The sound of cities before and during the pandemic

Photo credit: Jonathan licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

Stuart Fowkes, a UK based artist, has been mapping out the sounds of cities since 2014. I would guess that he never imagined that a worldwide pandemic would provide him with the opportunity to hear “lost” sounds in a city that had been overtaken by increasing noise pollution. He comments about the return of the sounds of birds, insects, and other sounds of nature. His recordings of sounds during the past six years from cities around the world has resulted in a map featuring a wide variety of sounds. His recording project titled “Future Cities” features the sounds of several years ago but now includes the sounds during the pandemic.

In writing about the sounds of cities, Fowkes recognizes that the increased traffic and noise from construction sites, as well as the activities associated with tall buildings, has resulted in environmental stress which can adversely affect health. Furthermore, according to Fowkes, noise has also drowned out certain sounds that defined specific cities. For example, the sounds of the bells ringing at Westerkerk church in Amsterdam at one time played an important role in helping “people mark out kind of where they need to be at any given time.” He fears that these sounds that characterized specific cities will be lost after the pandemic passes.

Fowkes hopes that his project will bring attention to the important role auditory elements play in defining cities and as a result lead to noise reduction becoming a significant goal in future urban policy decisions. With noise having drowned out sounds that at one time were identified with specific cities, I wonder how many people can remember what these sounds were.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

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