Salutogenic Living: Moving from Noise Control to Soundscape Design

October 20, 2020 — The Big Picture

Sound affects everything we do. It is fundamental to the health and wellbeing of all life and is a crucial building block for civilisation. Before the onslaught of visual media, the importance of sound, hearing and listening was understood to be critical to life. But in modern life we are continually bombarded by noise – defined as unwanted sound – and hearing has, for many, become a ‘Cinderella’ sense: ever present but subjugated to the visual and other senses.

But understanding how to design better sounding environments has, perhaps, never been so critical. Against the backdrop of rapid urbanisation trends, more people needing or having to work from home, the desperate need for more and better quality housing, and the acute awareness of the direct link between the quality of our indoor and outdoor environments and our quality of life – how places sound is paramount to achieving sustainable and salutogenic living.

While sustainability and UK noise policy aims focus on reducing negative environmental impacts, salutogenic design focusses on creating health promoting environments. The link between noise and health has been well documented. As stated by the World Health Organization (WHO), ‘noise can disturb sleep, cause cardiovascular and psychophysiological effects, reduce performance and provoke annoyance responses and changes in social behaviour.’ WHO research has found that, “at least 100 million people in the EU are affected by road traffic noise, and in western Europe alone at least 1.6 million healthy years of life are lost as a result of road traffic noise,” and that, “the burden of disease from environmental noise [is] the second highest after air pollution.”

Given the scale and impact of the problem, the need to reduce noise pollution is generally undisputed. However, challenges arise in practice because the human response to sound is perceptual in context rather than primarily based on objective levels. For example, a favourite song, while sometimes pleasing, can quickly become noise if played while one’s trying to read a book or speak on the phone. Likewise, a loud sporting event might be fun and exhilarating for those attending voluntarily, but a barely audible dripping tap can be highly annoying and difficult to ignore.

However, there can be the temptation to fixate on sound levels, measured in decibels, and noise mitigation to the exclusion of all else. While this approach reduces some of the effects of noise pollution its limitations have been identified by experts noting that at least one-third of the variance in response to noise is due to factors other than the objective sound level. BS 4142, a tried and true British Standard that can trace its origins to the 1963 Wilson Report, recognises that, “Response to sound can be subjective and is affected by many factors, both acoustic and non-acoustic.” These ‘other factors’ may include, for example, attitude to the sound source, expectations regarding the sound and what seems reasonable, and the ability to control the sound or one’s exposure to it.

In environmental planning and design, the human response to sound is estimated by acousticians and practitioners based on established standards, guidelines and a healthy amount of professional judgement. However, there can be a wide variation in the population’s response to sound in context and it can be extremely difficult to accurately assess how individuals will respond to various scenarios, and equally difficult for individuals to know how they will respond to sound environments they may not have previously experienced. Equally, if one has had a negative experience of a sound environment it can be difficult to believe that any proposed interventions can change that negative experience.

To help address these issues and limitations in environmental noise control policies and management, international soundscape standards have been developed. While the concept of soundscape can be used to describe a type of sound art, in the context of acoustic standards ‘soundscape’ refers to the acoustic (or sound) environment of a place, like a residential area or a city park, as experienced and/or understood by its users. It can be understood as the acoustic equivalent to ‘landscape’, and includes all sound sources, wanted as well as unwanted. Managing the sounds of places can, therefore, be referred to as ‘soundscape planning’.

The approach to managing the acoustic environment by managing noise levels alone is fast becoming a thing of the past. The concept of soundscape is now embedded in the aforementioned BS 4142. And professional practice guidance produced by acoustic industry leaders in the UK recognises that: “Good acoustic design is about more than the numbers. It is a holistic design process that creates places that are both comfortable and attractive to live in, where acoustics is considered integral to the living environment.”

Soundscape planning is not a question of how loud sounds are, or just reducing unwanted sounds, but rather what sounds are appropriate to, or belong to a place. There is no one ideal soundscape, and what is deemed an appropriate soundscape can change over time to reflect the evolving needs and/or uses of an area. Soundscape planning identifies sound as an environmental resource and therefore another element to the design pallet for practitioners. For example, soundscape planning is applicable to rural and urban recreational areas; the design and building of residential housing and public buildings; and the planning and management of all indoor and outdoor spaces. Importantly, soundscape planning puts stakeholders at the centre of a holistic design process to define the parameters of how a place should sound in order to support its intended use.

Supremely, soundscape is an approach rooted in salutogenesis as access to high-quality sound environments can positively affect health, well-being and quality of life. Whether stakeholders decide that a place should be quiet, calm, or lively, filled with sounds of nature or people – or any combination of sources – soundscape planning is central to designing health promoting places fit for people to live, work and play.

So, against the backdrop of rapid urbanisation can we really have it all – vibrant, exciting 24/7 cities, yet restorative places when and where we need them? Yes, with holistic soundscape planning and design, and stakeholders at the centre of the process.


Photo by Martyna Bober on Unsplash

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