How do we want our city to sound? It is acoustic engineer Trevor Cox’s job to figure this out. But managing urban acoustics isn’t just about muffling loud traffic sounds, Cox writes:
One problem with decibel measurement is that it does not differentiate between “negative” and “positive” sounds. Take the sounds made by a fountain in a town square, happy children in a playground or the cheerful toot of the Manchester tram – any one of which might exceed permitted sound levels. Increasingly, researchers have been pressing for these positive sounds to be considered within urban design alongside more traditional noise-control approaches.
This is going to be tricky because we cannot measure the sound level for a water feature in decibels and hope that this also captures the different responses of listeners. Babbling brooks, gushing fountains and pounding waterfalls all have very different sound qualities.
It seems the ideal sound situation is neither jackhammers nor freaky silence but rather “vibrant calm.” We imagine this to involve nothing but softly laughing babies and flowers wrapped in crinkly tissue paper. Cox says he hopes that “by building an aesthetic of sound, using the best technology we can get our hands on, we’ll be skipping to work through a positive soundscape before long.”
Positive soundscapes are all very well. But as August is upon us, we wish someone would address the urban smellscape.