Soundscape – what’s all this noise about?

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Walking around in Manhattan, New York, you can find a hidden gem. It’s a beautiful park with green walls of plants and a stunning waterfall. It’s a little oasis in the middle of the city, engulfed by the quietness and gentle sounds of the flowing water and shaking leaves. Built in the late 1960’s, Paley Park is not only a fine landscaping landmark, but also a great example of a soundscape. A practise and terminology defined only in the late 1970’s, by Schafer, a Canadian composer and environmentalist. He became a pioneer of environmental acoustics starting off by raising awareness of the importance of the sound environment, which surrounds us. Be it in the city, or in the great outdoors. In developing the soundscape terminology he used an analogy to a physical landscape; he separated the background noises from the “soundmarks” like waterfalls or fountains – distinct elements of a soundscape. In his work he focused predominantly on defining and exploring an environmental soundscape.
Schafer was the first to notice that with the constant growth of our cities, the management of noise pollution is certainly crucial, but we must not forget about other aspects of the acoustic environment around us.

Noise management has been quietly accompanying our city lives for decades. We’ve accepted the sound acoustic barriers placed on the sides of busy streets and motorways as an integral part of the city landscape. Yet, we only really associate sound design and our sensitivity to sound with concert halls and the interior architecture of our homes and offices. We’ve overlooked the fact that growing cities don’t grow in silence. The need for the recognition of the importance of the acoustic environment around us grows with them.

Since Schafer’s pioneering work, there have been numerous global and European efforts focusing on noise as a nuisance – creating sound maps of cities and introducing further improvements in approaches aimed at reducing high noise levels. What has been initially lacking were initiatives, which would treat a soundscape, and in particular a soundscape of a city, as a complex phenomenon. As discussed by L.Brown, a phenomenon that should be shaped by utilizing both, noise management techniques, as well as, the preservation of, and introduction of the sounds already present in the environment, masking the noise with the sounds we enjoy. Even though the idea of re-cycling noise seems unusual it has been employed already in Paley Park. The attenuated traffic noises became a background to a beautiful sound of the waterfall.

Since the early 2000’s the awareness of the impact of the sound environment on our standard of living and our wellbeing has been growing. In 2007, a European initiative – “Soundscapes of European cities and landscapes” was commissioned. As a result, a number of work-groups composed of international experts focused on addressing specific questions with regards to city soundscapes. How do we perceive them and how do they affect us, how should we design them? For example, one of the work groups went on to investigate how we can shape sound environments to meet people’s expectations. In particular, with regards to the kind of activities that people would perform in a given space. The task of this workgroup is at the core of why our sound environment matters and how by altering it we can further enhance our quality of life.

Further initiatives such as the Soundscape Park Project in Belfast, a fully designed soundscape have been created to help us better understand our experiences of soundscape. .
A number of speakers strategically placed around a beautiful community garden do not only create an idyllic park with singing birds and fountains, but also, at given times, let you experience other soundscape, such as being in the middle of a jungle!

Notably, there are numerous other public spaces and parks around the world with disguised audio systems, carefully designed to create a calm oasis and a relaxing experience for the visitors.

With the boom of new technologies, breakthroughs in transportation as well as exponentially growing cities we are trying to come up with an equation for a perfect living-work environment and emotional happiness. In this frantic quest we must not forget about the importance of the acoustic environment around us. Especially the quiet spaces we need to able to focus and work well, or just gather our thoughts and rest.

Otherwise, we might just find ourselves within a growing cloud of noise, just like smog, but worse.

Simply, because we won’t be able to see and change what’s driving all of us mad!



Author: Agnieszka Klawiter

This article is part of theGIST’s Science for Society article competition. To vote for your favourite click here or to read the other articles click here.

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