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Environment / Climate change

Interactive sound maps provide new tools for mapping cities

Since the late 1990s, using interactive technologies and the power of social media, sound artists, archivists and historians have proposed new ways of mapping cities in sound. Their maps provide new ways for citizens and publics to engage with the urban environment, and provide new insights into the composition of city spaces.

One of the first online, interactive sound maps was created by sound artist and musician Peter Cusack, who teaches at the University of The Arts, London. The premise for Cusack’s project – Your Favourite London Sound, initiated in 1998 – was simple but effective. He invited people to upload field recordings of their favourite sound of London to draw attention to the positive aspects of the soundscape or acoustic environment.

This was in contrast to the much more widespread noise maps used by city councils, governments and planners, which show ambient or environmental noise levels. Whereas noise maps show “unwanted sounds” in the form of noisy neighbourhoods or districts, the Favourite Sounds project – which has since spread to around a dozen cities including Beijing, Berlin, Jerusalem, New York and Vancouver – shows people’s affinities to different sounds and how this affects their experience of a city. According to Cusack, the project intended “to get people talking about the way they hear everyday sounds and how they react to them, or what they think and feel about them, and how important (or not important) they are… You learn a lot about the city by asking about its sound.”

A more recent online effort, the Montréal Sound Map, was conceived by twin brothers Max and Julian Stein when they were still undergraduate students at Concordia University in Montréal in 2008. They wanted to create an interactive platform for documenting and archiving the Montréal soundscape, while also inviting contributors to develop a new relationship to the city through listening.

The Stein brothers say they hope people will “explore and listen to the city with a purposeful and special attention that is rarely given to the sounds of the environment. We aim for people to continue this attentive listening and experience the complexity and lure of the soundscape first hand.”

The Montréal Sound Map has received hundreds of contributions, and it not only acts as a “sonic time capsule”, but also gives people a new way of interacting with and understanding the city. Visitors to the website can hear the Montréal soundscape as a kind of musical composition by choosing the “Autoplay” or “Shuffle” functions for playing back recordings; or they can choose to focus on a particular site see how its soundscape has changed over time. The most recent addition to the project is the development of an iPhone app by Julian Vogels that allows users to automatically upload sounds as they navigate the city.

Sound mapping’s social dimension – field recording, listening walks, participative artworks – has profoundly benefitted from social media websites and licencing agreements like Creative Commons “ShareAlike,” which permits people to freely share media including audio recordings. Between 2010 and 2011, over 350 people submitted approximately 2000 recordings to the British Library’s UK Soundmap, the first national sound map of the UK.

Contributors could share and comment on one another’s recordings through websites like Twitter and AudioBoo. The participative nature of social media allows for different contributors to connect with one another through the act of field recording and through dialogue about soundscapes. This has been especially important for visually impaired users, who are particularly active members of the sound mapping community. 

There are innumerable uses for sound maps – yet they are little known and seldom used within architecture and urban planning. Recomposing the City seeks to bring sonic arts methods and perspectives to bear within architecture and planning education and practice, particularly in urban contexts. For example, sound maps can be effective tools in site analysis. In the Street Society workshop, we invited architecture students to create sound maps of an area of social deprivation of Belfast. They engaged in different listening exercises and explored the area in terms of its acoustic makeup. Their map showed that the area was acoustically cut off from its surroundings. It also illustrated that this acoustic isolation had enormous impact upon the quality of life of residents. 

Sound maps are only one tool emerging from the sonic arts that can benefit architecture and planning. By proposing new collaborations between sonic artists and those who design the built environment, we hope to bring attention to the enormous potential that sound has to change how we understand, design and transform cities.  

Dr Gascia Ouzounian is co-founder with Dr Sarah Lappin of the cross-disciplinary research project Recomposing the City: Sonic Art and Urban Architectures, based at Queen’s University Belfast. Next week she will speak at the Challenges of Government Conference – “Flourishing Cities” organised by the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, which exists to inspire and support better public policy and government around the world. 
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