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Listening to the Nature in Cities

Reposted from the Biophilic Cities blog with permission. Video above by Miha Cucek, filmed in Atami, Japan, and used under Creative Commons licensing. Few sounds return me to my childhood as quickly or as vividly as those enjoyed on a typical summer evening here in the eastern U.S.: the katydids, grasshoppers, tree frogs, and other sounds that make up nature’s nightly music festival. These are sounds that settle us, calm us, often lull us to sleep, and in my case bring back memories of camping in the backyard and long evening adventures. These are absolutely place-fixing sounds, the natural soundtracks to our lives. But for the most part we tend to forget about sound, and tend not to view it as a positive attribute in community planning and design. Sound clearly takes a back seat to the ocular, though what we see is greatly influenced by the other human senses we bring to bear.
Subway construction in Washington, DC, 1972. Via U.S. National Archives. Subway construction in Washington, DC, 1972. Via U.S. National Archives.

When we do think about sound,  it is usually in the negative. We are understandably worried about the high noise levels in cities and towns, a result of a cacophonous and chaotic mix of the stress-inducing sounds of whining highway auto and truck traffic, construction equipment, and emergency vehicle sirens, to name a few. Noise in cities is a significant health problem, as a recent WHO study has found (attributing thousands of deaths in Europe from heart attack and stroke, for instance, to high levels of background noise). Many of these urban sounds may be unavoidable, but we tend to view sound in cities more in terms of the avoidance of the bad (noise) and less in terms of the many positive ways that sounds (especially natural ones–wind, rain, water, animals) can uplift, enliven, and refresh us. How cities might enhance and celebrate the natural soundscape is an important question.  Bernie Krause, who we interviewed for this e-newsletter, suggests that sometimes we just need to be quiet. That is good advice, and seems counter to the many ways we seem to need to fill the spaces and places we inhabit with mindless noise of TVs and blaring 24-hour news reportage. Cities have the ability to influence the soundscape in many important ways. Limiting noise, and strengthening noise codes, are important steps, as cities like New York have done in recent years (and the city is now considering requiring the use of much-quieter electric jackhammers, as recently reported in The New York Times). But more can be done to enhance the natural soundscapes in urban neighborhoods. Planting native trees and vegetation, instead of asphalt and turfgrass, usually brings with it birdsong, the sounds of crickets, and the other delightful elements of the biophony, as Krause calls it. We’re not often taking account of these positive aural returns on our ecological investments, but we should.
Photo by Timothy Beatley Photo by Tim Beatley.

We must begin to more positively value, and work on behalf of, quiet in cities. A number of cities have taken steps to actively plan for quietness, understanding that quiet areas represent important urban assets. Designating quiet areas in parks is one step, as cities like New York have done (for instance, in Central Park), and seeking many ways to reduce and moderate the infringements of noise. In Phoenix’s iconic South Park, every fourth Sunday of the month is a Silent Sunday, where motorized traffic on the park’s roads is forbidden and bicyclists and hikers take over.  European cities are generally ahead, and have employed a host of methods for mapping noise and sound, and working to identify and establish quiet areas there (here's a good review of European good practice). Much of the task is to find ways to reduce the extraneous noise that masks the presence and beauty of the nature around us, but an equally important challenge will be for urban residents to learn (or re-learn) how to listen to the nature around them. For several years the students in my Sustainable Communities class helped in constructing a sound map for Charlottesville. I asked that each student to collect multiple sound samples in different places around the city, something requiring them to be simply be quiet and listen for a minute or so. I did the same, and just the step of actively listening, of being quiet and simply paying attention to the sounds heard,  was an epiphanous act. We will also collectively need a little help and guidance in identifying the natural sounds we hear, when we choose to listen, but just actively listening is pretty good step. I have made the argument elsewhere that our urban plans and planning systems should do a better job incorporating sound. If they did, and we gave sound the attention it deserves, the potential is great to re-connect to the animals and nature around us, and an excellent chance at the same time to both reduce long term stress, deepen connections to place, and enhance quality of life. Auditory bliss in cities can take many forms, of course, from the cheering fans at a baseball stadium, to the clanking of bicycles and streetcars. Each city will have its own signature soundscape, as Krause suggests. A big part of what will make a city special and unique, and a pleasure to live in, will be the richness of the natural life present, and in this way a rich natural soundscape is a litmus for how nature-ful and biophilic a city is. Perhaps just as Bernie Krause has been able to monitor the ecological integrity and health of natural landscapes from Borneo to the arctic tundra, an analysis of urban soundscapes will be able to provide a quick measure of just how biodiverse and livable our cities are.