Listening to the city: Livable Soundscapes soundwalk research workshop

November 30, 2020
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Livable Soundscapes is a SSHRC funded research project led by Dr. Milena Droumeva. The general goal of the research project is to introduce public and community organizations to sounds' role in urban ecology by building awareness and vocabulary, practicing tools for soundscape assessment, learning best practices for soundscape design, and practicing livable soundscape design on real-world case studies. This project partners with SFU's Vancity Office of Engagement, and HCMA Architecture + Design.  

Learn more about the October 2020 soundwalk research workshop from MA student and Research Assistant Lauren Knight.

Can you tell me a bit about what the research project and the workshop?  

Livable Soundscapes is a SSHRC funded research project led by Dr. Milena Droumeva. I had the pleasure of being an RA on the project this year. The general goal of the research project is to introduce public and community organizations to sounds' role in urban ecology by building awareness and vocabulary, practicing tools for soundscape assessment, learning best practices for soundscape design, and practicing livable soundscape design on real-world case studies. We explored these topics with participants over 2 days. The soundwalk was a portion of our workshop on the second day in which we led participants from Science World through Chinatown. This soundwalk was used as an introduction to urban listening practice and is one way in which participants were able to practice soundscape assessment.

What were takeaways from participants after the soundwalk?  

I would say that the in person soundwalks were eye-opening for participants in that there were sonic spaces and sounds some had never considered. I think for anyone who has not performed a soundwalk, it can be surprising to place yourself within the soundscape and to focus your attention on listening. For many, this was a new way to explore the city that they had never previously considered.

There were also some key takeaways on how we use sound to explore pieces of livability: culture, health, innovation, etc. We had designed a workbook to be completed throughout the soundwalk. There were a handful of questions that encouraged participants to assess the soundscape within these larger contexts - using sound as a tool in which we can measure livability. 

Overall, participants enjoyed the experience and it encouraged some lively and insightful discussions in the second part of our workshop. I think participants left feeling comfortable with the tools for sound assessment and design, wanting to integrate sonic planning into their work.

What was your takeaway from the soundwalk?

I have been practicing soundwalking for over a year now. I was first introduced to this form of soundscape assessment through Milena and I've come to develop a passion for it! Even though I perform soundwalks consistently, I am always surprised by changes to the soundscape or sounds that I forget are prominent. For example, there is a power station near the Science Centre. When you pass the station you can hear the low rumble of electricity. If you're not aware of it, it may go unnoticed; however, once you hear it, it becomes a key part of the soundscape (and it travels quite far)! This sound was one that struck me during the soundwalk for this project.

I also love performing soundwalks with new people (and/or those who have never tried this form of assessment before), as it gives me a chance to hear through new ears - providing new perspectives on the soundscapes that I have previously visited. This specific experience encouraged me to view the soundscape from a planning perspective, listening with the intent of our participants. As I typically listen for my own research, this shift in listening introduced me to new modes of assessment.

What would you tell people living in cities to think about next time they are out for a walk in their city?

I would encourage people to unplug next time they are out for a walk in the city. I've noticed a growing tendency to turn inwards (reaching for our headphones) during our commute or while walking outdoors. The simple act of listening to our soundscape can be quite shocking as there are often a collection of sounds that we don't hear. By exploring your city sonically, you may experience much more than you expect.