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Your city is too loud. Here’s how urban designers are fighting ‘sonic trash’

Designers are introducing ‘sonic interventions’ to urban spaces. Are these welcome solutions or just more noise in already noisy cities?

Your city is too loud. Here’s how urban designers are fighting ‘sonic trash’
[Photo: WS Development]

The noise of a city can be unrelenting. There are the chopping blades of helicopters, the whining screams of sirens, the boomboxes and delivery trucks, and never-ending growls and honks of cars.

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Arguably, the last thing cities need is more noise. But an emerging type of sound-based design is being integrated into public spaces around the country, layering new and curated sounds on top of the chaotic cacophony of the urban realm. If the designers of these projects are successful, what they’re adding is not noise on top of noise but a way to counteract, or even wash over, the noises of the city that are so annoyingly unavoidable.

[Image: courtesy Gensler]
One such project is now open in downtown Dallas, where communications giant AT&T has redeveloped four blocks around its global headquarters as a sonically enhanced public space. Called the AT&T Discovery District, it’s a 2.4-acre public/private space, free of vehicles and surrounding office buildings and hotels in the center of the city. Designed by the global architecture firm Gensler, the district includes outdoor seating, bars, and restaurants in what had been a barren corporate office zone, and an eight-story media wall that adds visual excitement. Placed strategically around the site are 130 speakers that have been programmed to emit a scored soundtrack to match the flows of the day, with ambient music, watery noises, chimes, and the calls of birds from the region.

“You are walking from the sounds of downtown Dallas into an experience where the musical and sound output is totally curated,” says Alex Coutts, managing director at Made Music Studio, a sonic-branding agency that has crafted audible trademarks for everything from network news programs to robotic vacuum cleaners.

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The Dallas project is an extension of sound-based work Made Music Studio has been doing for the past several years for AT&T, ranging from the on-hold music on its customer service lines to the ring tones on its phones. It’s also one of the studio’s first projects that reaches into the public realm, and Coutts says much of the design process was focused on figuring out what sounds were already present in this urban setting and how adding more could offset the less pleasant noises of the city.

“It’s seeing what are the realities of the architecture and the environment we’re working in and then understanding how you can either maximize those variables or even work against what we call sonic trash, or unwanted noise, that may be hurting an experience,” Coutts says. “There’s really an opportunity, especially in the urban space, to see how we can get something close to perceived silence, and then use that as the canvas moving forward to make something more imaginative and magical,” he says.

The soundscape Made Music Studio has created is largely subtle background ambience. Designed to not overwhelm or annoy, the project features evolving, randomized sound generation so that the music and effects created never loop. It’s also adjusted to produce different levels of calm or liveliness at different times of the day—subtle sounds during the workday when the space may be used for meetings and outdoor work, and more upbeat sounds at happy hour.

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An architectural feature of the site is called the Globe, a brightly lit, canopy-like space with its own speakers and sound design. Using sensors, the space changes its musicality based on the ways people move within it. “It’s like an evolution of the Bean in Chicago,” Coutts says, citing the large mirrored sculpture that’s become a tourist attraction. “It’s something you can interact with, and it’s very social media-friendly.”

Another sound-based public space project aims to create a similar spectacle, but in a subtler way. In a new park that recently opened in Boston’s Seaport district, a system called PlantWave is being installed on four trees. Using sensors that measure electrical activity between two points of the trees, PlantWave converts the data into algorithmically harmonious sounds that will be broadcast in the park every week for a kind of performance. “Basically we design instruments for plants to play,” says Joe Patitucci, PlantWave’s creator. “Every single note you hear from a PlantWave is selected by this data from the plant. It’s a real-time stream of music.”

[Photo: WS Development]
Each of the four trees hooked up to a PlantWave device—three sassafras and one sugar maple—will play sounds of individual instruments, including flutes, bells, chimes, and voice samples. Visitors to the park will be able to turn each tree’s sounds on at a kiosk, or come back on Sunday afternoons for the full four-tree chorus. With algorithmically created sounds that are always in the same key, the trees will emit music based on the natural electrical activity happening within their systems.

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[Photo: WS Development]
“The amount of variation in melody will change over time,” says Patitucci. The sensors in the PlantWave system pick up signal based on the amount of water in the trees’ vascular systems, which can change seasonally and at different times of the day. “Some days you might go there, and the trees might just be playing a few notes. Maybe there’s periods of silence. Other days the trees might be more active, and you have a lot more richness.” During the dormant winter, recordings of earlier activity will be played, he says.

Speaking via video call from a forest in New Hampshire, Patitucci says the project is not just about adding unnecessary sound to a public space, but also giving people a way to connect more fully with nature, even in an urban environment.

“Having a way to engage with those trees if people choose to, and giving people the opportunity to recognize trees as active beings, active participants in their experience, I think that’s something that helps to take peoples’ minds out of the day-to-day stressors,” he says. “It allows people to see themselves as part of something larger.”

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Aside from previous installations at music festivals, this is the first permanent installation of the PlantWave system, and Patitucci is hoping other installations will follow. “It can be experienced as a performance, and it can be experienced as a way of monitoring the activities of plants over time,” Patitucci says.

For Coutts of Made Music Studio, these kinds of sonic interventions in urban spaces aren’t just more noise in already noisy cities. Instead, he believes they can begin to chip away at the annoying noises of cities by replacing them with sounds that provide calm, escape, and even a bit of whimsy. “I think there’s this opportunity not to be overly additive but just to create a better experience than we have today,” he says.

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