Courtesy: Chuck Wolfe

New efforts to document soundscapes, past and present.

As I've recently written, visual urban nostalgia has a place in today's dialogue about cities. Historical photos, videos and reconstructions of a pre-car era are all sources of inspiration for a more sustainable urban future. And they are brought to us, by and large, by the internet.

Click on a link, and the romanticized past appears as a visual analogue to a sound byte about "then and now." But what about the sound byte itself? For example, as I asked last year - amid "street scenes and carriage jams" - what did the social nature of traffic interactions actually sound like in the late nineteenth century? The problem is that sound is amorphous, and not easily reconstructed. Consider the "photoautogram" efforts of Thomas Edison colleague Charles Batchelor in 1872 in an urban setting. Click here for a barely audible recording of New York City's Metropolitan Elevated Railroad, 40 feet away.

Nonetheless, study of "soundscapes" - particularly in the urban environment - has grown from its foundation in Vancouver by R. Murray Schafer in the 1960s. The urban soundscape is an increasing focal point worldwide. Sound-based urban initiatives appear both as prospective planning tools and as historical, documentary exercises to inform an urban past. Soundscapes are an element of the urban environment. Soundscape proponents argue for assistance from the aural as well as the visual, in order to facilitate the identity of a place through careful, qualitative attention to how it sounds.

For instance, one click, here, provides background on the "acoustic landscapes" in Cologne, Germany, and the evolution of Schafer's thinking when applied to modern Berlin. The Goethe Institute provides perspective from American American Yukio King, who worked on Berlin sound issues:

As at Helmholtzplatz in the East Berlin borough of Prenzlauer Berg. All you could hear there a few years ago were barking dogs and clinking beer bottles. Now that many young families have moved into the neighbourhood, the cries of children drown out these sounds: which King feels has enhanced the area in acoustic terms.

In addition, King attempted a dialogue in another Berlin neighborhood which emphasized the benefits of classic:

In his 2007 project Urban Soundmarks, he not only documented the soundscape of a neighbourhood in Neukölln, a disadvantaged area in the south of Berlin, but drew up an urban planning concept that incorporated sound design and presented it to the borough council. His suggestion was that open-air cafes or a market could acoustically improve this relatively quiet neighbourhood.

Historic attention to soundscapes literally echo the visual and focus on hearing as well as seeing the qualities of cities over time.

Scholars have focused on the recreation of urban sounds to aid in the understanding of historic urban experiences, sometimes at an IMAX-like level. Berlin's National Museums provide a good, ongoing example in this year's dramatic exhibition about the ancient. classical city of Pergamon. Sounds accompany a panoramic reconstruction, such as "[a]udio impressions including day and night simulations, complete with sunrise and sunset, and ambient sound effects that recreate life in an ancient city, allow the visitor to experience a whole day in Pergamon."

Similarly, Pittsburgh-based non-profit Public VR's website offers an in-process reconstruction of ancient Pompeii's theater district, which is silent for now, but will soon contain ambient sounds composed with simulated ancient Roman musical instruments.

In another effort, funded research has allowed multinational work on reconstruction of urban soundscapes in renaissance Spain through the study of "musicians, performers, institutions, composers, instrument makers, copyists, printers, consumers, blind balladeers and many others across a broad social spectrum". Whether directed to shaping the future soundscape or understanding past examples, one thing is clear. Sight and sound both play roles in understanding cities, and the role of sound is ripe for further exploration.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo of a new subdivision of high-end suburban homes in Highland, Maryland.
    Equity

    Unpacking the Power of Privileged Neighborhoods

    A new study shows that growing up in an affluent community brings “compounding privileges” and higher educational attainment—especially for white residents.

  2. Amazon public policy representative Holly Sullivan hugs Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.
    Equity

    In Nashville, Will Amazon Overpromise and Under-Deliver?

    New salary data cast doubt among activists on whether Amazon will fulfill its compensation pledge in Nashville. And they’re advocating to stall local approvals.

  3. Transportation

    Atlanta’s Big Transit Vote Is a Referendum on Race

    As suburban Gwinnett County weighs a MARTA expansion, changing demographics and politics may decide the Georgia capital's transportation future.

  4. A photo of the silhouette of a cyclist on a bike lane.
    Transportation

    Watch Bike Advocates Vent About the Silliest Anti-Bike Lane Arguments

    A new video from Streetfilms assembles the most head-scratching attacks employed by bike-lane foes, such as: Don’t let the terrorists win!

  5. A woman looks out over Manhattan from a glass-walled observation deck in a skyscraper.
    Design

    Inside Hudson Yards, Manhattan’s Opulent New Mini-City

    With super-tall glass towers, a luxury mall, and a ’grammable urban spectacle, Hudson Yards is very much a development of its time.