Ottawa’s new “nightlife economy” plan aims to promote activities that boost spending and entertainment after dark. However, some say there should be more emphasis on public safety at night.

“People’s immediate reaction [to the plan] is party! Nightlife! That’s not really what it’s about,” said Zachary Dayler, executive director of ByWard Market District Authority, which was consulted on the plan. “It’s about creating the conditions to support a … nightlife economy. We’re talking about programming and events, it’s a different conversation.”

His biggest concerns are safety and increasing food options in the Market.

“First and foremost, you need to make sure that there’s lighting and illumination on your streets,” he said. “Dark places are not necessarily good places, you need light, people need to be able to see.”

Meghan Glennie, manager of The Lookout Bar, agrees with Dayler on implementing a better safety system for the Market. 

“Nightlife is such a fun thing but it just as easily can be a dangerous thing,” Glennie said. 

The city has undertaken the plan to boost leisure spending and the local economy after COVID. According to a 2022 City of Ottawa report, in 2019 around $5.5 billion was spent on leisure and cultural activities in the daytime compared to $1.99 billion at night.

The city hopes to address the spending gap through 10 recommendations, among them a call to hire a nightlife commissioner to promote activities, review bylaws and develop a safety plan for workers and participants.

But night activities could also mean more danger. Police recorded 13,433 crimes per 100,000 people in the Rideau-Vanier ward in 2022, the second-highest crime rate in Ottawa. Rideau-Vanier houses the Market, one of the city’s main entertainment zones, where businesses and residents have been calling for additional safety and security measures.

While Dayler is optimistic about the new plan, he also says there needs to be more education and resources for mental health and drug users. 

Glennie would also like to see mandatory drug testing, First-Aid and Naloxone kits in bars and restaurants, as well as de-escalation training for security. 

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Stéphanie Plante says that, along with mental health support, looking at lifestyles holistically is important: things such as having extended daycare hours to help working parents and pedestrianized streets to promote safety.

“I don't feel safe with my child crossing George Street, crossing York,” Plante said. “Pedestrianized streets — that to me is a very big safety piece because I don't think cars should just be ripping and running in what should be a pedestrianized space.”

Glennie says reviewing transportation and making bus fares cheaper on specific nights and available for longer hours could also boost the number of people coming to the Market. 

“A lot of people don't want to go out if they don't have [a safe ride home],” she said. 

The O-Train Line 1 runs until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. on Sunday and most buses run until 12:30 a.m. every night. Glennie says, however, that public transportation can be unreliable at night. 

Another gap is that residents were responsible for almost 84 per cent of nightlife spending compared to visitors, at around 16 per cent.

Jérôme Miousse, director of public affairs at Ottawa Tourism, says this plan is all about developing Ottawa as a destination. Ottawa is following in the footsteps of cities like Amsterdam and Toronto that have appointed “night mayors."

"There is data proving that [these cities] had reduction in crimes, reduction in noise complaints and just healthier nighttime economies," Miousse said.

In a 2017 interview, Amsterdam’s former “night mayor” Mirik Milan said alcohol-related violence went down by 25 per cent and litter and noise complaints went down by 30 per cent as safety concerns were addressed. This was done by prioritizing lighting and pedestrian streets, as well as implementing night stewards to de-escalate situations and offering an app that allowed people to voice complaints.  

Ottawa’s nightlife commissioner can look to Amsterdam's approach to see how lighting, pedestrianized streets and support workers can help the public feel safe after dark.

Glennie is hopeful but says she worries the recommendations regarding security and transportation will be overlooked. 

“I need to see it to believe it,” she said. “I really hope they take it seriously and they really do it.”

Dayler also notes the city has a significant funding problem and the plan could be costly to implement. 

“We have a city that's looking to spend [up to $500 million] to redo a stadium,” he said. “I think we have a priority problem and that's where I get skeptical … we're going to add cost on a compounding cost problem that we have in this city.”

The draft budget will be voted on by city council on Wednesday and, if passed, a new nightlife commissioner should be hired in 2024. The report's recommendations are to be implemented between 2024 and 2026.