Saturday, 7 June 2008

Positive soundscapes and the acoustic city

Peter Cusack is a field-recordist, musician and academic. When he spoke to Urban Mutations 3: Sound of Place / Sound as Space (www.myspace.com/urbanmutations), he was speaking to an audience with an interest in development, architecture and planning, and he began by explaining some of his findings on what a ‘positive soundscape’ might be in an urban context, before discussing what this knowledge might bring to those involved in planning and designing urban space. Different people have different perceptions of what constitutes a positive soundscape. For developers (and their architects) it may simply be an environment where the prevailing legal requirements on limiting noise levels are met. The diverse users of a city, however, are likely to have a more varied and nuanced view on what constitutes a valuable acoustic experience in a city.

Peter’s work in this area follows his inauguration of the ‘Your Favourite London Sound’ project in 1998, which has grown to influence similar projects in Beijing and Chicago. The favourite sounds of city dwellers are not, as one might suppose, the acoustic symbols of the nation, such as the chimes of Big Ben, in London. They are, in contrast, the often mundane sounds of everyday life. In London, the most popular categories of sounds are those experienced on public transport, followed by those of green spaces. Yet it was also the very specific sounds experienced in these places that people cited – the sound of the No.73 night bus home, for example, or the Bakerloo Line north bound platform announcements at Waterloo.
 
In Beijing the population chose similar types of sounds, but there were striking differences in their approach to them. Beijingers tend to be more articulate than Londoners in expressing why they prefer particular sounds, and have a more philosophical view towards the role of sound in the development of their city. Peter believes that this may be owing to the fundamental transformation being undergone in Beijing. The city is losing its ancient fabric and being reformed as a city with a very different personality. It is as if the newly emerging city is a child, in need of nurturing and support in its development.
 
People’s favourite sounds reflect their own experience of the city and their relationship with it. While assumptions should be avoided, more can be said about what people value acoustically. Clarity is important; the idea that detailed and specific sounds are not drowned out by traffic and are of a suitable quality for people to truly appreciate them. Related to this is the need to be able to hear for some distance, enabling people to orientate themselves within an environment and interact with their wider surroundings. 

What does this tell the urban planner and designer? It suggests a value should be placed on creating spaces where sound clarity is good. The varying size of pedestrianised squares in Coventry, for example, and the different vegetation within them, creates different acoustic qualities that can be appreciated because sound is not overpowered by the mechanised noise of the modern city.
 
The lesson to the designer and the design assessor is surely that their traditional emphasis on visual quality, should at least be complemented by a parallel emphasis on the acoustic qualities of a place.
 


Author: Lewis Eldridge

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