Soundscapes: the importance of listening

This is an edited piece from a longer paper “Urban soundscapes and quality of life; a more holistic approach” presented by our former colleague Luca Dellatorre at the 52nd International ‘Making Cities Livable’ conference.

What is a soundscape?

A soundscape describes the acoustic environment we would experience in a certain area – much like we see a visual environment as a landscape. Mostly reflective of the activities taking place in an area, it is common for city soundscapes to be dominated by the sound of traffic and building works which can mask quieter sounds. Just as Big Ben is a landmark of Westminster, its instantly recognisable chimes are a “soundmark” that is unique in distinguishing the area from elsewhere.

In the countryside away from busy city activities, a soundscape is usually dominated by sounds of nature such as birdsong and wildlife, which also reflects the landscape of the area. Previous research has often focused on the negative effects of noise on health and annoyance, with less focus on understanding the effects of positive sounds. However, there is evidence to suggest that both a congruence between soundscape and landscape along with an emphasis of nature can promote wellbeing, health and enjoyment.

The importance of active listening

Although most of us hear sounds around us as we move through an area, we are rarely actively listening to our surroundings. Sometimes, we might even mask our surroundings through the use of headphones. By taking a “soundwalk”, our aim is to actively give our ears priority and focus solely on the acoustic stimuli around us. In the same way that photographs are used to document a changing city’s landscape, soundwalks should be recorded to track its developing acoustic heritage over time. Only with an awareness of our acoustical surroundings can we begin to design spaces with appropriate sounding environments.

Designing soundscapes with SonicRoom

Unlike visuals, sound is not often considered in urban design, unless as an inconvenience where abatement measures such as noise barriers and sound insulation will be used as a solution.

Instead of avoiding sounds, we believe that sound should be actively included in the design stages of a project. By creating soundscapes that reflect the landscape and the activities taking place there, we can help to enhance the local environment and ultimately improve people’s wellbeing as a result.

Here at Anderson Acoustics, our London-based SonicRoom can be used to replay recorded sounds of an area using ambisonic technology to give a listener a complete 3D experience of the sound of a place. We can also manipulate these recordings to simulate spaces that do not yet exist – a process called auralisation – which can be used in a similar way to an artist’s impressions of a development.

These techniques have already been used in the consultation stages of infrastructure projects, and we hope that in time it will become common practice in design.

By encouraging everyone to open their ears, we hope to encourage the design of more pleasant sounding cities that enhance, not detract from, our wellbeing and help to improve our quality of life.

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