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How the way a city sounds can shape the way we live

Aerial shot of downtown Phoenix, Arizona
Getty Images
Aerial shot of downtown Phoenix, Arizona, at sunset, looking along Washington and Adams street.

Cities can often be loud places, with the sounds of people, transportation, construction, commerce and lots of other things meshing together. But how do all of those sounds affect people who live or spend time in the city? And how can city planners try to make residents’ sonic experiences more enjoyable — or at least, less problematic?

These are the kinds of questions Edda Bild thinks about. Bild is a soundscape researcher at Sounds in the City based at McGill University in Montreal. It’s a partnership between the university, city and others that aims to develop best practices in urban noise management and soundscape. Bild joined The Show to talk more about this work.

Edda Bild
Edda Bild
Edda Bild

Full conversation

MARK BRODIE: For a lot of folks, they may have an idea of what a city sounds like in terms of traffic and people talking and lots of other sounds kind of an ambient sound a city has. How close to reality is that in 2024 in terms of what we think a city sounds like compared to what a city actually sounds like?

EDDA BILD: Well, I think, you know, as a, as a social scientist, I think people's experiences are the most relevant in actually describing what a city sounds like. So a city sounds like however it sounds for each one of your listeners. However it sounds for me, however it sounds for you.

The question is, does a city sound in such a way that it allows us to do what we need to do and live in a helpful, successful, happy way of living? So, the city is indeed a, you know, a complicated mesh of all sorts of sounds and we have to find ways of living at the intersection of everything that's happening around us.

We know that cities have become louder and that have had documented effects on the health of people. But we also know that people, you know, have found strategies to mitigate these types of, of loud noises and have learned to either live with it or we have developed all sorts of technologies to make the city quieter in our own environments. But the reality is that we're starting to be better and understanding the effects of sound on our health, but also on our wellbeing.

BRODIE: I would imagine that there are some people for whom the sounds of the city are invigorating, they really enjoyed it. It's kind of a part of their life. Whereas for other people, they would much rather maybe have noise-canceling headphones or white noise machines or something like that.

BILD: That's correct. And we have to find a way to create cities and just environments for everyone where everyone can successfully live. So the question is, how do you capture everyone's experiences and how do you create a city that can allow for everyone to thrive? And that's where the complexity comes into play.

BRODIE: Yeah. Well, I, I wonder also if it's more difficult in older cities, I'm thinking places like New York or Philadelphia or Boston or Washington, D.C., as opposed to maybe a place like Phoenix where there's a lot of building going on. And to some extent, you know, the city is still kind of evolving in a way that some of those older, more established cities aren't.

BILD: Well, it depends on how you take it. I think it's also about, it's a matter of expectations on culture. You know, when you're living in an older city, like New York, you do come and move to New York with an expectation of being in the middle of things. Contrary to that, when you go to Phoenix, maybe you have different expectations and you're going to Phoenix thinking this is what I'm going to get.

So it's also about understanding that culturally cities have been associated with liveliness with, you know, all sorts of a variety of activities, coexisting for better or for worse, but still working together and trying, like creating some sort of dynamic nature. But that also means that people who move to cities or people who are in cities have different expectations and different needs. And then they know that if those needs are no longer met, they can move someplace else.

And we have to find a way to create cities and just environments for everyone where everyone can successfully live.

BRODIE: I would imagine that's also the case within a city, right. Like if you're in, let's say New York City, you know, you might be OK moving in. If there's a bakery or a restaurant or a grocery nearby, you might expect that and be OK with it. Whereas if a nightclub moves in across the street, that might be a totally different thing for you.

BILD: That is very true. And that's why conflicts arise because conflicts arise when people's expectations are no longer met. And that's why I think a lot of the conversations on sounds emerge from this need to communicate people's needs and expectations. And sound is something that we, we don't really know how to talk about unless it becomes a problem, but we're not very good at dealing with it proactively.

And the, the intrinsic nature of sound is that it's pervasive. It's a lot easier to buy, you know, curtains that block the light, but it's a lot more difficult to find useful, soundproofing strategies or to find really, really successful, you know, noise-canceling headphones.

BRODIE: Understanding that everybody's experience as you say is unique to themselves, I'm wondering if in general, there are certain sounds, especially those that you might find in a city that people find more objectionable than others. Like, is it possible that people are more OK with, you know, sort of the ambient traffic noise or sounds of commerce but are less excited about jackhammering or other construction type noises, things like that.

BILD: Yeah, definitely construction ranks pretty high on universal levels of annoyance and that is especially for private projects. But maybe if there's, you know, a school being built or something that has sort of a social purpose or a community purpose, there will be a slightly higher level of tolerance.

Similarly, what we've seen in some European studies, for example, in France, we've noticed that, so traffic, not liked, very much disliked, very disruptive. However, the car, the sounds of personal cars were considered more disruptive and unpleasant than the sounds of, for example, public transit because that was supposed to be a public good. So there's always also this lens of like what, even within the same categories of disruptive noises, there's more tolerance towards one category than the other.

But definitely what we've also saw in our studies across Europe as well as in North America is that the sounds of people are usually enjoyed.

BRODIE: It's so interesting that people are, maybe it's even subconsciously, are able to look at a particular construction project or a particular sound and say, well, even if I don't like it right now, it's for the public benefit. So I can tolerate it. Whereas if they don't see that they or you know, society in general are going to get much out of it. It's, it's less liked.

BILD: Yeah. And I think that's where a lot of the misconception of, on what sound and noise as, and we, you know, I'm, you see, I'm using sound more than noise because noise has this normative: It's the bad thing. It's the one we're trying to limit. Whereas sound is a little bit more benign. It's OK. It's just the totality of sonic experiences.

But when it comes to noise, it's really about understanding the relationship between who makes the noise, who suffers from the noise. When the noise arises, there's a lot of things that are on top of the physical aspects of noise.

BRODIE: So if you are a city planner, how do you try to take all this into account? How do you try to lay out your city and deal with zoning issues to try to maximize the kinds of sounds that people will find enjoyable or at least not terribly objectionable and minimize to the extent possible the amount of a number of instances of, of sounds that people really just can't handle?

BILD: Well, it's obviously an incredibly delicate balancing act and we're not there yet. But I would say that the first thing you do is, it's something the planners already do or they should be doing, is trying to figure out, who is there? What is already there? What do people like? What can we harvest and enhance and what needs to be reduced?

So I think the most important thing is to do what we've started doing for, you know, 50, 60 years, start asking people what they want, what they need. The problem with this is that it's very time consuming.

But I think everyone who's working in sound and generally in sensory studies are saying is that you're already having, you should already be having these conversations and you can just add a couple of questions on like, what do you want it to sound like? What do you like in terms of sounds?

And that's a conversation that we're not used to having, but everyone knows what they dislike. Everyone knows what they like. Everyone knows what they need to be able to sleep.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.
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