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Sounds of the city

Is London’s soundscape dominated more by transport or natural noise? Is London’s soundscape dominated more by transport or natural noise? Michal Rosak / Shutterstock.com
31 Mar
Besides the standard complaint-generating noises, what do our cities sound like on an day-to-day basis?

The rising concern of noise ‘pollution’ in our cities has resulted in a new wave of innovative schemes by urban developers to make their developments more appealing, with soundproofing, crafty traffic planning, and talk of creating appealing urban ‘soundscapes’. But it has rarely been seen as more than an afterthought for small-scale developments, not something which could ever be realistically applied to cities as a whole.

The first steps towards changing that perspective look to be underway, as research by an international team and published by the Royal Society, has attempted to track and map sonic episodes across two major cities – London and Barcelona. By collecting geotagged data from social media, including sound-related words (as recognised by the World Soundscape Project and Freesound) and tags associated with crowd-sourced information on websites such as OpenStreetMap, these were then categorised using a system similar to that created by R. Murray Schafer, the father of the modern study of acoustic ecology.

londonSoundscape of central London (Image: Quercia et al.)

The research aims to help us see (or should that be hear?) London and Barcelona – and hopefully other cities in the future – in a new light. As opposed to simply providing information on the different visual elements of the cities, they also indicate which parts are most closely associated with nature, with music, with transport, or other ‘human’ activities (such as talking, walking, and the sound of children).

Unsurprisingly, London’s parks are the most prominent natural soundscapes in the city, with Hyde Park and Regent’s Park especially standing out, as well as the green lines which run along the River Thames, indicating paths and relatively quieter roads. The central boroughs of Westminster and Camden are most strongly connected to human sounds , while the increasing red parts away from the CBD indicate the city’s transport hubs, especially Victoria, Waterloo, Paddington and Euston stations. There’s also a pleasing observation of music strongly associated with the north of the city, around areas such as Hoxton, which have increasingly become home to more youthful residential populations in recent years.

Barcelona’s natural soundscapes are also most noticeable along the waterfront and in such green spaces such as Park Güell and Ciutadella Park. Thick red lines indicate the major traffic routes, which cut through the bluer central streets of the city where the sounds of human activity is most noticeable. Musical yellow patches are scattered across the city centre, but are gathered most strongly at the city’s popular El Forum event space at the northern end waterfront.

barcelonaSoundscape of central Barcelona (Image: Quercia et al.)

‘No matter what data one has, fully capturing soundscapes might well be impossible,’ confesses the report. It explains how the complexity and dynamism of soundscapes, unlike relatively more static landscapes, create a huge amount of variation through time, context and perception, making a comprehensive sound map very difficult to achieve. ‘Our work has focused on identifying potential sonic events,’ it continues. ‘To use a food metaphor, if those events are the raw ingredients, then the aural architecture (which comes with the acoustic properties of trees, buildings and streets) is the cooking style, and the soundscape is the dish.’

The study also looked at people’s responses to these different sonic environments, concluding that streets with music sounds were associated with strong emotions of joy or sadness, whereas those with human sounds were associated with joy or surprise. The researchers’ aspired next step is to undertake ‘comprehensive multi-sensory research of cities’, encompassing sight, smell and sound maps all together.

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