“If you listen, you can hear it.
The city. It sings.
If you stand quietly, at the foot of a garden, in the middle of a street, on the roof of a house.
It’s clearest at night, when the sound cuts more sharply across the surface of things, when the song reaches out to a place inside you.
It’s a wordless song, for the most part, but it’s a song all the same, and nobody hearing it could doubt what it sings. And the song sings the loudest when you pick out each note.”
It was reading those opening phrases from Jon McGregor’s novel, “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” that first inspired me to think more deeply about the ways we experience urban places and the ways in which total urban sensory experience affects our lives. That was probably the exact moment that I started, consciously, to shift the emphasis of my work a little, away from conventional spatial planning and more towards urbanism and placemaking; using “planning” as just one the tools in the box for shaping places that work well for the people who use them.
Assessing the "form" and "character" of places is standard activity for planners and urban designers. The basic aim is to identify and evaluate factors that make one place different from another and contribute to each place’s identity. Various methods are used; most focus on how a place looks and - often quite superficially - how its buildings are used.
So, what is missing from conventional approaches to urban analysis? In short, pretty much everything apart from appearance and use. Urban planning and design professionals try to understand a place mostly through their eyes when, in reality, sight is only one of the senses through which places are experienced. It would, in theory, be possible to measure spatial relationships in a particular place in England, for example; to codify them and then to reproduce a similar place in the Caribbean, or in China or Africa or Australia - or just about anywhere else. It would be possible to replicate the building designs and materials (and there are examples of this having been done) and even, perhaps the uses - but it is very unlikely that the place "recreated" would be identical to the original place except in the most superficial ways. What would be missing? The smells, the sounds, the tastes, the feel of the air, the rhythms, vibrations and movements - almost everything that combines to really make each place unique.
There are already bodies of work, exploring particular aspects of this. There are studies, for example, of "soundscapes" and "smellscapes", and the ways these are perceived by people without full sight, becoming embedded in the mental maps they employ when moving around their neighbourhoods.
Research also shows significant influences of music on mood, behaviour and mental state. It suggests that rhythm plays a fundamental role in this and has strong effects on the brain. It seems logical, therefore, to assume that the sound and the rhythm of the place in which a person spends time may influence their mood and mental state. Ironically, whist this seems to be accepted with little question commercially (with a substantial and highly profitable area of business built on it - “Muzak”) the concept barely surfaces in planning and spatial design thinking and, from reactions I have received, it seems likely that many in those professions may be skeptical about the relevance of something so apparently abstract.
Research has provided evidence that people’s mental well-being is also influenced by “green” surroundings and by contact with nature; by the presence or absence of other people; by the quality of the air being breathed and by other sensory experiences.
When managing urban change, we need to understand, as deeply as possible, all the ways that places influence people and their mental well-being; the ways in which a place’s sound, feel, smell, taste... influence the experience of people who spend time in or around it - or simply pass through it. I believe that the combined sensory experience of the places in which they live or work or learn or play can have profound effects on people’s well-being – both physical and mental. Changes affecting any of those sensory aspects may have significant impacts that should be - but generally aren’t - taken properly in to account in the planning, design, development and management of the urban environment.
That, then, is the challenge: to develop methods for identifying the deep and unique character of a place as experienced through all the senses available to us, and then to make use of this - managing urban change with an awareness of the multi-stranded relationships between sensory experience and well-being.
Photo by Layla McCay at event by Daniele Quercia - urban soundscape mapping
Sanity and Urbanity: