A Soundwalk with Milena Droumeva

July 14, 2022

School of Communication professor Milena Droumeva and the Sonic Research Studio team have launched their Livable Soundscapes: A Toolkit for Communities document for public use. This toolkit helps the general public, as well as community organizations, urban planners, and property developers, to address the livability of a city by attending to the soundscape of daily life in a specific area. In the toolkit, which you can download here, you will find ideas, tools, materials, activities, and more to run your own soundscape assessment study. 

Milena specializes in sound studies and sensory ethnographies. They are teaching three sound-related courses this fall, including: CMNS 258 History of Sound in Media, CMNS 359 The Culture and Politics of Sound, and CMNS 859 Acoustic Dimensions of Communications.

To celebrate the launch of Milena's toolkit, I joined them for my very first soundwalk. According to Hildegard Westerkamp, a soundwalk helps you rediscover and reactivate our sense of hearing. Milena explained that if we consciously pay attention to our soundscape, we can better understand our relationship to our environment.  

We met at Pallet Coffee Roasters on Semlin Drive, just off East Hastings, whereby I learned that the term soundscape could be defined as the totality of all sounds in a given place at a given time. I could still hear the traffic and impatient horn honkers of East Hastings as we started our soundwalk in Pallet's alley, home to many autobody shops and construction sites. The most prominent sound was the clang of tools striking metal and roar of the digging backhoes. At the corner of Hastings and Salsbury, a refrigeration truck was docked at a commercial space and hummed incessently as the cold air pumped inside. The story emerging from the soundscape told me that this area was not urban (crowds, laughing, etc.) but rather very industrial. Ironically, Glenhaven Memorial Chapel sits nearby, and it was difficult to imagine getting peace and quiet to mourn amidst all the harsher sounds.

Next we headed along Franklin to see another irony: the street was filled with recording studios! Why would music producers want to record in such a noisy area? Milena, having been inside one of them, explained that the property had at one time been cheaper here. Although the outside of the studios have barred windows and barbed-wire fences, Milena assured me that they had state-of-the-art equipment, and of course soundproofing technologies to keep out the industrial hum, inside.

At the Ironworks building, Milena asked me about any new sounds I could hear. The dominant sounds were multiple vehicles unloading and the buzz of an electical pannel. In the distance, I could still hear construction as well as the echoing bangs from the Port, which operates twenty-four hours a day. There had been no real silence on our walk so far. As someone who had grown up in the country of a small town, this shocked me. Moreover, Milena noted that constant noise has an effect on our physical health. Studies have shown that ceaseless noise keeps our bodies under constant anxiety. Noise pollution has even been linked to heart disease and fatigue.

After walking by Paralell 49, which, despite its gorgeous outdoor patio and delicious drinks, also adds to the noisy soundscape of this area through its nightly brewing and rambunctious crowd, we headed into Triumph Street's residential area. The louder construction bangs and electrical hums slowly began to fade. The only industrial sound I could still hear was coming from the distant and pervasive Port. There is always so much more going on in the outskirts of your acoustic horizon than you sometimes notice, Milena reminded me.

So how do you build up a kind of community or cultural life when you have so much industrial domination? Milena poses this question as we embark on our last block of the soundwalk. They take me to our final destination: Pandora Park. The thick maple trees that line the street and the park's entrance instantly help dull the distant sounds. The soundscape shifts. In the park, I can now hear pickleballs bouncing on the courts, children laughing and shrieking on the playground, birds chirping, and a stream trickling from the waterpark. Many people from this area are relaxing on the grass or in the community garden. It's a beautiful sonic environment, one that embodies a true sense of place and belonging. I realize that Vancouver will always have noise pollution, but green spaces such as Pandora Park helps enhance the livability of the city's more industrial areas.

Milena encourages everyone to download their Livable Soundscapes: A Toolkit for Communities document and go for their own soundwalk. Try going on a sonic treasure hunt. Go out and collect different sounds, then come back and talk about which ones do or do not enhance livability and why. What sounds do you notice on your walk? What questions do you have after listening to the soundscape of your area? The things you notice about the sonic environment may differ from someone else, and this difference in perspective helps make sense of your place in the given space. Sound not only derives from the human experience but also creates it.

Download the Livable Soundscapes toolkit here.

Learn more about the Sonic Research Studio's research here.

Our Soundwalk Route:

Pandora Park: