Aug 312010

Geographers have long been interested in the distinctive contribution of sounds to landscapes, especially urban landscapes. Some sounds are associated with pleasure, some with danger, others with impatience. The soundscapes of cities have become a legitimate area of study.

Early work tended to focus on traffic noise or on identifying areas where ambient noise from industry or other activities exceeded a comfortable threshold volume.

Soundscapes vary from rural areas to urban areas, and from one region to another. Mexico’s urban soundscapes are among the most distinctive on the planet, and this week has been declared National Sound Week by the federal government. Several “sound walks” have been organized in major cities.

As a USA Today article points out, all sounds contain a message. For example, “A series of four notes on a pan flute means the scissor-sharpening man is in the neighborhood. A ringing hand bell means the garbage truck is here” and so on.

The traffic whistles made by police are an important subset of the sounds in any Mexican town or city. They have a mini-language of their own, explored in this MexConnect article: Did you know? Different traffic whistles in Mexico mean different things.

Fieldwork idea: Portable sound meters make it relatively easy to compile a map showing the sound levels (measured in decibels) around particular sources of sound, whether periodic in occurrence (such as vehicles at a traffic light or the crowd in a sports stadium) or more or less continuous (like the hum of wind turbines or the noise of a factory).

Once a map has been compiled, analyze any patterns you can identify. Studies of urban soundscapes are not only of academic value, but have an important role in city planning as well. For example,

  • Do tall buildings mask the loudest sounds, or do they funnel it towards the listener?
  • Does the sound level vary depending on the quantity of vegetation between the sound source and the listener?
  • Which kinds of vegetation are most effective in masking sounds?
  • Is east-west traffic louder than north-south traffic?
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