Review | The Nocturnal City

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What is the city at night?  With 24-hour lives in the globalization era, there is a tendency to conflate day activity with night life in a busy urban area.  Not so, states Robert Shaw.  His newly published book, The Nocturnal City, is an effort to delve into the city at night which is a “very different time-space from day.”

Robert Shaw (also known as Robert Lawshaw post-marriage) is an urban geographer with the geography department at the University of Newcastle. His research interests focus on the relationship between night and society as well as how the built environment shapes peoples urban experiences.

Shaw notes in the introduction that the key aim of his book is to put “the night front and centre in the research agenda.”  The night, he argues, is often an ignored aspect of research, a “forgotten background.”  A collection of his own research and published literature, this book is the result of more than a decade of work starting with his PhD.  Shaw’s book explores the way humans interface with the darkness that night brings while making the argument that the night should be, in and of itself, an object of research.

The first chapter surveys the theories developed to define and explain the urban environment.  What is meant by urban life?  What are the characteristics that define a life within a densely built environment?  Chapter two introduces night into the urban environment and dives into a historical review of how the development of artificial sources of light has molded the urban environment.

The book takes the reader on a journey over time and space through the urban night. Throughout the book issues of race, gender, and sexuality are addressed.  For example, Shaw notes that “nighttime cities are spaces in which, broadly speaking, men are more freely able to choose to enter, while women are more likely to be forced to enter for work.”  Chapter 2, in particular, focuses on the denizens of the night.

While the author notes there are “some gaps”, this book provides a fairly comprehensive survey of geographical and social theories and research about the human experience at night.  Further chapters in the book introduce such concepts as light pollution, nocturnal ecologies, the night-time economy, and the domestic night.  The range of topics covered outlines just how much the night has an effect on both humans and ecological systems within the urban environment.  Shaw notes the distinction between rural and urban life “comes out more powerfully at night.”

Throughout the chapters, Shaw builds his argument about why the study of night, which he refers to a ‘nightology’, is a critical aspect of understanding the urban environment.  In his summary chapter advocating for more night research beyond the urban public space and his vision for future research into the night, Shaw remarks, “night-time research has a long way to go to match the diversity of spaces that have been studies during the day.”

Robert Shaw The Nocturnal City (London:  Routledge, 2018), pp. 126, ISBN: 9781138676404

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