Acoustic Design Artifacts and Methods for Urban Soundscapes: A Case Study on the Qualitative Dimensions of Sounds

Björn Hellström, Mats E. Nilsson, Östen Axelsson, Peter Lundén

Hellström, B., Nilsson, M., Axelsson, Ö, & Lundén, P. (2014). ACOUSTIC DESIGN ARTIFACTS AND METHODS FOR URBAN SOUNDSCAPES: A CASE STUDY ON THE QUALITATIVE DIMENSIONS OF SOUNDS. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 31(1), 57-71.


The amount of noise in urban settings is steadily on the rise, creating a potential health hazard and causing a general nuisance. In major European cities, noise levels are so high that the majority of urban parks can no longer truly serve as recreational environments, a problem the World Health Organization and the European Union are attempting to address. This study explores various strategies that promote the sustainable development of urban soundscapes at locations meant for rest, recreation, and social interaction. Further, we look at how people are affected by the combined effects of traffic and nature sounds in parks and other outdoor settings. To this end, we adopted a new track — the use of interdisciplinary methodology — that brings together architectural analysis, artistic experiments, and psychoacoustic methodology to evaluate the aesthetic, emotional, perceptual, and spatial effects of noise on subjects spending time in public open-air spaces. We conducted a large-scale case study at a city park to explore whether subjects were affected by purposely distributed sounds and, if so, how. The working hypothesis was that it is possible to cancel out or mute traffic noise by affecting individuals' aural perceptions using a process known as informational masking. Our long-term objective is to create a scientific foundation for action plans, both preemptive and troubleshooting, targeting noise reduction in parks and similar public spaces that are meant to provide a relaxing environment.

Main finding
The 'Sonic Space' installation at Mariatorget edited the existing soundscape (traffic noise) with natural sounds but the study found that the majority of participants were not actively aware of the sound-art installation. Majority of the participants reported a positive or indifferent response to the sound-art installation in laboratory simulation. The authors contend that sounds in urban settings are not interpreted independent of the acoustic space in which they exist but are connected to the listener, location, and situation. Further the authors hypothesize that listening in outdoor urban settings is passive and in order to mitigate traffic noise in urban settings, the auditory focus needs to be unconsciously shifted or redirected to the artificial soundscape. To do so, the artificial soundscape would need to employ energetic masking (loudness is a factor to consider) and the urban outdoor environment include diverse configuration created by sound, structures, artifacts, activities and sensory experiences.

Description of method used in the article
A multi-phase study to evaluate the noise reduction potential of a permanent sound-art installation in Mariatorget, a city park in Stockholm with excessive road-traffic noise. The study involved a psychoacoustic analysis using laboratory simulation as well as in situ experiments.

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