What Should the City Sound Like?

October 23, 2020 — The Big Picture

Why The Pursuit of Quiet Isn‘t Working

We constantly rely on sounds to interact with our environment and plan our actions, be it to avoid an approaching car, attend to a crying baby, or answer a ringing phone. Certain sounds orient, comfort, or excite us while others distract or annoy us. Calm sound environments can be conducive to relaxation, while vibrant sound environments encourage lingering and foster memorability. Soundmarks (sound landmarks), like church bells and interactive installations can even showcase the artistic, cultural, and historical side of the city.

But think about your favorite places in your city – do the sounds you remember live up to the visual qualities? Probably not – in a visual-first culture, cities rarely design and plan with sound in mind. Sound is typically considered after decisions have been made and corrective measures like noise barriers are the only fix. But this noise mitigation is only capable of reducing the most negative effects of noise. We’d like to put forward a different approach, one that considers sound as an opportunity to improve cities, spaces, and projects.

But how can we reframe today’s approaches to design and planning with sound in mind? How do we harness the potential of enhancing urban experience through sound? First, sounds are clearly more than their noise levels. We need to consider city user’s experience without the implicit assumption that all sounds are negative. Second, we need to consider how sound is experienced in various contexts like time of day or who is making and hearing sound. And third, we need to consider sound in relation to other urban factors, rather than as an isolated factor. For example, sound is related to mobility and quality of life: when traffic on a road is diverted, noise levels drop, neighbors sleep better, live with less stress, and enjoy the sound of the birds now audible from their window. These three assumptions, which we dive into a little more here, are key to a growing field of soundscape researchers and professionals.

The quest for quiet

What should a city sound like? Many would say that they want quiet, yet quiet can be awkward and silence can be deafening. Silence might even be a reminder that we aren’t safe somewhere. When we head to a park and hear construction noise, we know what quiet means in that moment – it’s the absence of that noise. In the absence of the construction noise, we can hear people talking, kids playing, musicians strumming, and water flowing, but is that quiet?

If COVID-19 has taught us anything about our sound environments, it’s that quiet lives in a balance. Yes, the worldwide reduction in traffic noise brought the birds into our neighborhoods to sing more audibly than ever before; but the reprieve, the lack of noise, was also a sign that people were losing their jobs, were sick at home, and not physically engaging in the critical public arenas that make our cities, well, cities.

In our everyday life, we not only seek moments and spaces of quiet, but also diverse sound environments that are suitable for our diverse activities1. But what is suitable for one person or community may be unsuitable for others in a different context. Yet, current policy and planning rely almost exclusively on noise levels measured in decibels, but so much about our environments that we cherish can’t be measured like that. For an analogy, would you be able to explain your favorite food by only describing its temperature? How do we move forward?

Listening in context

Urban sounds form the heartbeat of a city. Changes in urban soundscapes reflect patterns in public space use throughout the day and year, illustrating the vitality, cultural and economic life of our neighborhoods. These social and experiential aspects of sounds are just as important as the physical (decibel) levels that form the basis of our noise codes. For example, our own work in public spaces in Montreal has shown that sound installations can markedly improve users’ soundscapes. Despite the fact that sounds were added, our studies have revealed that space users found the spaces more pleasant, less loud, and even safer2. This might seem counterintuitive at first – shouldn’t added sound make busy spaces more cacophonous? But these sounds instead focus city users’ attention and help reinforce a space’s boundaries, program, or ambiance, demonstrating the potential to shape our public spaces through sound. On top of these psychological benefits, artists were engaged to improve our public spaces – engaging visual artists is becoming the norm, but engaging sound artists should go hand-in-hand.

Sound isn’t just changed with sound art though – it is deeply integrated with every aspect of our urban experience. It touches on everything – planning, health, environment, ecology, technology, policy, arts, and tourism. So why are we stuck reducing sound experience to decibels? The simple answer is that we need a shift in the status quo, but the alternatives are complicated. We support a shift in strategies (including professional education) away from purely technical formulas towards a more holistic, integrated approach that resembles the way professionals deal with other planning and design factors. For example, building materials are frequently chosen for visual aesthetics, thermal comfort, or permeability but are far less often used for their acoustic capabilities: these could range from tuning the reverberation to allow users to have a conversation without raising their voices to selecting underfoot materials like pebbles that signal a space boundary or encourage users to enter a more reflective state.

Bringing sound to the table

In our experiences working on sound with cities and firms, we feel that most professionals only have knowledge about what not to do without quite knowing what to do. So, while sound could be used to support design and planning goals, it is typically overlooked until it becomes an unbearable nuisance, ruining what might otherwise be a good project. Ignoring sound is a missed opportunity for many reasons: because stakeholders are already upset, money will need to be negotiated or spent to build walls, space is wasted, cities expand needlessly, and transportation networks can’t cope.

What does this mean for the future of noise regulations? First and foremost, noise regulations need to become just a piece of the puzzle in the context of broader sound thinking. Sound needs to be included in strategic plans and integrated with other urban factors at every step of city-making. We also need more preventive measures such as education campaigns to raise awareness among professionals and citizens, so that sound can permeate discussions on nightlife, mixed uses, densification, and so on. For example, recent research has highlighted the importance of information for residents who are exposed to construction noise, such that they are more tolerant when they have sufficient information to plan their lives around the work. Finally, we need to move beyond sound levels measurements and account for the social and experiential qualities of sound to meet the needs of multiple stakeholders and minimize conflicts around unwanted sound.

This ambitious agenda requires extensive collaboration between different sectors and levels of governance to harness the opportunities that sound can bring and go beyond just noise mitigation. Recent undertakings are working towards changing the way cities sound around the world3. Information exchange across disciplines and stakeholders is critical. For example, technical, acoustic solutions should focus on optimizing spaces and supporting design goals rather than shielding off poor spaces with noise barriers.

What do we hope readers take away? Sound environments can be designed and planned, not just measured. Sound environments have a complex mix of sounds – like a ‘recipe’ that can work for a certain type of space and its unique users. Some ingredients like traffic sounds are like rosemary – they don’t work in every recipe and can easily overpower the batter. The recipe for pocket parks is different from nature preserves and is yet different from major cultural spaces like Montreal’s Quartier des spectacles or New York’s Times Square. But this recipe can’t be determined by one person, we need to invite diverse stakeholders to the table and take multiple perspectives into account.

Sounds in the City is a research partnership based at McGill University, bringing together diverse academics, professionals, artists, and citizens to rethink the role of sound in cities. Our team includes private sector partners along with public sector partners at the City of Montreal and throughout the government of Quebec. Sounds in the City is active conducting original soundscape research through site and policy studies around the city and region. Our partnership aims to influence 3 main areas, to: have an influence on urban sound management, conduct original soundscape research, and conduct soundscape training programs for professionals of the built environment and other decision makers. Through outreach activities with the general public, we give Montreal residents a better understanding of their city’s process, empowering them to shape their environment as well.

1. Guastavino, C. (2006). The ideal urban soundscape: Investigating the sound quality of French cities. Acta Acustica united with Acustica, 92(6), 945-951. (free copy: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Catherine_Guastavino/publication/233705298_ The_Ideal_Urban_Soundscape_Investigating_the_Sound_Quality_of_French_Cities/links/0046352be09e851fbf000000/The-Ideal-Urban-Soundscape-Investigating-the-Sound-Quality-of-French-Cities.pdf)
2.Two Montreal-based projects with added sound: Steele, D., Legast, É., Trudeau, C., Fraisse, V., & Guastavino, C. Sounds in the city: Improving the soundscape of a public square through sound art. In Proceedings of the ISCV (Vol. 26) (free copy: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333058798_Sounds_in_the_City_Improving_the_soundscape_of_a_public_square_through_sound_art) and Steele, D., Bild, E., Tarlao, C., & Guastavino, C. (2019). Soundtracking the public space: outcomes of the Musikiosk soundscape intervention. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(10), 1865 (open source: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/16/10/1865/htm).
3.Including the Sounds in the City partnership in Montréal (www.sounds-in-the-city.org) and the Sonorus project (http://www.fp7sonorus.eu/) in Europe among others.

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

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