City Conversations: The Invisible City 2 – Soundscape
Location: The Building Centre, London
Date: Tuesday 1 May 2018
Jason Flanagan – Flanagan Lawrence Architects
Colin Grimwood – Director CJG Environmental Management
Professor Jian Kang – Professor of Acoustics, Bartlett School Environment, Energy & Resources
Lisa Lavia – Managing Director, Noise Abatement Society
Matthew Harrison– UK Director of Specialist ConsultingBuroHappold Engineering, who chaired the Conversation,reports on this discussion around a new world of creative external soundscapes.
We tend to see the city as a huge physical presence dominating our conscious experience. But often it is the non-visual stimuli – the invisible aspects of the city – that have a greater impact on the well-being on those living and working there. In previous Conversations under the City Conversations banner we have looked at aspects of smart infrastructure, particularly in relation to air quality. Among the non-visual elements of the city, sensual experience sound and vibration are often given little attention, perhaps because they seem to be an uncontrollable by product of city life. However the soundscape of a city is changing all the time. In his biography of London, Peter Ackroyd devotes a whole chapter to the sound character of the city, describing for example the early sound of bells or the 18th century din of industry – quite different from the sound these days. These days this has mostly been replaced by transport, human activity and air-handling plant noise. It is predicted that this might change in the future – not only the type of noise but also its timing as we slowly move towards a 24-hour city. But there are things we can control through regulation, engineering and design. We are starting to understand and quantify the benefits that a less disruptive city soundscape would bring. And we can also shape and direct sound for creative and positive benefit. So should we be giving this aspect of our cities more attention? The assembled panelists for this conversation have a unique insight into the issues involved.
My own background as an acoustician and structural dynamicist give me an interest in a wide range of sound and vibration topics. Recently, for example, I have been developing metrics to characterise the acoustic component of ‘atmosphere’ in sports stadia. With almost 25 years of experience in engineering dynamics, vibration and acoustics and an early career spent in the automotive industry, I was involved in early active noise cancelation for passenger cars and the substitution of unwanted noise with synthesised sound. This is one aspect of a previous City Conversation that influenced the development of this topic – what impact could the advent of the quieter electric vehicles have on the soundscape of a city? The previous Conversation, A Breath of Fresh Air, proposed that there could be an opportunity for more naturally ventilated buildings and thereby improve the internal environment as well as air quality. The Soundscape discussion looked at how a changing external sound environment might provide positive opportunities for more creative interventions by planners and designers. Even the sound of the car would provide some scope for intervention.
Sound affects everything we do emotionally, physically, and psychologically. Noise is unwanted sound: it affects our health, wellbeing, productivity and the environment.
Colin Grimwood is an internationally renowned freelance consultant specialising in acoustics and environmental health who has worked at the highest level in the public and private sectors. He offers a unique perspective on noise issues with a career that has developed from environmental health to becoming a recognised authority and thought leader on environmental, neighbour and neighbourhood noise. He has a successful track record in the roles of Chartered Environmental Health Practitioner, applied researcher, acoustic consultant and expert adviser to various UK government departments, the European Community and the World Health Organisation. He is also a key contributor to many UK noise policy initiatives including government guidance on planning and noise, Approved Document E, Noise Action Plans, Noise Policy Statement for England.
A question that we should ask more often in his view is “What should a city sound like?” We know in numerical terms what it does sound like. Noise in the city varies across a 24-hour period and daytime levels hover around 55dB and at night somewhere between 40-45 dB. The trend is for the quietest time to get shorter and for the daytime figures to get lower as a result of environmental policies such as the congestion charge, 20 mph speed limit and quieter vehicles. But the rate of change is very slow: to reduce daytime levels by around 3dB you probably need to halve the amount of traffic on the road.
According to research, the main sources of annoyance are road traffic, aircraft, neighbours, aircraft and railways. Less well researched are people’s positive attitudes to sound and noise: we know that people are, on the whole, more positive than negative about the sound in their neighbourhood, but we don’t necessarily know why this is. However, if we extrapolate the causes of annoyance back to the ‘distal’ causes – land use planning, transport planning, vehicle design, the way we use and behave in vehicles, the way we design urban infrastructure – we may find the same areas of influence which provide the route to positive soundscape planning.
The building and planning regulations focus principally on the reduction of noise, but Colin wonders how many design professionals are aware of the limitations and wider consequences of concentrating their efforts only on avoiding noise problems? This results in the unplanned, chaotic or monotonous, acoustic environment of most parts of most cities today. It often surprises people to learn that existing government and local planning and noise policy already encourages planners, designers, architects and local authorities to take a more enlightened approach to managing both unwanted noise and ‘wanted’ sound in the urban environment.
The Noise Policy Statement for England (DEFRA 2010) should be better known, in his view; it is a short and significant document which promotes positive benefits in the built environment which sits above other guidance such as the NPPF which also embody these principles. In particular Wales has taken up the concept of ‘soundscape’ in its own draft planning frameworks. If England, as a whole, has so far failed to do so, there is pioneering work for cities in the development of the City of London Noise Strategy and the soundscape policies lurking within Section 5, which look at opportunities for soundscape protection and enhancement as well noise reduction.
In Colin’s view, design professionals could and should have an important role to play in how the urban environment might sound in the future and need to be aware that this is about so much more than simply reducing high levels of noise when and where this occurs. Whilst we need to continue to mitigate and minimise noise, we also need to start paying more attention to sound – and we need to introduce “soundscape planning”. This is an emerging field of endeavor and he considers it important that we should be open to ideas.
Lisa Lavia is the Managing Director of The Noise Abatement Society (NAS).In 2009 she founded and developed NAS’ Soundscape programme. Her work has included a series of empirical research projects and membership of and appointments to a number of UK and international groups working on Soundscape. She is a University of Sheffield Industrial Research Fellow on Applied Soundscape, an Affiliate of the Institute of Acoustics and author of a number of publications on the topic. Her work includes collaborative empirical research on the relationship between soundscape, wellbeing and peoples’ objective and subjective response in context.
The term ‘soundscape’ refers to the acoustic environment of a place, like a residential area or a city park, as perceived or experienced and/or understood by people, in context. It can be described as the acoustic equivalent to ‘landscape’, and includes all sound sources, wanted aswell as unwanted. Soundscape planning is not primarily about reducing sound levels – as there is no one ideal soundscape – but rather ‘good’ soundscapes are determined by the activities of a place (context) and the people who use it.
Soundscape practice represents a paradigm shift and evolving trans-disciplinary solutions. Lisa Lavia feels we need new approaches to co-creation and urban sound planning. If we do so, it is her view that wecan create vibrant, exciting 24/7 cities, where we can still have peace and relaxation when and where we want it.
Lisa sets a daunting challenge for designers: putting ‘people at the centre of the process’ and creating a dynamic interconnected approach among the different disciplines who have an impact on the on the soundscape. It is her belief that you canpredict what people want in certain environments – at home, at work, at leisure we should have a pretty good idea what works. In other areas of sensory design – colour for example – we can list out a set of desires that the designer can interpret. In acoustics and soundscape we are still looking for a language of definition. Terms such as “exciting but not chaotic” are very subjective and designers need to synthesis this into environments which create a feeling of what is desired.
There are many positive example of this type of filtering, orchestration and physical shaping – much as an ancient amphitheatre would do for unreinforced public spectacle. The creative use of water in the Sheffield Water features and at Copenhagen airport are two disparate example of this. Water ‘can be torture’ when repetitive, but used in a creative environment it is stimulating at many levels. According to the designers at Copenhagen airport, success was simply a matter of putting people at the centre of the design. In Lisa’s view designers already have the tools and increasing we are able to model soundscapes in advance. But we need to give this aspect of design more attention if we are really to make an impact on cities.
One such set of tools are being developed by Professor Jian Kang as part of his soundscape research. We already measure external sound levels in terms of decibels and this can be a useful, if somewhat blunt tool, in identifying noise problems. Soundscape implies a more sophisticated metric is needed with a qualitative as well as quantitative component.
Professor Jian Kangis Chair of the Technical Committee for Noise of the European Acoustics Association, Chair of the EU COST Action on Soundscape of European Cities and Landscapes. He has worked in environmental and architectural acoustics for more than 30 years, with over 70 research projects, 60 engineering consultancy projects, and 800 publications.
He is makinga ground-breaking development through the establishment of ‘soundscape indices’ (SSID), adequately reflecting levels of human comfort, with wider intellectual goals of moving from noise control to soundscape creation. Coherent steps for achieving this would be to characterise soundscapes, to determine key factors and their influence on soundscape quality, to develop, test and validate the soundscape indices, and to demonstrate the applicability of the soundscape indices in practice.
Jason Flanagan has an extensive track record of designing public buildings for the performing arts, Jason has a special interest in acoustics and sound. Amongst his most innovative projects is Soundforms, the first-ever mobile acoustic shell with the capacity for a full orchestra. This modular structure not only shelters the performers, but creates an on-stage acoustic which allows musicians to hear themselves better allowing ensemble performance, as well as projecting the sound to the audience. A permanent Soundforms performance shell for a full Orchestra is being developed for the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. Other outdoor venues include the Acoustic Shells beside the beach in Littlehampton and the 3000-seat covered amphitheatre in Szczecin in Poland, which is due on site in 2019.
He has also recently completed the RIBA Award-winning Live Works with its outdoor performance space for Live Theatre, located on the Quayside in in Newcastle Upon Tyne, and he also led the award winning scheme for the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff. Comprising a concert hall, theatre, gallery space and café, the acoustics of the concert hall have been widely acclaimed. Jason is currently developing designs for a New Music Centre at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and the Music and Cultural quarter Auditorium in Sunderland. He is also on site with Riverside Studios in London, a new, highly flexible, state of the art, ‘Digital Arts Centre’. The project is due for completion in 2019.
Jason is a member of Audialsense – a sound art collaborative. They have created sound art installations in a number of spaces including: the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern; the RIBA in London; and in a disused Gas Tank in Helsinki.
With this specialisation in the design of acoustic architecture, the idea of designing soundscapes informs their work as architects, interior designers and also as master-planners.
Their approach is two-fold: firstly in a more traditional sense – thinking from the inside out: through their approach to designing acoustically sensitive spaces in a noisy city – for both public and private buildings.
Secondly – how to approach acoustic design as master-planners thinking from the outside in: how acoustic thinking underpins the masterplan for a new piece of city being built around Wembley Stadium, for example. He gave an excellent description of the key public spaces here, each intended to have its own unique acoustic signature which will vary between event days and the every day.”
Is education a key factor in creating greater public awareness and more professional skills in this area, or should we consider this a specialist field for acousticians familiar with the metrics and the interpretation of these? It is one of those subjective issues of comfort where we immediately notice if things are wrong but do not necessarily appreciate when things are right.
If ‘learning to listen’ is a commendable slogan, many city dwellers still feel it is preferable to create their own private soundscape within cars or by wearing personal headphones. Often this can lead to frustration amongst others in the space who can find this intrusive and alienated. There is a growing body of evidence that this is not good for hearing health either. The wearing of headphones is an engrained factor of modern living for many and can often be positive for the wearer. However the broader picture is less positive:
Subsequent discussion with the audience pointed out that although we could perhaps deal with soundscape at a neighbourhood level this could be easily overridden by the intrusion of aircraft noise in many modern cities. This is an aspect of soundscape that seems beyond the influence of the citizen and planner: we make a trade-off between the intrusion of aircraft noise and the commercial wellbeing of cities at a different political level. In general, we are prepared to accept a certain amount of noise from aircraft. It is only when this is removed – such as when the ash from an Icelandic volcano prevented flights coming in and out of the UK – that we notice how quiet, and pleasant, the city could be. Should cities have an annual event when no motor vehicles are allowed? What impact would this have on our perception of sound in the city?
What seemed striking is that a discussion about soundscape can bring together many facets of urban design: activities, transport, zoning, public space and even green infrastructure. The democratic benefits of considering soundscape can reach beyond the immediate concerns of what we are listening to. By considering this as a community it helps us make broader decisions about how we want to live together as citizens and neighbours