Dialing Back The Noise In The City Of Din

A growing movement of artists, designers and city planners is trying to reconsider urban noise not as a ubiquitous nuisance, but as a positive building block for cities where people want to be.

Livia Falcaru for Noema Magazine

Lauren Kelly is a writer based in London.

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands — Michiel Huijsman is holding both hands over his ears. Standing on the northern edge of Hofplein — one of the busiest intersections in the city, formed where the Weena, the Schiekade and the Coolsingel meet — he is trying to escape the cacophony of cars and a warning bell sounding its alarm as a tram approaches. The tram is one of 100 that pass through the square each hour. Often, Huijsman said, the automated bells will activate by mistake, making the ringing almost constant and “effectively pointless.” Just last month he questioned eight of the city’s councilors about it, all of whom said it was not something they had given thought to. 

For policymakers, this is the natural background noise of a city: inevitable, eternal, largely accepted tumult. For Huijsman, an artist turned urban researcher and the director of Soundtrackcity, an Amsterdam-based multidisciplinary agency that produces sound art in public spaces, noise is neither a nuisance nor permanent, but rather an indispensable building block for cities where people want to live, stay and recreate. 

Asked to characterize Hofplein in a recent survey, residents by and large used variations of “noisy”: “chaotic,” “busy,” “restless,” “irritating,” “noise-like,” “constant humming,” “fucking noisy!”. Huijsman hopes to change that. He maintains that sound should be reconsidered as a fundamental component of the lived environment, rather than a byproduct to be ignored or minimized, and that urban life now and in the future requires a healthy soundscape, one in which the focus is not on the decibels but the quality of the sounds. In Rotterdam, at least, city planners are listening: Soundtrackcity is curating seven public sites, Hofplein being one, into places of meaningful sensory experiences. 

Hearing, like breathing, is an automatic process. Unless suffering from hearing loss, humans process acoustic impressions 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is so much noise around us that our brains have developed to select only the most critical sounds, though ambient, non-selected noise also can have a substantial effect on our health and well-being. 

Sound can move through anything (except a vacuum), anytime: at night, around corners, through solid material. The human body is around 60% water, which is a potent conductor of sound waves, and the brain and the heart, both of which are associated with processing feelings, are even more liquid — 73% water. The thrum of noise causes our bodies to vibrate and is processed by the brain anywhere from 20 to 100 times faster than we can see, depending on its pitch and rhythm. It is also, for the most part, inescapable.

The effects of sound are all the more intense in cities: huge cauldrons of noise. City planners have never really incorporated our aural senses into urban design. Even as cities become denser and louder, policies for noise rarely go beyond the level of attempting to limit it. 

Over 100 million people in Europe are currently exposed to harmful levels of noise, according to the European Environmental Agency, and around a million lives are lost to conditions exacerbated by loud sounds. A 2017 study of 365,000 people in Britain and Norway found that traffic noise affects human blood biochemistry, more so than exhaust fumes. Noise triggers the stress hormone cortisol, damages blood vessels over time and contributes to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, heart attacks and coronary heart disease; other consequential physical and mental ailments include stress, sleep disturbances, speech interference, hearing loss, reduced productivity, headaches, respiratory agitation, gastritis, colitis, hypertension and tinnitus, among others. 

“Noise is neither a nuisance nor permanent, but rather an indispensable building block for cities where people want to live, stay and recreate.”

Studies have shown that people who live or work in loud environments are particularly susceptible to long-term health problems, and generally, it is the working classes and people of color who bear the brunt of urban noise exposure. Huijsman told me that many residents overlooking Wilhelminahaven Harbor are not legally allowed to open their windows due to the threat the noise poses to their health; in Amsterdam, according to RIVM, a Dutch research institute, children living under Schiphol Airport flightpaths have more difficulty learning to read and score less well in memory tests.

It’s not only humans who suffer the consequences of loud noise — according to research by Hansjoerg Kunc at Queen’s University Belfast, human-generated sound can interfere with animal breeding cycles and is threatening the survival of more than 100 species. As Kunc explained to me: “Noise pollution creates natural selection measures that animals respond to. There is evidence of behavioral, brain and physiological changes. An animal in a loud city such as New York, as opposed to a forest in Canada, for example, typically has higher stress levels and is less likely to reproduce.”

Though a variety of technologies for monitoring and mitigation are now available, these solutions are costly and do not often scale to the level of an entire city. Officials measure noise by placing sensors at a few selected points, monitoring levels of only specific sources of sound such as road traffic, railways, major airports and industry. The positive and multifaceted layers of sound are neglected, with change typically transpiring as a result of complaints. 

But what if sound was approached as an asset, instead of as a problem?

For many people, the pandemic clarified the significance of urban sound in our daily lives. Cities and Memory, a global field recording and sound art project, features more than 5,000 sounds spread over 109 countries and territories, some of which are magical moments of soundscapes transformed. In a recording from St. Louis, Senegal, you can hear an anti-coronavirus song blasting from the radio of a cab, with the singer “praying” in the local Wolof language that the virus will not reach his community. In another from Milan, announcements from the megaphone of a police car urge people to stay home as ambulances wail and birds chirp in the background. In Times Square, the sound of air conditioners drone through deserted streets. In Helsinki, a woman reads stories to children she cannot see in person. In Warsaw, a man hears birdsong that had not been audible before. 

As Stuart Fowkes, the creator and curator of the project, told me: “Sound often lacks recognition, particularly in terms of its social and cultural importance, both at a city and country-wide level.” During the pandemic, he went on, “Not only did cities become quieter, but new sounds emerged.”

The challenge is to identify which sounds to preserve, encourage and multiply. 

Artists working with Soundtrackcity use creative compositions to encourage the public to listen more attentively. Lee Patterson manipulates contact microphones, which record audio vibrations through solid materials, to open Rotterdammers to sounds they might not normally hear or that are part of background noise, unprocessed by our discerning minds, like underground sewers or the river and docks or vibrations generated by passing traffic. Francisco Lopez collects, processes, mutates, edits and mixes field recordings into surreal non-representational virtual aural micro-worlds, catalyzing a new and arguably more intensive subjective experience of the city, as a result of which he hopes people gain a stronger attachment to their surroundings. 

During a Soundtrackcity listening experience released alongside the International Film Festival Rotterdam (and available for download), these pieces mix to different degrees with the surrounding environment, depending on outside street noise. There is no specific narrative in this sonic journey other than the one listeners create along the way, depending on their personality, experience, imagination, character and mood.

“People who live or work in loud environments are particularly susceptible to long-term health problems, and generally, it is the working classes and people of color who bear the brunt of urban noise exposure.”

Soundtrackcity also conducted guided listening walks. During one at Hofplein, participants included people who live close to the square, entrepreneurs, maintenance workers and a bicycle courier who regularly cycles through. The youngest contributor was 12, and the oldest 82. Standing in the square, Huijsman asked them what sounds they could hear. Answers were specific, precise: “A continuous thump”; “bells ringing unpleasantly, without direction”; “the clock tower at City Hall and a bird in the distance”; “footsteps”; “the noise of clothing, when the traffic stops.” Almost immediately after leaving the square, when asked what sounds they could remember, answers were significantly more generalized, with one person saying: “Chaotic, directionless, frenzied, restless. Motorized traffic predominates. There is no human touch. Awful.” 

Huijsman then asked what they wished Hofplein sounded like. They responded with: voices (murmurs, laughter), street music, terrace sounds, leaves and birds. One person asked specifically to be able to hear goldfinches. Others described an atmosphere: “oasis,” “relaxing,” “diverse,” “cozy,” “urban,” “lively,” “calming” and “harmonious.”

Taking all of this into account, Huijsman created recommendations for the city to redesign Hofplein, plans that are now in the works. “Reducing the noise of the streetcars, trams and the wind was our priority,” he told me. Totally removing vehicles from the square was his preferred choice, but the council pushed back. Instead, Huijisman proposed a limit on the number of vehicles and absorbent mats for the roads; lubricating the tram rails surrounding the fountain (streetcar squeaking was found to be almost absent after rainfall); cobblestone paving to reduce the impact of car tires and encourage drivers to slow down; removing the tram warning system; and planting shrubs to diffuse the wind. 

“It’s not sexy!” Huijsman said. “I’ll be the first to admit that sound is not a sexy part of planning.” 

But as Yuriko Saito, a former professor of philosophy at the Rhode Island School of Design, argues in her book, “Everyday Aesthetics,” a city’s sound experience is a moral issue, with political, existential and environmental implications. “If the care for the design of a sound environment is lacking,” she writes, “the attention for the people who live and work in the environment is missing.”

Designing a soundscape, I began to realize, is very different from visual design, which is often immediately evident. Sound, on the other hand, is particularly palpable when it is dark, and sources of noise are often obscured by buildings, walls and trees. Material infrastructure — unlike variable everyday sounds, such as human voices — represents acoustic permanence. Hofplein is mainly surrounded by glass, which is highly reflective of noise, so Huijsman suggested softening the soundscape by introducing greenery on the side of the buildings. He also advised putting in seats and irregularly shaped loose objects like boulders to diffract monotonous sounds. 

“The positive and multifaceted layers of sound are usually neglected, with change typically transpiring as a result of complaints.”

Introducing new sounds is relatively straightforward compared to dampening unwelcome noise. A new stage will provide space for musicians. Birds will come with more trees. A combination of unpaved, paved and semi-paved surfaces will diversify the sound of vehicles, and they will be supplemented by the amplified sounds of splashing, rippling water from the fountain and underground water storage tanks, which will be opened to allow water to fall in and please the soundscape, drop by drop.

Though a sound environment is usually perceived, experienced and evaluated in totality, artists have long worked to enhance the auditory experience of public spaces. In 1977, Max Neuhaus designed a sound art installation under Times Square, which produces a continuous noise he likened to “the after ring of large bells.” Neuhaus was a pioneer of sound sculpture, having developed multiple audio-based works exploring the sonic possibilities of physical places in cities around the world, including sounds that reacted to the sun. 

In Leeds, the German composer Hans Peter Kuhn created a tranquil audio installation to open up previously unadorned dark archways in a redevelopment project to pedestrians. The practice of putting speakers in trashcans, which originated in Stockholm and encouraged people to tidy up their waste, has since been implemented in various forms in cities around the world. The city of Bonn, meanwhile, appoints a sound artist-in-residence to take over its streets once a year. Near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, in 2011, Francis Crow and David Prior created a sculpture that feeds on the auditory excretions of the city, using acrylic tubes to highlight different frequencies and accentuate the scale of the street sounds the human brain is forced to filter out. 

Huijsman is wary of overwhelming people in Rotterdam with artificial sound, insisting that it must be mindfully executed. He looks for subtlety. At Hofbogenpark, an overhead train line turned ecological park that is another of Soundtrackcity’s development projects, the goal is to introduce natural greenery to encourage crickets, birds, water and insect noise; he also proposed a tube through which people passing by can stop to listen to the sounds from underground. At Rijnhaven, another large city park under development, Huijsman has suggested an auditory art trail, in which visitors can listen to amplified versions of nearby sounds, such as the swish and rattle of fish and other creatures in the harbor.

These projects will cost Rotterdam €364 million ($384 million). At such a price, without political backing, Huijsman’s recommendations would not be possible. Elsewhere, for example, Max Dixon, an independent consultant in town planning, noise and soundscapes, proposed a strategy for London in 2004 but the city offered no new money or powers to implement it. “Only the government can secure the changes required,” he lamented afterward.

What Huijsman or anyone else enjoys hearing in a city might not appeal to others, and vice versa. The sound of children playing at a school playground in Nijmegen, a city near the Netherlands’ border with Germany, set off a national debate a couple of years ago, which culminated in the city council ordering the area to be shut down. Over the last year, in London, the Maida Hill market square has similarly been at the center of an ongoing dispute between some of its regulars and the Westminster council: Ernest Theophile, a 74-year-old Black man who plays dominoes there, was summoned to court last month and accused of causing a disturbance, which resulted in social gatherings being temporarily banned. Sound, understandably, is subjective. 

This raises general questions about public space and who it serves. With sound in particular, a primary concern is how to minimize unwanted noise without diminishing pleasurable, visceral experiences.

In the late 1960s, the composer and author R. Murray Schafer, who popularized the term “soundscape,” tried to develop a shared language of urban noise. The World Soundscape Project, as he called it, became a collection of sound-related terms and provided a classification of sounds. But it was far from comprehensive or systematic. People perceive and interpret noise in different ways. Loud music can sound very different to a person at a concert compared to someone being kept awake by the bar downstairs. 

In an attempt to quantify people’s reactions to different urban sounds, Daniele Quercia, whose research combines urbanism and computer science, has created a statistical analysis called Chatty Maps that categorizes social media pictures with comments about noise in London and Barcelona into four broad categories — chaotic, calm, monotonous and vibrant — which he then compares with official data on noise levels. 

“Noise leaks into perception, coloring the way we feel about a place.”

The software tends to categorize mechanical sounds as chaotic. Human ones are vibrant. The sounds of nature can either be calm or monotonous. A bird chirping is calming; crickets are monotonous. In a general sense, Quercia told me, opinions about which sounds are good and which are bad are relatively universal. Perception, however, is dependent on the context, specifically time and place. In Barcelona, the beach was found to be monotonous but also pleasurable. Rain pattering down from the sky was monotonous, but dripping from trees it was calming. Music was associated with vibrancy, as well as sadness. 

“Hearing is a sensory reaction that has been majorly oversimplified,” Quercia said. He suggests asking three questions: Is the sound familiar? Is it pleasurable? Is it expected?

Huijsman understands the necessity of tailoring sound-focused urban development to its particular place. His work at Hofplein focused on reducing the noise of vehicles, but at Rijnhaven, he has recommended that the metro remain a prominent feature of the soundscape, its rhythmic coming and going providing a distinct aural identity for the harbor.

For too long, sound has been secondary to sight in the way people interpret cities. Ask a Rotterdammer to describe Hofplein and they will tell you: There is a fountain, sometimes illuminated by beams of light and an octagonal pond designed to ensure unobstructed views, with bronze embellishments and animal figures. The sound of it does not often enter people’s thoughts, at least not in a positive sense. But noise leaks into perception, coloring the way we feel about a place. Enlivening that additional layer of sensation is a vital aspect of urban life.