Lessons from Amsterdam’s ‘night mayor’

Amsterdam's Leidseplein neighbourhood is one of the city's busy nightlife districts. The city has a 'night mayor' who helps promote the nighttime economy while tackling challenges like noise complaints. (Kjell Leknes/shutterstock.com)

On a Tuesday, normally the sleepiest night of the week, a buzz fills the Leidseplein neighbourhood near Amsterdam’s city centre. Throngs of young people chat and flirt at pubs spilling patrons onto the sidewalk. The scent of Holland’s legal marijuana drifts through the air. Around midnight on a side street, lines begin to form outside Milkweg and Sugarfactory, two warehouse-sized clubs that boast long-running weekly techno parties.

The scene is illustrative of how Amsterdam has become one of the top nightlife capitals in Europe. That claim to fame brings tourism revenue, jobs and bragging rights, but it also brings challenges such as litter and noise complaints.

Amsterdam has found an innovative solution to managing what happens after dark. In 2012, nightclub promoter Mirik Milan became the city’s nachtburgemeester, a Dutch coinage that translates as “night mayor”.  Milan parlayed his experience in the club scene into a successful role bridging a burgeoning afterhours industry with both a City Hall eager to promote nightlife and cantankerous residents tired of being woken up by drunken partiers at 2 o’clock in the morning.

Five years later, the idea for a role like this has spread far and wide. London, Paris and Zurich all have night mayors now — London even makes it a formal position in the city administration, which Amsterdam has not. Instead, Nachtburgemeester Amsterdam is an NGO, jointly funded by city government and contributions from the nightlife industry. It has a formal board of directors as well as a 20-person advisory “night council” with representatives from across the nightlife spectrum.

Mirik Milan, Amsterdam’s ‘night mayor’

They’ve had several wins already, most notably 24-hour licenses that allow a number of clubs located away from residential areas to operate at any time day or night. To showcase the burgeoning late-night scene, in February, Nachtburgemeester coordinated Night for the Night, where one ticket bought entrance to 21 nightclubs, including the city’s marquee destinations for discerning music fans.

In more densely populated neighbourhoods where bars mingle with apartment buildings, trained social workers are paid to help keep the peace. Called Square Hosts, they encourage patrons to take loud voices inside and defuse potential conflicts before the police have to be called in — a move that can escalate tensions and create the perception of nightlife causing trouble. Finally, Milan has spearheaded nightlife-specific business improvement districts, like in the busy downtown plaza Rembrandtplein, where bar owners are required to pay into a fund to support branding, signage, Square Hosts and “designing out crime” improvements like back alley lighting. Two years later, violence, noise and nuisance complaints have dropped sharply.

This week, Milan makes a U. S. appearance at the Smart Cities NYC conference in New York. I spoke with him recently to find out what lessons he and Amsterdam have to share with other cities. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

Gregory Scruggs: Despite the title “night mayor”, you don’t actually work for City Hall. Would you prefer if you did?

Mirik Milan: That’s a tough question. I think you could sometimes have more influence on the city outside of politics instead of being inside. I have a really good relationship with the mayor. I speak to him privately a couple times a year. I’m in contact with his whole staff. Being directly under the mayor, then you won’t be able to say anything. It will be more difficult to have your own opinion.

The most important thing is that it should be somebody that really knows nightlife. Otherwise, we’ll just have another civil servant. It needs to be a person who really knows what’s going on — and maybe even better, somebody who actually has organized parties and has been a promoter, and has taken all the risk because it’s a really tough job.

Our goal for the future is to make sure that every political party in city council has a specialist dedicated for nightlife, so that they will have a policy or vision on what they want to do with nightlife culture. In the coming elections in 2018, we will do our very best to make sure that all young people that go out will vote for city council.

Q: What achievements are you most proud of in your tenure thus far?

A: The most concrete is of course the 24-hour licenses. And why? Because it was a moment in time for Amsterdam. We really changed something with the role of the night — for partygoers, but also on the scene.

When I started in 2012, everybody was always saying, “Yeah, Amsterdam is cool, but what about Berlin?” You know, I got so fucking bored, and the mayor had the same feeling — he hated that everybody would say that Berlin is so cool, so he really wanted to change that around. And of course, me as well.

The most radical thing about this whole process — and a lesson that can be learned in other cities — is that we looked at the quality of the content of the venues. Instead of just looking to see if they had four walls, a roof, and a bouncer in front of the door.

Q; So you could be arbiters of taste a little bit?

A: Yeah. You’re never going to learn anything about club culture in a VIP room, you know? We always say, and our friends from Berlin always say this: “Invest in quality instead of furniture.” What you see in Asia is, really often you have a dance floor, which is like a postage stamp. And then you have a really big VIP room. But that’s not club culture. That’s just bullshit.

So we laid down a vision. Everybody that wanted the 24-hour license — for the first round, 35 venues applied and we picked out five — had to answer questions about how their venue would add to the city’s cultural offerings. If they proposed live music, DJs, a gallery space and cultural nights, then we asked: Who do you have employed to programme these kinds of things? You can’t make a strong case if you don’t have anyone in this [curatorial] position. Did they really want to do something creative or just make more money?

And they did add something, because Amsterdam is now in the international spotlight when it comes to club culture thanks to [24-hour licensed] venues like Trouw, De School and Shelter.

We are hoping that from September, we’re going to give out another 10 licenses, so we’re really moving forward.

Q: What are some other interesting projects you’re working on?

A: For policymakers, what’s really interesting is the pilot project we are doing on the Rembrandtplein, a square that is dense with nightlife. It’s a traditional downtown nightlife area, so there’s only a few quality nightclubs. Mostly it’s just regular bars with dancing where 18-to-20-year olds go, which you will see in every city.

We’re doing this together with the strong lead of our mayor, because we always need partners — we’re not doing it by ourselves. Bar owners put money on the table, the city doubled that money, and together we decided on what would be the best things to do to improve this district. We brought in experts in “designing out crime” to assess how to improve lighting in back alleys off the square — well-lit alleys are safer than dark alleys.

Then there’s the project with what we call the “Square Hosts” — they’re the stewards. They’re paid and trained social workers and they are the eyes and the ears of the police. They are seen as nonaggressive by partygoers. They give you advice on where to go, what kind of clubs, what kind of music, even maybe how to get past the door bitch [bouncer]. So really making it more welcoming.

Q: And you have an app for reporting noise complaints, right?

A: It’s a really interesting thing we’re hopefully going to roll out quickly for the whole city. It’s a simple website where you can report or complain about any form of nuisance. This report goes directly to the first community officer — our structure is you have the police, then you have community officers and then you have the stewards or the Square Hosts below that.

People who live around the square have said, “It changed my life because I don’t have to get up at 2:00 a. m. calling this call center waiting on the phone for 15 minutes.” And then the response could take days. Cities have to understand that the way people communicate with each other is much more direct nowadays because of Facebook, because of WhatsApp — this system gives people the feeling that their problems are taken seriously by the municipality. You can only do it, of course, if you have the personnel on the back end to respond to the complaints.

Q: And does this give you some data the city can use to better manage nightlife?

A: Yeah, we’re thinking we can install this app for outdoor festivals. Because there’s always a lot of complaints, and they come in as noise complaints, but what we see from the data is that it’s often not really about the noise. It’s, on Monday, I couldn’t walk my dog because they were building up the terrain. On Wednesday, I couldn’t go running in the park because there was some other construction. On Saturday you have the music, and then they report a noise complaint. Eventually you get a lot of complaints and the decibels of the music will have to go down. But maybe noise wasn’t even that big of a problem — we don’t know why people are complaining.

Q: You appeared dressed in drag at a recent panel discussion to make a point about vulnerable communities in nightlife. Is inclusivity your next priority?

A: Yeah, absolutely. Amsterdam is often seen as the gay capital of the world, but over the last 10 years the tolerance in the city really went down. People like the gay guy on the television, but when you have a drag queen living next to you, or your neighbor is kissing his boyfriend, then suddenly it’s a big problem or you don’t want to see it. That’s why I did that diversity thing in drag because I wanted to send out a message.

Later this year we’re going to do a project called Women On Top, so that’s about entrepreneurship, safety and sexism in nightlife. Of course, also diversity will be a part of that.

Q:  Arbitrary door policies can keep patrons out of the most exclusive clubs for reasons not entirely clear to them, but they can also prevent clubs from being overrun with stag parties and other more nuisance-type party behaviour. Does discrimination based on race and ethnicity happen and how can you address that at private venues?

A: Yeah, absolutely. You have inequality in so many layers of society and it happens in nightlife too. People are being discriminated with door policy. But there is a really fine line.

In my opinion, nightclubs are a private space, not a public space, so they have the right to control the atmosphere in their own venue on their dancefloor.

De School and other places have a policy where they just ask the people that come there, “Do you know who’s playing tonight? Are you just here for fun? Do you you even know what kind of venue we are?”

Sometimes, of course, when people are refused at the door it feels like you’re being discriminated for any reason, but it’s always their policy, they are also really clear about that. We have this party [for people over age 40] called Rock Now, Roll Later. If ten 25-year-old women were refused at the front door, then I would understand that.

But the bigger problems are when it comes to regular bars and clubs in entertainment districts where you can’t really say, “Okay, who’s playing here?” Because they will just be playing Top 40 hits.

Q: In those places, if you’ve got €5 to buy a pint, you should be allowed to enter if you’re of age, right?

A: Yeah. So, that’s a much more difficult situation. Of course, it’s a private venue as well, but we are really strong about making sure that your door policy is printed and visible at the door. If you feel like you’re being discriminated, then we have this organization where you can make your report. And of course, if there’s more reports then there will be a problem for the venue.

Q: A year ago you hosted the world’s first Night Mayor Summit in Amsterdam. What were the big takeaways? Now that the idea of a night mayor has spread to other cities, what are you learning from your peers who were inspired by your example?

A: We had some key outtakes. One was to serve people with facts instead of emotions. Invest in quality instead of the furniture. But also, the night should be a place for the unexpected. There’s no written rules — there’s not even much information on this topic. So we’re really pioneering and finding it out by trying and doing new stuff.

What I’ve learned from other cities is that you have to plan for the fun. That is something the entertainment commission from San Francisco told me. If you want to have a vibrant city, you have to do some planning. That also means that you’re speaking about city planning, and it’s also about building.  

When you have an entertainment zone where there’s nightlife and festivals, and there is a project developer that wants to build new condos or hotel — they should be the one responsible for making sure that these buildings are better sound-isolated than normal buildings. This is a really big problem.

Q: Montréal has that policy in the Quartier de Spectacles, their downtown entertainment district, where a lot of new condos are coming in – double-paned windows are required.

A: Developers want to build in entertainment districts because it will sell the houses more quickly for a higher price. But they are taking all the benefit and then small independent live music venue has to soundproof the building?

In Amsterdam, we are building thousands of houses in areas that have been rejuvenated by festivals.  So all these people that are going to buy a house there, they don’t realize that they are going to live next to a terrain where you have 65 events a year, big electronic and live events. They bought their €500,000    house, and the first summer they’re going to freak out, of course. You will have a lot of lawsuits and then these festivals will lose their license.

That is something we really have to take care of in Amsterdam. The focus will not be as much on nightclubs, because you can’t run a nightclub when it’s not sound-isolated, that’s just how it is in Amsterdam. But these festivals, which are really important for the scene as well, are also under pressure and we don’t want to move them to a parking lot.

Q: You have argued that every city with at least 200,000 people should consider some kind of night management approach. Is the population threshold the only criteria? What other ingredients go into the mix before it’s time to establish a night mayor or have a nightlife strategy?

A: What I think is so important is that you should always look at it from a cultural side. If you only look at it from a night time economy side, that will just be the same bullshit you have in all other layers of policy.

It’s really about culture. It’s not like, okay, we’re going to build a big ice hockey arena or football stadium and we’re going to have some hospitality around it. Make sure a really big part of it is about culture and seeing nightlife as a place where creative people meet.

Q: Former Amsterdam Mayor Ed van Thijn once said, “There’s no culture without subculture.” So with that in mind, Amsterdam has a storied history of squats as subcultural incubators.  That’s something the U. S. independent art and music scene is struggling with after the fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse club in Oakland that killed 36 people. How do you keep the do-it-yourself subcultures alive without overregulating them to death?

A: What people would say in Amsterdam is because a venue is illegal it’s more authentic. But we have to work together and you have to be realistic, because there is a ban on squatting in Amsterdam at the moment.

I like the pragmatic approach. It’s not only about, okay, we’re now squatting this place and there’s a lot of great things coming out. Times have changed, we’re not living in the ’70s anymore. We need to find new ways to create these places where people can connect, but which is also safe.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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