Article The Press Freedom Issue

What might cities sound like in 50 years?

Over the next fifty years city soundscapes will change radically as a result of new technological developments, but predicting those changes, and the sounds they will create, is far from simple.

At its worst we could face a future soundscape crammed full of branded individualistic sounds, skies of buzzing drones surveying citizens and delivering products, and miserable urban noise deserts scarce in animal life and its accompanying music. More optimistically, soundscapes could gain a similar psychological importance to landscapes, with cities reducing their overall noise levels and crafting their component sounds for a greater diversity and sophistication, and with an added effort made to nurture more favourable habitats for increasing the population and biodiversity of animal life, transforming so-called concrete jungles, into real ones.

The silence of noise

Silence is generally defined as the absence of sound, but even in the quietest of places (an anechoic chamber) a person will hear their heartbeat and other internal bodily sounds. Only deaf people truly experience no sound at all. However there is another significant form of silence which is abundant in cities. Noise, when it drowns out and obscures all other sounds around it, silences everything but itself. In metropolises cars form rivers of this ‘noise silence’, and planes highways, resulting in a soundscape where people are unable to “hear themselves think”, and feel driven to seek out refuges for “peace and quiet”.

While considering noise it is worth noting that the word has its origin in the Latin nausea, which translates literally as seasickness. The World Health Organisation lists numerous adverse health effects caused by noise: “noise-induced hearing impairment; interference with speech communication; disturbance of rest and sleep; psychophysiological, mental-health and performance effects; effects on residential behaviour and annoyance; and interference with intended activities.” (1) More ominously they state “(there are) health effects for which the mechanisms of noise interaction are unknown.” (2)

Noise may be the most significant variable in deciding the future sound of our cities: if it reduces, street life can thrive, urban songbirds can become more prevalent (for reasons described later), and dedicated sound spaces and sound sculptures become easier to build; however an increase in noise would mean greater numbers of people staying indoors, fewer animals making fewer sounds, and the masking and elimination of interesting and stimulating sounds which make cities vibrant and diverse:

The abstract patterns and rhythms of footsteps; the clangorous sound of old bell towers; the music and sounds of street performers and buskers; the clatter of skateboards; small snippets of random conversations; nature`s presence heard through rustling leaves, rain hammered rooftops, and animal sounds.

The technology which will do more than any other to mask or reveal these subtleties and reduce or increase the general level of noise, is the car, whose sound is undergoing a radical transformation.

Electric cars as fast moving mobile phones

At the end of 2013 there were 1396 electric car charging points installed in London in anticipation of them becoming an integral component of future low-carbon economy. (3) Electric cars are not just low carbon emitters, but low noise emitters too; in fact they are so quiet that they are having artificial sounds designed to warn pedestrians and cyclists of their presence. While safety is unquestionably a very important concern (and I write this as someone who was lucky to emerge in one piece and alive after being knocked down by a taxi) their effect on the soundscape should not be treated as a trivial concern either.

In sonic terms electric cars are only superficially different from mobile phones, where digitalisation has meant that acoustic mechanical sounds have been replaced with artificial digital ones. While pedestrian safety will form a significant part of the motivation for adding sounds to electric cars (or other types of quiet car technology), car companies will not have overlooked the potential for using sound as a branding tool.

This is the case with the new ‘Audi R8 e-tron’ which uses an ‘e-Sound system’ to create artificial sounds in response to its drive (4). While its sounds seem appropriate for a computer game or sci-fi film, as an addition to the soundscape people may find its futuristic timbre and space age ‘whooshes’ objectionable. This being the case, any right they have to object leads on to the idea of personal and collective freedom in relation to sound.

To illustrate this, consider a person in a public space who plays their music loudly or speaks at length into their mobile phone. In exercising their freedom to make sound they also curtail other people`s freedom to not be irritated or distracted. Between the extremes of forcing the person to sit in absolute silence, and permitting them to act in any way they wish, exists a compromise between personal and collective freedom. In addressing this public transport systems try to find ways to regulate their sound, such as using adverts to attempt to persuade people to be considerate about their sound use, or ‘quiet carriages’ on trains, where music, phone use, and even talking is often prohibited.

Finding a compromise between personal and collective freedom with the more incessant and inescapable sounds of cars, is more complicated. It is possible that planning permission laws similar to those used for regulating landscapes could be applied to soundscapes, so that not only the volume of a vehicle but the aesthetics of its sound is regulated before public use. This is far from being a new concept, since in Ancient Rome the level of noise allowed from the iron wheels of wagons was controlled, and in Medieval Europe horse carriages and horse back riding were prohibited at night in certain cities. (5)

Silence in the sky

In 2010 the eruption of the Icelandic volcano ‘Eyjafjallajökull’ led to a mass grounding of planes over concerns about the level of volcanic ash in the air. In the days of aircraft silence which followed, residents close to London`s busy Heathrow airport found the comparative silence enchanting. They reported being able to hear birdsong again and an increased desire to spend time outdoors. (6) It may be hard to imagine aircraft without the long monotonous unmodulated barrels of noise they currently emit, but there are new technological developments which could significantly quieten aircraft and our skies, beyond merely decreasing the level of air traffic, which is currently predicted to rise.

Some of the most interesting recent developments come from a company called ‘Hybrid Air Vehicles’. They manufacture hybrid aircraft which are part airship and part plane. They currently have two aircraft, the ‘HAV304’ and ‘Airlander 50’, both of which are larger than any other aircraft in production, and capable of staying airborne for days. (7) The airships are lower in greenhouse gas emissions than traditional aircraft, and the company states on its website that they are “much quieter than other forms of aerial transportation.” When I asked them for precise noise measurements they said they were not yet able to provide them, but pointed out that in a video recording of one of their flights a helicopter one kilometre away was louder than the Airlander 50 close to the camera. (8) The roles currently planned for these new aircraft are surveillance and cargo transport, but the company said the Airlander 50 is capable of carrying up to 200 passengers, and that they had plans for using them for this.

An even more outlandish flight technology are ‘ornithopters’, which are aircraft that fly by flapping their wings. They are by no means a new idea - over 500 years ago Leonardo Da Vinci had designs for a human powered ornithopter - but recent progress has increased the possibility of them becoming a viable flight technology. On they state that “The current, rapid progress in this field means the ornithopter will see its greatest development in the future, not in the past.” (9)

On the Internet is film footage of a 2010 flight of a human-powered ornithopter called “Snowbird”, which was towed by car until airborne, before sustaining flight for nearly 20 seconds, and covering 145 meters. (10) The elegant sight of its wings flapping makes fixed winged planes seem primitive and rigid by comparison. The sound that large commercial ornithopters would create is unknowable, but in light of recent progress the idea of a more visually beautiful and quiet flight technology appears more achievable.

Drones hives

The most sinister technology with the potential to change the sounds of our skies are unmanned arial vehicles (UAV), commonly referred to as ‘drones’. These aircraft are significantly cheaper than manned ones, and can be flown by a remote human operator or computer. Their most infamous use has been for surveillance and killing missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and various other Middle Eastern countries, but there are a growing numbers of planned (and active) uses for them in domestic roles, ranging from policing and surveillance, to firefighting and product delivery. (11)

Drones offer nothing to soundscapes but additional noise created by the sound of their propellors. There are ornithopter drones in development which mimic the appearance and flight of birds and create less noise than their propellor powered siblings, but they too will change the soundscape by altering the behaviour and patterns of birds which will perceive them as real.

Predicting whether people broadly accept or reject the widespread use of drones is difficult, since despite their morbid genealogy there is nothing intrinsically wrong with an unmanned aircraft. For example, if used to conduct scientific research in remote areas there is little to find objectionable. However, benevolent justifications have been used to normalise and sell malevolent technologies throughout human history; the question of whether genuine circumspection and foresight is exercised with this technology, will decide what our future skies look and sound like.

In the UK, the ‘Civil Aviation Authority’ has, without any large public consultation or debate, granted drone licenses for uses as arbitrary as creating marketing videos for golf courses. (12) In the United States corporations such as Amazon and Dominoes Pizza have plans to use drones for fast delivery of their products, turning their businesses into the equivalent of large remote vending machines, which hives of drones would have to enter and leave like a large robotic bees nest.

Urban songbird spaces

The great French composer Oliver Messiaen said “In the domain of music, birds have discovered everything.” (13) While there are numerous animals sounds which could be considered favourable additions to soundscapes, such as cicadas, crickets, and frogs, and others which some may find unfavourable, such as foxes, coyotes, and roosters, there are few sounds which are less controversial than those of songbirds.

Outside of human music - and above water - I have come across no other natural sound source as rich, complex, and stimulating as the sound and music of birds. Common birds such as blackbirds, robins, goldfinches, chaffinches, starlings, and skylarks, create a music of an astonishing variety and complexity, which exceeds the performance and compositional abilities of all but the most talented human musicians. The dawn chorus is, likewise, one of the most primeval, multi-layered, and incredible sounds on earth. In a century where ecological living will become a necessity, and where biophilic cities (meaning green and ecological) are becoming an increasingly popular idea, birds in urban spaces may help to form a strong sound link to the natural world.

Despite their popularity songbirds have experienced long term decline in many countries. While this is for numerous reasons, a lesser mentioned one is noise. The common house sparrow, which declined in Britain by an estimated 71 percent between 1971 and 2008 (14), may have struggled partly because of noise, since it makes it harder for adult birds to hear the hunger calls from their offspring. (15) Researchers from Canada who examined there being a link between levels of bird diversity and the noise of various locations found that “the number of species we had at each location tended to be lower when noise levels were higher”. One possible reasons for this is the crossovers in low sound frequencies between traffic and birds, which makes communication difficult, and has a distorting effect on songs, making males sound less attractive to females. (16)

This research shows that city noise can turn spaces that might otherwise support life into urban noise deserts. Reducing noise levels will not create a vacuum, but open up space in the soundscape for songbirds and other animals to rewild the environment, and bring cities one step to something like a real concrete jungle.

Sound sculptures

The technology required to create sound sculptures is cheaper and more accessible than ever before. Sound sculptures (or ‘sound installations’ as they are more often referred to as) can be found in galleries and creative spaces throughout the world, but shifting these installations from galleries and art spaces to public spaces is no small task, since what might be considered tolerable in a gallery may not be tolerated in a public space.

Some examples of existing sound sculptures are a number of organs played by water, such as Croatias 'Sea Organ', San Franciscos ‘Wave Organ’, and Blackpools 'High Tide Organ', all of which are controlled by the seas movements. There is also ‘The Singing Tree’ in Lancaster, which is a tree made from welded scaffolding poles which makes sounds when the wind blows on it. However perhaps the most popular sound sculpture which exists, is London`s main tourist attraction, Big Ben, which is, in essence, a giant sound clock.

In trying to predict people`s tolerance for sound sculptures bell towers act as a good guide. Church bell towers regularly have their multiple bells rung for hours on end. It can be argued that they constitute one of the first forms of computer music. Ringers are given compositions in the form of numbers that are similar to binary, since they just two instructions: to ring or not ring a bell. The ringers therefore perform the role of human processors, computing through various algorithms, resulting in the addition of complex sound patterns to the soundscapes of towns and cities.

Church bell ringing proves that given a popular idea soundscape revolutions are possible, and that people will tolerate - and even enjoy and preserve - computer generated music in their soundscapes, providing it is done well.

Sound sculpture does not only need to involve musical sounds. The popular idea of ‘twinned towns’ and ‘sister cities’ which arose after World War II to try to foster greater friendship and understanding between different countries, could quite easily be enhanced by technology and sound sculpture. Cities could share portions their soundscapes with each other, by creating specific spaces to record and transmitted their sounds, as well as receive their neighbour`s. This could strengthen the relationship and open up the communication between different cities, as well as increase the desire of inhabitants to improve their own soundscape since know it is being projected elsewhere.

The future sound of cities

An interesting fact of music history is that it was not until 1748 that Europe`s first purpose built music concert hall, ‘The Hollywell Music Room’, in Oxford, was built. (17) That it took so long to see music as being something that could be detached from a clear ritual, and listened to in itself might seem incredible to us now, but we appear to be in a similar state regarding our soundscapes, perhaps to the point that future generations may view us as having being fixated on and mentally dominated by sight.

Venice is undoubtably popular for numerous reasons, but its unique soundscape is unquestionably a large part of its appeal. In an environment free from incessant machine and engine noise, people can experience profounder emotions and a greater mental acuity. It reminds us that cities built with imagination need not be dominated by noise.

Though I wrote earlier that noise is the greatest variable for dictating the future sound of cities, an even more important variable is human attitude. If people become aware of their soundscapes, they will attempt to change, preserve, and protect them. Otherwise crude, non-ecological, noisy technology will triumph, whose masters and beneficiaries will primarily be governments and large corporations, rather than the general population. A new model for perceiving cities could emerge, where they are seen as being like a large decentralised orchestra, comprised of millions - if not billions - of sounds. Just as it took centuries to conceived of buildings dedicated purely to music, which then become hugely popular, so too might sound sculptures be ready to become ubiquitous components of city life, and city soundscapes crafted with the clear intention of enriching the lives of their inhabitants.

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