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Latin America

Latin America gets its first ‘night mayor’

The city of Cali, Colombia, will be the first in the region to put an official in charge of managing the city after dark
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6 Jul 2016 – 12:58 PM EDT
The night mayor will work to improve the relationship between businesses and the community Crédito: LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images

Colombia is taking back the night.

In a country once known for nighttime crime, Colombia’s salsa capital, Cali, will be the first Latin American city to appoint a night mayor, a position that’s been tested in Europe in recent years to make the city work better after dark.

Economist Alejandro Vásquez Zawadzky was appointed Cali’s night mayor by Mayor Norman Maurice Armitage. He’ll be tasked with making Cali an around-the-clock urban area and helping to sift through tensions between those seeking lively nighttime options and others craving peace and quiet.

“We want nightlife sectors to be organized,” Vásquez says. “We need productive tourist areas, and responsible partying.”

This new venture marks a strong shift in Colombia. In 1995, Bogotá’s then Mayor Antanas Mockus pushed for the so-called “Ley Zanahoria” (literally, the “Carrot Law”), which mandated bars and other late-night establishments to close by 1:00 a.m. in an effort to cut down on crime.

According to Vasquez, the law made people fear the night.

“Such prohibitive measures have negative consequences, forcing nightlife establishments into the outskirts of the city and generating corruption,” Vasquez says.

It's a familiar situation across the region. In most Latin American cities, after-dark hours are associated with clubs, bars and partygoers in the streets, but also with security concerns, crime and pockets of empty and abandoned urban spaces.

"There is a particularly negative view of the nighttime," says Andreina Seijas, a researcher at the Inter-American Development Bank. "It’s associated with insecurity, crime, noise. And city mayors have been reluctant to pursue initiatives because of that."

But gradually, the region is changing course. The concept of “24-hour cities” is being adopted by municipal governments to boost economies and improve citizen security. This helps attract tourism and create jobs in safe, populated urban areas.

In Cali, officials hope to create pockets for cultural activities and music, as well as zones for dancing – especially well-suited to the country’s “salsa capital.” Vasquez says the goal is to create jobs, increase security, attract tourists and enhance Cali’s self-esteem as a city.

To date, the city has expanded hours at clubs and other nightspots, and has also identified the city’s five most problematic areas to increase police presence and community involvement there. It also plans to launch a national program to promote nighttime cultural activities and to bring together business owners and citizens to compromise on issues like noise and parking.

"The city needs both sides to understand – residents and businesses," says Vasquez. "The whole city will win."

Elsewhere in Latin America, cities are taking similar steps.

Since 2004, Buenos Aires has held an annual noche de museos, or museum night, offering free access to all of the city’s museums.

In Asunción, Paraguay, businesses are still recovering from a prohibitive nighttime law even stricter than Colombia’s carrot law. Beginning in 2003, businesses that sold alcohol were forced to close at midnight from Sunday through Thursday, and at 2:00 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. At 2:00 a.m., lights went out and people had 15 minutes to disperse before police arrived. The law was disastrous for the city’s historic center, forcing businesses to close and residents to move elsewhere.

In 2014, business owners united to overturn the law and try to save the city’s center. They created the Association of Nighttime Movement in the Historic Center of Asunción ( Asociación de la Movida Nocturna del Centro Histórico de Asunción), or AMCHA, and have managed to revitalize the area through a combination of cultural and recreational events, like a massive Oktoberfest and a museum night.

Last week, AMCHA met Cali’s new night mayor at the the "24 Hour Cali Forum,” an event to share ideas on how to manage the city after dark. Other participants included Sound Diplomacy, which promotes music as a tool for urban development; Chepecletas, a Costa Rican organization that organizes evening bike rides; and Mirik Milan, Amsterdam’s current night mayor.

Experts says this is just the beginning of a very positive change for the region’s urban spaces.

"It's time people start thinking about the night as an option,” Seijas says, “because we’re wasting half the day.”