance with some other geographers and also research colleagues. Instead, creating some kind of alliance with the experts’ team would have been more relevant, so as to facilitate the access to the whole procedure of expertise. Finally, the method of participant observation enabled me to stay as close as possible to the public action, its institutional actors or those coming from civil society. This method helped to identify how the mobilization of best-practices contributes to the whole process described in this paper.

9From a theoretical perspective, this article will attempt to add some insights into the night studies and to the urban literature more broadly in articulating the policy mobility framework with the urban public problem approach. This means identifying the actors or sets of actors and the modalities through which the problem and its solutions are discussed keeping in mind the following question: In what way does the approach of nightlife as an urban public problem allow us to better understand the night as well as the culture of public problem in general? This paper intends to answer this question through the analysis of the design of a public policy for the night in Geneva, which relies in part on the implementation of a wide-ranging program of best-practices inspired from other cities. This paper is also concerned with the use of the geographical methods and knowledge and expertise mobilized along the process of Institutionalization of the night in Geneva.

The urban night as a public problem

10The originality of this paper comes from the approach of the urban night as a public problem. Its contribution to the night studies is based on the hypothesis that the urban night is an object performed by the actors of its institution as a public problem. Even though the theme of the construction of the public problem is not new and has been largely theorized by Joseph Gusfield (Gusfield, 1984), as far as it is known any research on night studies has adopted this theoretical framework. The urban night has been described by social sciences, and geography in particular, as an ambivalent object for the contemporary city. On one hand it has been shown that cultural and nocturnal practices and festivities are promoted by cities for their urban marketing strategies (Zukin, 1989; Queige, 2009; Florida, 2003). On the other, the night in the city has been also described as a specific time and space for potentially contentious and conflicting nocturnal practices (Deleuil, 1994; Gwiazdzinski, 2002; Talbot, 2007).

11Cities at night have been the subject of a series of studies in the field of political economy with the conceptualization of the so-called Night-Time Economy (NTE). Authors such as Chatterton and Hollands, Hadfield and Hayward and Hobbs have shown the use of town centers as consumption, play and hedonistic areas (Hadfield, Lister, & Traynor, 2009; Talbot 2007 ; Hollands & Chatterton, 2003). This neo-Marxist-inspired perspective denounces the production of nocturnal zones through political-economic alliances whose power and domination lead to conflicts and privatize the city at night.

12Other researchers such as Laam Hae and Ilse Van Liempt identified the power relationships and the logics of control of areas dedicated to nightlife (Hae, 2011; Van Liempt, 2013). Laam Hae shows in particular how the forms of governing nightlife (laws and institutions) in New York are to be understood in light of the phenomena of “gentrification, post-industrialization and neo-liberalization that have continued to reshape the economic, political, social, cultural and legal geography of NYC » (Hae, 2012, p.3). The author also highlights how governmental regulations aiming to reduce the noise that is associated with nightlife are legitimized by the threat that noise represents to the quality of life in a given neighborhood (Ibid, 2012, p.41).

13For the French geographer Luc Gwiazdzinski, nightlife is an element among others of the night in the city described as a complex urban system and a frontier structured by many borders and crossed by conflicts (Gwiazdzinski, 2005). The observation of the movement of this frontier, i.e. the phenomena of expansion or withdrawal of activities at night in the city and its periphery, enables one to identify conflicts that are most often territorialized, “between the international time of merchants and the local time of residents, between the continuous city of the economy and the circadian social city, between the areas of movement and holding areas, tensions exist, conflicts arise, borders are erected” (Gwiazdzinski, 2005, p.193). Based on this analysis, the author divides the city into three categories “the city that works, the city that sleeps and the city that has fun” (ibid, p.193) whose modes of functioning enter into conflict.

14From this literature, it can be inferred that nightlife is a scene of power relations, moral considerations, ideologies and of contentious practices. In this light, nightlife can be understood as a potential problematic element of the city at night. Contrary to the perspective whereby the night is a complex urban system, this article argues that the urban night is the product of a performance rather than an object that preexists its institution. This constructivist perspective is inspired in part by Gusfield and the cultural turn in Geography (see, Claval, 2008; Claval & Staszak, 2008).

15Referring to the works of Goffman and Burke, Gusfield adopts a cultural perspective and mobilizes a series of concepts such as “scenes”; “act”; “agency” to show that the problem doesn’t exist in itself but that it is the product of a social construction operated on two different levels: cognitive (science, statistics) and moral (the law) (Gusfield, 1984). This paper shares this perspective to show through which modalities and by which actors or set of actors the night in Geneva was instituted as a public problem. Following the theatrical metaphor employed by Gusfield, it will be shown how this institution required a process of inspiration from what has been done in other cities in terms of night policies. In other words, this paper argues that the way cities get inspired by other cities is a modality through which the urban night is performed as a public problem. This argument is based on the recent development made by geographers about the ways urban policies are rendered mobile (see McCann & Ward, 2011; Peck, 2011; Peck & Theodore, 2010; Robinson, 2013).

16Transfer studies of ideas and policies has led to numerous researches in social science (see, Dumoulin & Saurugger, 2010; McCann & Ward, 2014; Peck, 2011). For the sociologists Dumoulin and Saurugger, the process of transfer should not be understood as being operated by rational actors in a symmetrically informed world (Dumoulin & Saurugger, 2010). They argue that it is an historical process in which policies are not cut and paste to determine the direction of social and political innovation. This perspective is also shared by the recent developments in geographical literature that have shown in particular that the mobility of policies is a process that is “social, relational and charged with power” (McCann, 2011, p.109), which can only be rendered through detailed qualitative research. Peck and Theodore in a special issue of Geoforum on “Mobilizing policy” remind us that their formation and transformation “are seen as socially constructed, as fields of power” (Peck & Theodore, 2010, p.169). These authors argue that policies rarely travel as “packages” but rather circulate in parts through a community of actors seen as “embodied members of epistemic, expert and practice communities” (Ibid, p.170). Following this perspective, Robinson recalls the role and the importance of researchers in the production of these circuits: “we too are the circuits of urban policy; the producers of the mobile and agile stories which both retell cities and remake them, which presence themselves in cities in unpredictable ways. As such our practices and circuits demand as much attention as those of the powerful institutions, policy makers and gurus we love to criticize!”(Robinson, 2013, p.12).

17The analysis of this stage of linkage between best practices and, by extension, of the relation to other nights and nightlives in other cities mustn't however exclude the territorial dimension of a future public policy. As underlined by Cochrane and Ward, “policy making has to be understood as both relational and territorial; as both in motion and simultaneously fixed, or embedded in place. Rather than merely seeing this as an inherently contradictory process, however, what matters is to be able to explore the ways in which the working through of the tension serves to produce policies and places, policies in place” (Cochrane & Ward, 2012, p.7). The movement of policies is also the result of an uncertain process, the relations of which are topological and often difficult to retrace in the Euclidean space: “contrasting topographical relations in Euclidean space, topological ones refer to the reach of ideas, principles or models through means that are not necessarily material and cannot always be easily followed across space” (Söderström, 2012b, cited in De Dardel, 2014). Thus, retracing the circuits taken by circulating policies requires the analysis of the global flows of circulation of policies while taking into account other levels of diffusion (for example trans-local and between cities). Consequently, the question is to understand how the policy makers “compose their ideas in the midst of a myriad of influences from elsewhere” and “how are elsewheres made present in the formulation of urban (night) policy” (Robinson, 2013, p.1). These questions formulated by Robinson, while analyzing Johannesburg's Growth and Development Strategy, are equally valid for this study.

Performing the night in Geneva

18As it was mentioned before, conflicts related to both claims for more cultural, festive and nocturnal places and for more quietness at night were motors for the process of institution of the night in Geneva. It is argued in this section that this will lead to different public actions through which the actors of its institution performed the night in Geneva. This process will be described as a non-linear one, made up of alliances and oppositions between dissenting stakeholders.

19The implication of local policy makers has been central to this process, in particular the cultural councilor André Waldis, interviewed for this research: Yes, so very rapidly I attended a conference by Robert Hollands during the Electron Festival (in Geneva) where he was presenting his work (…). So I suggested that our Department (DCS) should be a pioneer, that we initiate a study and then (organize) the General states (of the Night) to question several aspects linked to nightlife, explaining economic wealth, well everything that we can put in and examine under the angle of the night” (André Waldis, Cultural Councilor, Geneva, August 2012).

20The study on Geneva’s nightlife (VBN) was commissioned in 2010 to the geographer Marie-Avril Berthet in collaboration with a local association of nightlife and cultural activists (ARV). Geographical theory, tools and methods have been used to perform the study. The concept of nightscape (Chatterton & Hollands, 2003) was used to undertake the study on Genevan Nightlife. The data was collected through maps, semi-structured interviews and a survey. The survey was conducted among a statistical sample of 464 so-called night owls.

21The study has been a key element in problematizing nightlife as a geographical, social and political economy object in Geneva and a modality through which night owls are constituted as subjects. According to Michel Foucault’s work on the history of the subjectivity and the modalities of its production, subjects are produced through power relations and by organized techniques and practices (Foucault, 1994). The production of the night owls as a subject in Geneva was performed through the design of a study that can be found in other cities in Europe as well. For example, the Parisian association Technopol for “electro culture” also undertook a survey on the profiles and expectations of Parisian night owls at the same period. Two years later, between October 2012 and September 2013, the foundation Le Relais undertook a similar survey in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland. The latter was centered on prevention and reducing risks in relation to the consumption of both legal and illegal substances in a festive environment. These kinds of studies seem to spread over cities as a modality through which night owls are produced as a figure of the contemporary cities as well as a social category. In Geneva, this process legitimized the pursuit of the public action, partially based on the expectations of the so-called night owls such as the need for more independent venues and more affordable prices in general at night. It consisted in the organization of a conference and the setting up of a territorial diagnosis as two different modalities of the public action initiated by the DCS.

A forum for the Night

22The event called Les états généraux de la nuit was co-organized by the DCS in collaboration with the author of the study mentioned before. It consisted of a public event featuring a week of conferences. According to the organizers, the event attracted more than 600 people and 30 speakers. Speakers were mostly local politicians and representatives of associations, policy makers from others cities, cultural and nightlife activists and researchers as experts as well. The EGN appears as a public scene where various actors, institutional as well as those from civil society, contribute together to the definition of the problem as well as the findings of solutions. This led to the implementation of at least two instruments as best practices mainly discussed during the event.

23The first instrument took its inspiration from the city of Bienne in Switzerland. It consists in extending the opening hours for nightlife venues in order to reduce the noise at night in public spaces. In Geneva, it is the Department of economy and security (DSE) that is in charge of the law regulating opening hours (LRDBHD). It has been entirely revised through a four years’ process. It led to the extension of the opening hours for clubs until 8 a.m. and to a series of changes that are contested mainly by the GCN, the cultural actors and the activists for an alternative nightlife culture. Cultural actors organized themselves under the collective La culture lutte in order to fight against budget cuts and to denounce how the new law would affect their practices and damage their modes of functioning. At the political level, the revision of the law is a contentious issue between mainly the Departments of Economy (DSE) and Culture (DCS). The first sees an opportunity to clarify the status of some alternative venues, the second one sees this as a danger for those same venues that claim to maintain a certain form of autonomy to perform their activities.

24The second instrument, took the form of an innovative governance best practice for nightlife. It consists in the setting up of a federation of the different nightlife operators in Geneva (bars, cafés, clubs, cabarets, independent venues, etc.). The federation called le Grand Conseil de la Nuit (GCN) resulted from an adaptation of the “night mayor” model presented by the previous night mayor of Amsterdam itself during the EGN. The main goal of this federation is to promote nightlife as a social, economic and cultural sector, which benefits society and the public authorities as well. The GCN works as a lobby for nightlife through the construction of a positive discourse in which the night is promoted as a resource for the city and its citizens.

25Those two instruments came out of the process of institution of the night for which the EGN constituted a discursive modality of the setting of the political agenda. It contributed to the construction of a hybrid collective in charge of resolving the problem. This collective is made up of actors, institutional as well as civilian, local and international experts, instruments and techniques. Soon after its establishment this collective was associated to a territorial experience promoted by the French geographer Luc Gwiazdzinski during the EGN.

Experimenting the Night

26The DCS commissioned the French geographer Luc Gwiazdzinski, and his research team from the University Joseph-Fourier, to organize a Traversée de la nuit (TN) of Geneva. Nocturnal crossings are a territorial diagnostic tool developed in the nineties and thereafter carried out in more than a hundred cities throughout Europe by Luc Gwiazdzinski. They are a tool for applied research as suggested by the researcher, “in every city we suggest to local authorities to invest in urban night, to deliver it to the vision of artists, town-planners, developers, social actors, researchers, elected representatives or simple citizens” (Gwiazdzinski, 2006, p.241). This method aims to gather together a maximum number of actors from different backgrounds and thereby coalesce different visions and expertise in view of establishing a common diagnosis of a city at night. The actors are invited to perform a territorial experience following different itineraries through the city during the night.

27In Geneva, the results of this territorial experience called “Genève explore sa nuit” led to the publication of a report addressed to the participants as well as to policy makers. It constitutes a trace of the experience on the one hand and the scientific basis for the design of a public policy for which the night is presented as a complex urban system.

The ten itineraries of “Genève explore sa nuit”

The ten itineraries of “Genève explore sa nuit”

This map comes from the official Report “Genève explore sa nuit”, 2013 p.21, Design: Sami-Ramzi Chibane, Joseph Fourier University, Picture: David François

28This map comes from the report mentioned above, its key illustrates the ten itineraries of the night crossing. Within a cultural perspective, this map does more than depict simple itineraries. Its particular design contributes to the making of an efficient tool of communication mobilized by the experts towards the policy makers. It conveys that the urban night exists as a geographical object and a complex territory that can be experimented. In this way, the map is the geographical and visual tool of a territorial experience through which the night is performed as a space-time. In other words, the map contributes to the institution of the night in defining its territoriality and a set of actors in charge of the problem.

Getting the best-practices from other cities

29Both the EGN and the TN connected different scenes (public health, security, culture, judicial, alternative, etc.) and equally facilitate a process of circulation of nightlife policies. The Minister of Culture alludes to the specificity of cultural policies in this process: “the use of cultural policies is less formal, you don’t elaborate laws on Culture the way you do for unemployment or urban planning, it is more about exchanging views, by definition Culture is a field of exchange, less formalized than many other areas in public policies, it is less normative in a legal sense” (Sami Kanaan, Minister of Culture and Sport (DCS), August 2016).

30In Geneva, this positive vision of Culture as a vector for exchange and the motor for inspiration regarding nightlife policies was constructed thanks to the EGN and the TN in which the inspiration process was quite different. The EGN had been tested in Paris (November 2010) a few months before it was initiated in Geneva. It has since been set up in other cities (Lausanne, Toulouse in 2014) making it a modality of urban public action which circulates from city to city, and through which nightlife policies travel while they are being discussed. In Geneva, the conference was an opportunity to set the night on the political agenda and led to concrete effects in terms of policies through the implementation of two best-practices: The revision of the law concerning the opening hours of the public venues (LRDBHD) and a federation of nightlife stakeholders (GCN). The articulation of these two instruments with the local context has highlighted a conflictual and non-linear process. Non-linear because contentious and also because best-practices are transformed during their transfer. They are rarely applied as simple imitation as is highlighted by Peck and Theodore, “the resulting dynamic in the policy making process is […] a more complex process of non-linear reproduction. Policies will therefore mutate and morph during their journeys” (Peck & Theodore, 2010, p.170).

31The EGN as a discursive modality of the process of institution of the night in Geneva was completed by the TN as a territorial experimentation for which geographical expertise constituted a vector for the mobility of nightlife policies. It differs from the EGN in the sense that the TN was associated with the definition of a territoriality. Contrary to the EGN, only one expert was commissioned to supervise the action. The expert’s recommendations were to enable the identification of the major issues regarding a policy of the night in Geneva. The policy was publicly announced in July 2013, jointly by the Ministers of the DCS and the Department of social cohesion and solidarity (DCSS). It is made up of six different axes: Mediation, prevention, security / Governance of night issues / Nighttime entertainment opportunities for young people / Mobility / Urbanism and planning / Promotion and tourism.

32These axes refer to the idea that the night is a complex urban system that relates to social issues, transport, urban planning and tourism among other public policies. The vision of the urban night as a cross-disciplinary object has been identified to guide the public action as mentioned by the Minister of Culture in an interview: “The night touches on so many different areas, this is what we constantly try to remind the DCS of. It is not just a question of security and administration; there are cultural and human issues, social issues, and sectorial issues in an economic sense of the word. (…) And I don’t see any other public policy as cross-disciplinary as this one, there is no public policy for the day, nobody says that we need one, we need one for the night, it concerns more or less every Department(Sami Kanaan, Minister of Culture and Sport (DCS), January 2015).

33Through this process the night is instituted as a public problem to be governed by a public policy made up of a series of best-practices. These are mainly drawn from the geographer’s practice as mentioned in an interview: “it is simply a bit of benchmarking of procedures identified during the last few years, they are symbolic, it’s not something exhaustive. It’s very long, I’ve done this during the “PREDIT” study of 2007-2008, but it’s enormous, it was a 1000 cities, 9 languages, I had multiple teams, it was quite complicated to identify” (Luc Gwiazdzinski, November 2014).

34This process contributes to putting Geneva in contact with an array of other cities through best practices. These relations appear more explicitly on the following map.

Map 1 References to Cities and best practices for Geneva’s policy of the night: A wide-ranging program aiming to innovate.

Cartography: Author.

35The map above shows a process by which Geneva takes inspiration for its night policies mainly from European and North American cities. Large metropolises such as New York, London and Berlin but also medium to small sized towns such as Toulouse in France or Oviedo in Spain are included in a network of best practices through the practice of the expert. This aspect has been well summed up by an urban planner invited to the nocturnal crossing: “Luc’s (Gwiazdzinski) presentation was really great (...) there's so much going on in cities at night, that roof thing in Chicago is amazing for example […] with all these examples, you can see that Geneva really has a lot of catching up to do and that there are many things for us to learn and implement” (employee of the Service for Urban Planning, Geneva, August 2013).

36The process of inspiration is based on a transurban and north-north network of nightlife best-practices. In the case of Geneva, this network is constructed through the geographer’s expertise. Consequently, the DCS, in collaboration with the research team from the Joseph Fournier University, calls upon a series of best-practices to bricolage together a public policy for the night in Geneva as a complex urban system. The concept of bricolage relates to a process that generates new designs of understanding based on mobile knowledge (Faulconbridge, 2013, p.349). The public policy for the night in Geneva thus appears as heterogeneous best practices pieced together that are carried out in other cultural and political contexts.

37However, this political process based on of expertise and experimentation, it showed some difficulties in federating all the stakeholders defined through the process itself.

A non-linear process of institution

38The process of the institution of the night in Geneva initiated by the DCS is a non-linear one and its analysis shows a conflict of governmentality. This conflict opposes different Ministers of the different departments of the municipality as well as the administrative levels (city/canton) of Geneva.

39For the city, the public policy for the night is promoted by a left-wing alliance of the Ministers of the DCSS and of the DCS. The Christian-democrat Minister for the Department of Environment and Security (DEUS) refused to join in the program and thus form a pluralist coalition. This Minister decided to favor a pragmatic action, in the form of an instrument related specifically to the reduction of noise at night. In another article, it has been shown that this instrument based on methods and tools employed by geographers (such as pictures, geographical information system, field observation), fits a public moral agenda normalizing nighttime social practices (Pieroni, 2014).

40The Canton participates as a stakeholder in the process via the DSE that is responsible for revising the law on opening hours of public venues (LRDBHD). This revision was conducted under the leadership of Pierre Maudet from the Liberal-Radical Party, thus escaping from the cultural politics domain. The results of this revision, widely contested by the DCS and cultural actors in general, highlight a conflict between two opposing visions. The first sees the law, and therefore morality, as a central agent of the regulation of nocturnal activities while the second favors cross-disciplinarity for the governance of the city at night. This conflict of governmentality between the City and the Canton as well as between different political orientations is a factor that explains the difficulties in implementing an innovative public policy for the night based on circulation of best practices.


41The main question raised by this article is how the approach of the night as public problem can allow for a better understanding of the night as well as the culture of public problem in general.

42Firstly, this article showed that the night in a common sense of the word differs from the urban night as a product of its institution as a public problem in Geneva. The process has been described through discursive and experiential modalities of the urban public action. It was initiated in Geneva by a series of conflicts over nightlife practices and venues. Governmentality conflicts, both in terms of political orientation and on different administrative levels, reveal a non-linear process of institution for which cultural policies showed difficulties in federating other public policies. These conflicts partly explain the complexity for cultural policies to achieve concrete effects and innovations in terms of urban planning. This complexity is part of a process for which the urban night appears to be a permanent construct that is never stabilized, rather than a complex system or an object that predates urban public action. It has been shown that this institution produces more than the urban night as a space-time but also some different set of practices and subjectivities, such as the Night owls for instance.

43Secondly, it has been revealed that the institution of the night in Geneva was performed through the construction of hybrid collectives. The design of a public policy for the night in Geneva has required multiple actors (experts, consultants, local employees, local associations, etc.) as well as the organization of global microspaces – such as public events like conferences and territorial diagnoses, etc. - during which actors meet, exchange and bond (McCann, 2011 cited in De Dardel, 2014). Geographers have been key actors of this institution by highlighting different issues, through studies, reports and experimentation, and through their expertise of nightlife policies that they have contributed to put in circulation. This circulation occurs in a topological manner by way of the constitution of global microspaces (such as EGN) that travel from city to city. The study of this process for Geneva showed that it originates in the construction of a network of cities for which nightlife policies adopts a north-north type of circulation.

44In following McCann's discussions on urban policy mobilities as well as the formation of global circuits of knowledge (McCann, 2011) and in view of the political importance and the recent increase in the number of best-practices and nightlife policies in circulation, it appears necessary to set an agenda of research on the mobility of nightlife policies. These are some questions that could be raised by this agenda: What are the best-practices that circulate the most and that are currently implemented in cities? Are they related to specific political and institutional agendas? Does their implementation result in movements of resistance, in what form and through which actors? Which cities benefit the most from this process? What is the role and contribution of the so-called “Southern Cities” to the global circulation of urban night policies? Can this agenda contribute to identifying a blueprint or a model for the city at night that succeeds in federating both the institutional actors and those from civil society?

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1 I wish to thank Dr. Julie De Dardel for her valuable remarks and comments on this article and Mark Cottingham for his help in translating it.

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List of illustrations

Title UECA’s flag during a protest in Geneva for more independent venues, 2010. “Culture and noise against concrete and profit”
Credits Source: Journal “20 minutes”, Picture: Keystone, Martial Trezzini, october 2010
File image/jpeg, 608k
Title The ten itineraries of “Genève explore sa nuit”
Credits This map comes from the official Report “Genève explore sa nuit”, 2013 p.21, Design: Sami-Ramzi Chibane, Joseph Fourier University, Picture: David François
File image/jpeg, 500k
File image/jpeg, 326k
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Electronic reference

Raphaël Pieroni, « The Institutionalization of the Night: a Geography of Geneva’s Night Policies », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 11 | 2015, Online since 24 November 2016, connection on 25 March 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/articulo.3147

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About the author

Raphaël Pieroni

After a master in Human Geography in the University of Geneva, Raphaël Pieroni is currently doing a thesis under the supervision of the full Professor Jean-François Staszak. The thesis is about the Institutionalization of urban night in Geneva. Email:

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