Take a walk down your street and what do you hear? In a typical city, the most dominating sounds are those of vehicles whizzing by or of cars honking at one another. But if you listen closely, you can hear all kinds of different sounds masked by the traffic. You might hear the faint announcement of a DJ coming from someone’s car radio, the tolling of a church bell, the instruments of a street musician, or the chatter between a vendor and his customer.
Take a listen, for example, to all the different sounds of Boyle Heights, a busy street in Los Angeles. This was recorded back in April by three researchers for a project called LA Listens, and all the traffic noise has been digitally removed.
As busy people, we habitually tune out certain sounds as we go about our day. But by doing that, we also tune out the important things they say about our environment, says Nse Esema, program director of community media projects at MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab). Since May, CoLab has been asking people all over the world to send in two-minute soundbites, or “audio portraits,” of their neighborhoods. (It’s an ongoing project, and Esema is looking for more people to contribute.)
Esema says they were inspired by LA Listens, which used street sounds to unpack the vibrant spirit of Los Angeles. “It was very cool, and that’s a methodology that urban planners don’t often use or aren’t really exposed to,” she tells CityLab. “So I pitched this idea of opening up the process and inviting others to participate in cities around the world.”
As CityLab previously reported, the study of “soundscapes” dates back to the 1960s, when it was pioneered by composer and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer. Soundscapes of times past give us a way into the historical identity of a place, while those recorded today can serve as planning tools. So far, planners and designers have analyzed soundscapes to target unwanted sounds, or noise pollution. But researchers have also advocated for designers to use that data to create sweeter-sounding cities, where natural sounds like birds chirping aren’t drowned out.
So far, CoLab has received submissions from a handful of people in places including Maine, Kentucky, Mexico, Turkey, and Ghana. In some portraits—all posted on the group’s website, CoLab Radio—the sounds reveal the city’s social and economic dynamics. Esema directs me to a clip recorded on Kwame Nkrumah Avenue, one of the busiest commercial hubs of the city of Accra, Ghana.
Victoria Okoye, who captured the audio portrait, described on CoLab Radio that the things she heard that were typical to her city: the putt-putting of car engines, car horns blaring in “short bursts that pierce the air … as if to say, ‘Watch out!,’ ’Make way!,’ or ‘I’m available!’”
Perhaps more telling is the sound of the “street hustle”:
Shop owners, street vendors and customers decorate the air with the consistency of conversation and haggling in the local languages—Twi, Ga, and Fante. It’s a familiar street rhythm. An old man walks along, singing to himself. Vendors call out to passersby, with greetings, hails and other attention getters, hoping to entice potential customers.
“Pure water!” calls a young female water seller, deftly balancing a load of water sachets and bottles on her head. It’s nearly empty now. Her eyes dart back and forth as she looks for potential customers in all directions. A man forms a kissing sound to call her, and she rushes over.
In an audio portrait from an outdoor market in Thessaloniki, Greece, conversations about the country’s struggling economy are mixed in with the bellowing of merchants. Contributor Eleni Myrtsioti wrote on CoLab Radio, “At first glance, the market seems to be doing all right. But overheard conversations about fewer and more hesitant customers coupled with lower prices seems to confirm that the area has started to succumb to Greece’s broader economic crises.”
The sound clips also reveal details about the social dynamics of city neighborhoods, says Esema. As part of the challenge, CoLab asked each contributor to consider how the sounds interact with each other, and if there is any “volume disparity” between the sources.
In Boyle Heights, where the researchers behind LA Listens made their recording, the “volume war” between mariachi performers—considered part of the area’s historic landscape—and electronic music blasting from a cell-phone shop reveal tensions in a changing neighborhood. In a post on CoLab, they wrote:
This kind of “volume war,” where Cricket Wireless, a national telecommunication cell phone service provider, pumps out sounds that are substantially louder than local merchants, exemplifies the encroaching of big businesses in a neighborhood with an economy primarily supported by local and small businesses. Listening to the differences in amplitude and performance style (a laptop DJ with powerful sound speakers hired by Cricket), we can begin to hear the emerging presence of businesses that are out of scale with the current local economy.
CoLab also features audio from Portland, Maine, in which flutists, street preachers, and canvassers are constantly competing to be heard. “The thing I realize about doing this is that you gotta be the loudest thing that people hear, or you’re going to get ignored,” the canvasser says in the clip.
I decided to take a short walk near CityLab’s office in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Here, tourists, commuters, and students from George Washington University all intersect. Aside from a friendly greeting from a man passing out newspapers, the recording is mostly filled with the sound of footsteps as people hurry to their work or their classes—signs of the area’s fast-paced environment. A student walks by, talking on the phone about a test she’s just taken. I pass by a bus stop broadcasting transit updates in Spanish for a much-anticipated visit by Pope Francis. Soon, all the sounds get drowned out by the screaming sirens of an approaching ambulance.
These sound profiles are perhaps best summed up by a man in the recording of Portland, Maine: “This is humanity on parade,” he tells the contributor, “so what … are you gonna do?”