Soundscapes and urban design


Susan Philipz won the 2010 Turner Prize with a sound installation in an empty room at the Tate Britain. Reading that the piece – Lowlands Away – was first ‘performed’ under three bridges (the George V, the Caledonian Bridge, and the Glasgow over the River Clyde in Glasgow) set me thinking about sound and urban design.


liminal describes itself as ‘an arts practice working between the disciplines of sound, art and architecture.’

They recently won the PRS Music Foundation’s New Music award for their project – The Organ of Corti – which will recycle existing environmental sounds (such as road traffic noise or water rushing over a weir) to ‘to create an unfolding musical composition’.

As I often found in researching this post, it’s often better to listen to the source material rather than read about it.

I was also quite taken by liminal’s singing song pole, installed at Cotswold Water Park.

The song pole is a listening device by which the visitor is encouraged to reflect on the act of listening itself. It is a bird box designed to provide a nesting site for Great Tits or Tree Sparrows during the spring time. A microphone provides the aural equivalent of a microscope and listening closely to the intricate detail of the nesting box’s sound world it becomes possible to hear the intimate habits of the nesting birds.

However, sound only rarely manifests itself in urban environments as art. Most of the time excessive sound is a nuisance that people endure and designers seek to mitigate.

I wasn’t aware that there’s a European Environmental Noise Directive (2002) which focuses on the impact of environmental noise on individuals.

The Environmental Noise Directive requires Member States to make ‘strategic noise maps’ for major agglomerations (large urban areas), major roads, major railways and major airports within their territories.

On the basis of the noise mapping, noise action plans are required to be drawn up, designed to manage noise issues and effects, including noise reduction if necessary. Noise mapping and action planning takes place every five years.

The Government adopted Noise Action Plans for 23 urban areas, major roads and major railways in England in March 2010.

The plans adopt a strategic approach to managing environmental noise, rather than proposing specific noise mitigation measures.

Here, for example, is the plan for the wider Manchester area – a 76 page document available as a PDF.

It’s an interesting browse for an insight into macroscale planning. And for the statistics. 2,159,000 people (everyone?) are estimated to be exposed to a noise level from road traffic of >55 Lden* (dB), with 100,000 people experiencing >70 Lden* (dB) and 14,000 over 75 Lden* (dB).

What this means in reality can be shown using comparative noise levels:
• Passenger car at 65 mph at 25 ft (77 dB)
• Vacuum cleaner at 3 ft (70 dB)

* the weighted sound pressure level across a 24 hour period, with an additional weighting towards evening and night-time noise

An interesting thought from an introductory piece to a conference – Designing Soundscape for Sustainable Urban Development – held in October 2010 in Stockholm.

While most low-quality outdoor acoustic environments are noisy and loud, many, if not most, high-quality outdoor acoustic environments are far from quiet or silent – think a forest with wind in the trees, waves on a beach, birds singing, church bells in a town square, cattle lowing on a farm, and even the sound of children playing (as a colleague once described the latter – the “music of the future”).

For more academic perspectives on noise and soundscapes there’s the Acoustics Group at the University of Sheffield.
• Soundscapes of European cities and landscapes
• Tranquility of of external spaces – influence of acoustic and visual factors
• Environmental impact and public perception of noise barriers

What designers can do at street level is often best illustrated by example.

San Francisco Soundscapes by Steven McCollom (an architect) is a fascinating piece on a walking tour led by an acoustical consultant.

• Examples of places designed for people to escape the incessant traffic noises
• Places have distinctive soundscapes and these sounds are good because they help define the sense of place.
• Whether sounds are pleasant or annoying often depends on psychological aspects like state-of-mind and expectations.
• HVAC systems as an example of how you could block the traffic noise by countering with an equally offensive sound.

San Francisco noise map

San Francisco noise map

HMMH ‘provides planning and design services for both urban and natural soundscapes.’ There’s a interesting audio clip on their site which ‘gives listeners a sense of how a planned space will sound.’

What happens to the soundscape in an urban park when you add a playground for example? Or the impact of new noise sources (a new road or airport) on existing facilities. And ways to shape the soundscape by installing noise barriers, choosing different building materials or using masking sources (such as water features).

On the topic of masking sources, here are a number of musical instruments that you could add to a playground.

Chimes - Freenotes

Or a youth shelter which ‘can be fitted with the optional lighting and music pack incorporating a self contained, low voltage, kinetically powered Bluetooth music player and LCD lights.’

Music is played through three speakers in the roof.

The POD - Sutcliffe Play

The POD - Sutcliffe Play

Didn’t have that in my day.


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