The Sounds of Boston

The Sounds of Boston and Beyond: Hearing the Sonic Dimension of Cities

By Carly Berke

On Tuesday, September 10th, the Initiative on Cities hosted The Sounds of Boston and Beyond, a seminar that explored the development urban soundscapes and the impact they have on public health and community engagement.

The seminar was led by Erica Walker, Founder of Noise and the City and the Community Noise Lab at Boston University, Daniel Steele, a Visiting Fellow at the IOC and the Program Manager of Sounds in the City, and Edda Bild, a Soundscape Researcher who also comes from Sounds in the City.

Before the seminar began, Steele and Bild led a soundwalk through Boston to demonstrate how various dynamic sound environments exist within a city and the implications that can be taken into consideration during city planning. The walk commenced at Symphony Hall, where Steele pointed out that the concert hall was intentionally designed with the consultation of a professor well versed in acoustics in order to amplify the sound of performances. Steele emphasized that cities too can be intentionally designed with sound and noise levels in mind. 

The goal of the walk? “To revisit some typical Boston spaces, this time led by our ears and not our eyes,” said Steele. “[And] to show to those who don’t work on cities that they do have the right to a ‘better sounding city’: and encourage them to advocate with their political representatives or other decision makers for better soundscapes.”

From Symphony Hall, the walking tour hit several Boston landmarks, including an MBTA metro station, the Fens, and Kenmore Square. Steele revealed the contrast in sound environments between each destination, all of which offered insight into the urban soundscape. For example, the Fens are an important Boston landmark in the sense that residents who have access to parks and green spaces within walking distance are less likely to file noise complaints, while residents who frequent chaotic soundscapes like Kenmore Square have indicated they find noise from public transit less annoying than noise from cars. The walk also conveyed how soundscapes cannot be designed or studied out of context.

“Decibel factors don’t always tell the story,” Bild later said during the seminar, referencing a relatively loud public fountain from the soundwalk that masked the sound of city traffic. “It’s also about who’s involved in the process of making the sound, and who are the stakeholders involved in this process.”

“In a city, there are lots of sounds that oscillate between good and bad that depend on how we perceive and feel about them, when we are hearing them, and what we are doing at the time,” said Steele. “We can hear and differentiate between many distinct sounds at the same time, perceive the directions they came from, make decisions about whether or not to pay attention to them, act according to them or even let them affect our mood.”

Back at the Initiative on Cities, Bild kicked off the seminar with a presentation on her research regarding the development of sound throughout history and how it impacts our society today. She works with Steele as a Soundscape Researcher at Sounds in the City in Montreal, a multilateral partnership that works with McGill University, the City of Montreal, and several professionals and stakeholders to connect research and practice in urban noise management and soundscape. She pointed out that noise pollution has physical consequences on city residents and wildlife — for example, an increase in urban noise levels has actually resulted in the disappearance of several bird species that can no longer hear mating calls over the sound of city traffic. On the other hand, “quietness” has been monetized within urban society, exemplified by the prevalence of meditation retreats and therapies, noise-cancelling headphones, and other commercialized resources that grant access to “quietness”.

Bild, who is a PhD candidate in Urban Planning at the University of Amsterdam, acknowledged that while we saw successful environmental noise regulation in the ‘60s and ‘70s, innovation today regarding soundscape regulation is primarily coming from Europe, where cities are beginning to include soundscapes in consideration with zoning strategies and sustainability goals. Cities in the EU are taking both proactive and reactive approaches to address noise problems and integrate soundscape with the rest of city planning.

“It’s about trying to find balanced approaches that think of the future while trying to address what already exists in the present,” said Bild. “Noise is not something that can be dealt with in isolation. It is something that has to be integrated with everything else – the spatial configuration of our cities, the activities that we plan for our cities, the machinery that [operates] within our cities – all of these things have to be accounted for and we have to take an integrated approach.”

Above all, Bild stressed that context is key when evaluating the impact of sound in an urban environment. It’s important to consider where the sound originates from, what activities are being affected, how the sound affects you personally, and who is making the sound. She stressed the implications that race, gender, ethnicity, class all have on how we listen and create noise, and the inherent privilege that certain groups might hold to make noise complaints.

Bild’s stakeholder approach argues that everyone should have a seat at the table when designing cities and soundscapes, including acousticians, sound artists, scientists, sociologists, and soundscape researchers, in addition to residents with disabilities who process sound and noise differently, all of whom have previously been left out of the conversation. She encouraged that everyone has a stake in the discussion surrounding sound, and residents who aren’t involved in city planning still have a right to push for solutions. She also wants us to think about the way sound exists in transition spaces and between large city structures.

“It’s up to people like ourselves, not just scientists and professionals, but concerned citizens, to push this agenda on decision makers,” said Bild.

Steele expanded on Bild’s presentation, providing further insight into the work conducted by Sounds in the City in Montreal. He emphasized the purpose of their inquiry into urban soundscape, which is discovering how to mobilize sound knowledge into city making.

Before diving into his academic research on sound, Steele outlined his personal insights, the first of which is that sound and visual environments should send the same message. He referenced Boston’s esplanade, a scenic walkway along the Charles River, whose peaceful visuals are often disrupted by the highway noise from Storrow Drive. He also emphasized that sound and noise aren’t given equal consideration in city planning compared to issues like public health, wastewater, and public transport.

Steele explained that noise reduction approaches shouldn’t always be considered in isolation, and that communication is vital to incorporating sound into city planning. He also wants design to enhance the sound environment according to the users’ activities.

Steele completed his PhD at McGill University, a key partner of Sounds in the City. His team primarily focuses on small public spaces, including “pocket parks”, to enhance their soundscape within an urban environment.

“Is it a park if nobody is using it and it doesn’t sound like a park? My answer is no,” said Steele.

He summarized one of their previous projects, during which they helped develop a new public space in the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough in Montreal by evaluating three prototypes of potential soundscapes for the park. They partnered with an urban audio and sound design to deploy sound installations; one used naturalistic sounds, while the other emitted speech noises. Visitors who tested the prototypes responded that these audio installations elicited stronger feelings of calm and peace and even made the park seem quieter.

The final segment of his presentation discussed his knowledge mobilization activities with Sound in the City, through which he urged that workshops strengthen relationships and help with networking, reveal and validate practitioner assumptions, and blend immersive exercises with practical scenarios, and that attendees should represent various stakeholders.

Erica Walker is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Public Health (SPH), where she conducts research within the Department of Environmental Health. She received her ScD from the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard, and her investigation into the impact of sound began with a robust academic approach, during which she conducted extensive research in the Greater Boston Community.

“[My research] culminated in a bunch of papers, but I felt like I was in this rat race where I was expected to publish — but it’s called ‘public health’, not ‘publication health’, said Walker.

Equipped with an academic grounding in sound and its impact on human health, she’s focused on taking a community-based approach to solving noise challenges, which led to the creation of Noise and the City, a community noise advocacy organization. She explained that sound and noise levels, in addition to frequency, noise sensitivity, noise perception, duration of exposure, and other factors can all affect human health.

“Sound is impacting our health through a stress response. We’re exposed to sound and it manifests over a long period of time as cardiovascular disease,” said Walker. 

Walker pioneered the Boston Neighborhood Noise Survey, which asked residents in the Greater Boston community to evaluate the impact of noise pollution and urban sounds on stress levels and health. In 2016, she released the first Greater Boston Noise Report, which found that 65.33% of residents feel like community noise is impacting their health. She also developed community noise report cards and released a smartphone application, NoiseScore, to help residents measure sound levels in their communities. 

Now, Walker is working on what she calls a “ride-sharing approach”, in which she collaborates with several actors in an attempt to understand how sound and noise are harmful to human health. She’s started with the Community Noise Lab at BU, which partners with communities to understand sound and noise challenges and corresponding health impacts. They utilize real time sound monitoring, lab-based experiments, and community and citizen engagement events. In addition to working in East Boston, Mission Hill, Andover, and Chelsea, the Community Noise Lab has also established connections with Portland, Maine, and Asheville, North Carolina. Walker has collected and created over 250 sound metrics to better describe city soundscapes and characterize the relationship between sound exposure and health.