Fig. 1. Quietness has become a luxury. Image source: © Antonella Radicchi 2017
By Antonella Radicchi, PhD
The Quiet Coalition just broadened its scope in two ways, adding its first international member who is also an architect with a PhD in Urban Design and a soundscape researcher. Antonella Radicchi’s essay below, summarizing the European approach to noise and her own innovative approach to urban noise, is a little longer than most TQC content but well worth reading. I just returned from the 12th Congress of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise in Zurich, Switzerland, and it’s clear that the European Union is far ahead of the United States in understanding the health and other hazards that noise creates.
Thanks to Antonella for joining The Quiet Coalition, and for writing such a wonderful essay.
Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition
Noise pollution and Europe’s adoption of “quiet areas”
According to the World Health Organization, noise from road traffic is the second most harmful environmental stressor affecting human health after air pollution. In Europe, over 125 million people are affected by noise pollution every year. The detrimental effects of noise arise mainly from the stress reaction it causes in the human body, which can potentially lead to premature death, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, sleep disturbance, and hypertension. Addressing noise pollution is therefore imperative.
In 2002, the European Environmental Noise Directive 2002/49/EC (END) was adopted with the aim of establishing a common approach to avoid, prevent, and reduce noise pollution among the Member States. The END provides a quantitative methodology based on:
- “noise indicators” (e.g. “Lnight (night-time noise indicator), Lden (day-evening-night noise indicator)) to calculate and describe noise pollution from traffic by means of a physical scale and sound pressure levels;
- “noise maps” to represent it and inform the public about it and the related harmful effects; and
- “action plans” based on noise-mapping results to manage noise issues and effects, including noise reduction if necessary.
The END also aims to protect and plan quiet areas to reduce noise pollution. It defines a “quiet area in open country” and a “quiet area in an agglomeration” by applying noise indicators and thresholds established by the respective Member States, but does not provide a common methodology.
Consequently, to implement the measure of quiet areas, Member States have experimented with diverse methods developed on the municipality level and through European funded research projects (e.g. QSIDE, Hosanna, QUADMAP, etc.) as reported in the European Environment Agency (EEA) publication, “Good Practice Guide on Quiet Areas.” Even though the practice guide exists, the EEA has stated that in-depth research in the field is still needed, and it has encouraged scholars to experiment with mixed methodologies by integrating more qualitative approaches, such as the “soundscape approach,” with the more quantitative ones based on noise indicators.
Against this background, my project–“Beyond the Noise: Open Source Soundscapes”–aims to fill this gap by proposing a novel mixed methodology to identify, assess, and plan everyday quiet areas in cities based on the soundscape approach, the citizen science paradigm, and a novel mobile application, the Hush City app.
Quietness as a commons
The soundscape approach has been developed in diverse disciplinary fields by researchers in Europe and beyond based on early concepts from the 1960’s by R. M. Schafer through the World Soundscape Project group (see, Karlsson, H., “The Acoustic Environment as a Public Domain,” Soundscape, The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, Vol.1, No. 2, 2000). This approach has been shown to be essential to improving the quality of life in urban areas. Its importance has been confirmed by the development of International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard norms that provide theoretical and methodological frameworks for soundscape definition, analyses, and evaluation. According to the ISO norm, a soundscape is “an environment of sound (or sonic environment) with emphasis on the way it is perceived and understood by the individual, or by a society.”
The soundscape approach has three main assumptions:
- the soundscape is a resource and not merely noise;
- soundscape analyses and evaluation processes must be placed in context; and
- people’s preferences as well as their perceptual and physical evaluations are must be combined towards a holistic study of the (sonic) environment.
By addressing the issue of quiet areas through the lens of soundscape, I developed my project’s hypothesis: quiet areas should be considered as a commons, i.e., “cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society,” which should be “co-governed by its user community, according to the rules and norms of that community.“
Consequently, I propose that an “everyday quiet area” could be defined as “a small, public, quiet spot embedded in the city fabric, at walking distance from the places we work and live, where social interaction and spoken communication are not only undisturbed, but even favored.” Based on this definition, I assume that a combination of diverse qualitative and quantitative criteria could be applied to identify and evaluate quiet areas in cities, such as peoples’ preferences, accessibility, (small) size and (neighborhood) scale, the walking distance paradigm, and the soon-to-be-implemented “human voice scale” concept (i.e., using the human voice as a measure for designing human acoustic environments). These hypotheses have to be validated through the citizen-driven pilot study.
Citizen science applied to soundscape research
The soundscape paradigm has become an important tool in facilitating people’s involvement in soundscape evaluations and decision processes about the sonic environment, but public participation in research on quiet areas is still at the early stages. Inspired by citizen science trends in the use of GPS-equipped smartphones as sensors in data collection and evaluations in the field of environmental noise, e.g. WideNoise, NoiseWatch, I determined that developing a mobile app, the Hush City app, would be the most innovative approach. Many if not most citizens have smartphones that they use everyday which could be involved in this research via the app. Essentially, the Hush City app empowers citizens in local communities to play an active role in the mapping, evaluation, and planning of quiet areas.
The open source soundscapes methodology
The “open source soundscapes” methodology requires public participation and is implemented by means of a pilot study. There are four phases to this methodology:
- Analyses. To collect qualitative and quantitative data related to existing and potential everyday quiet areas in the fieldwork area, the following methods are used: open interviews, group soundwalks, and data collection via the Hush City mobile app. These activities were combined to avoid social exclusion due to a digital divide.
- Evaluation. The collected data will be analyzed to design a map of everyday quiet areas that will be evaluated to better understand what quietness in cities means to people and to validate the research project hypothesis, research questions, and methods.
- Planning. According to the evaluation results, an “Everyday Quiet Area Master Plan” will be drafted accompanying by a toolkit of planning guidelines on how to preserve existing everyday quiet areas and, eventually, plan new ones.
- Ex-post evaluation. To make ex-post evaluations and disseminate the project’s results, we will schedule working sessions with the population involved in the project to discuss and evaluate the results. The results will be presented and discussed to the public at a conference, and a permanent exhibition will be established in a space chosen in accordance with the StadtteilBüro Reuterkiez, where the local community can access and interact with the project results. Data from the working sessions and public presentations will be added to the project outcomes.
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“[I]t is imperative that we take action against noise pollution….the concept of “quietness as a commons” is an appropriate way…to achieve environmentally just, sustainable, and participatory urban planning….”
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The Pilot Study: Methods and Tools
The open source soundscapes methodology is currently being evaluated under a pilot study in Berlin. The municipality developed and adopted an official “Plan of Quiet Areas,” using the framework of the Berlin Noise Reduction Plan released in 2008, in line with the END’s requirements. In this plan, quiet areas are identified according to two categories: “continuous open areas” and “recreational areas.” The former are “forest, green spaces, parks, fields, farmland and meadows,” larger than 100 hectares, and with noise levels below 55 dB(A). The latter are “green areas and recreation areas near residential areas within walking distance,” larger than 30 hectares, and characterized by a relative limit noise level value of 6dB(A). That is, in the recreational areas the sound pressure levels at their cores should be 6dB(A) lower than the levels measured at their borders. This goal of identifying and protecting quiet areas “within walking distance” from residential areas was only partially addressed, however. By implementing the “open source soundscapes” methodology this gap could be fulfilled and the ultimate goal of building a network of quiet areas at a walking distance from the places people live (and work) can be achieved.
The pilot study is in the Reuterkiez, a Berlin “kiez” (neighborhood) located in the district of Neukölln, which is affected by significant social and urban changes (e.g. “touristification” processes) and high levels of environmental injustice. According to the Berlin Environmental Justice Atlas, “the term environmental justice refers to the type, extent and consequences of the unequal social distribution of environmental loads and to its reasons.” Consequently, environmental justice refers to the integrated levels of pollution affecting Berlin, which are calculated by combining the following core indicators: air pollution, noise load, accessibility to green spaces, thermal load, and social issues. The Reuterkiez was among those areas most affected by environmental injustice.
The pilot study is being conducted in collaboration with the StadtteilBüro Reuterkiez, a governmental office established under the framework of the EU and nationally funded Social City program, which has its venue in the neighborhood. This collaboration has facilitated the organization of many activities such as: participant recruitment, public presentations, group soundwalks, network development with local groups and associations, my active involvement in the everyday life of the kiez. Community hours are also offered at the Kinder Kiosk in Reuterplatz, the core area of the kiez, to inform residents about the project and to get them involved in its fieldwork activities, such as, open interviews, groups soundwalks, and data collection using the Hush City app, as detailed below.
These interviews are semi-structured interviews conducted with both local experts and non-experts, e.g., people from local organizations, sound artists, and people working and/or living in the kiez. Interviewees are first asked whether they live and/or work in the neighborhood or are visitors. Then, open questions follow up, focusing on: if they have favorite quiet spots in the neighborhood, and if yes, where and why, whether they would favor protection for their favorite quite spots, and whether they would like to participate in group soundwalks and/or use the Hush City app.
Soundwalks have been conducted with both people from local organizations, sound artists, people working and/or living in the neighborhood, and young students from the Rütlischule, a school based in the neighborhood. A soundwalk is “any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment.” For this study, diverse methods have been applied to design the soundwalks in accordance with the “4 Variations” scheme outlined in “A Pocket Guide to Soundwalking.” Both silent soundwalks as well as soundwalks with complex evaluation points have been performed to sensitize participants towards the importance of quietness in cities and to involve them in quiet areas analyses and evaluation processes.
The Hush City app
Fig.2. The Hush City app’s logo. Image source: © Antonella Radicchi 2017
The Hush City app was developed to help people collect and evaluate quantitative and qualitative data related to their favorite everyday quiet areas by enabling them to record sounds, calculate the noise pressure levels, take a photo of the place recorded, and collect user feedback via a questionnaire. The app was developed from scratch after a review of the state of the art of mobile apps available on the market showed that none of the existing apps had those characteristics (see, Radicchi, A., “The HUSH CITY app,” Invisible Places, Proceedings of the International Conference on Sound, Urbanism and the Sense of Place (expected Fall 2017)). Developing a tool that collects both qualitative and quantitative data allows for bridge building between the noise level-oriented approach that is practiced by acoustic planning, and a more qualitative and people-oriented one that is typically applied in soundscape research.
The Hush City app offers the users two options:
- They can map and evaluate everyday quiet areas in their neighborhoods; and/or
- They can use the app to find nearby everyday quiet spots that have been mapped by other members of the community.
By accessing the Hush City app’s home page, users are invited to select the action they would like to make (see Fig. 4). In addition, a menu on the bottom of the screen offers various options (e.g., return to home page, consult user surveys, give feedback, change settings, etc.). Finally the search feature allows the user to find quiet areas mapped in specific cities by typing in the name of the desired city.
Fig.3. Hush City app: “Map the quietness around you” interface. Image source: © Antonella Radicchi 2017
Fig.4. Hush City app: “Quiet Areas” interface. Image source: © Antonella Radicchi 2017
A user guideline is provided to support pilot study participants and people interested in participating in the Hush City project worldwide. For the pilot study, data collected by participants via the app, open interviews, and group soundwalk will then be evaluated and will form the basis for the development of an Everyday Quiet Areas Masterplan.
The Everyday Quiet Areas Masterplan
The Hush City app and the “Everyday Quiet Areas Masterplan” constitute the open source outputs of the project. The latter is a participative management plan, which will take the local level results and scale them to city level by:
- Providing guidelines on protecting existing quiet areas identified by local communities and, eventually, guidance on planning new quiet areas; and
- Defining these indications by taking into account complementary city plans, such as the official quiet areas plan, the urban mobility plan, the land use plan, the green areas plan, to mention a few.
The Everyday Quiet Areas Masterplan will be developed in the planning phase of the project, which will start in the Fall 2017.
The “open source soundscapes” methodology can be applied to other Berlin neighborhoods and, potentially, to other cities worldwide that are affected by noise pollution and environmental injustice, leading to insightful comparative studies. Grounded on the concept of “quietness as a commons,” the methodology’s theoretical, methodological, and political impact can contribute to a plan of small, quiet areas in cities developed with public participation that embeds peoples’ preferences by way of the open source planning process. This public participation could be part of a collaborative effort with local authorities.
In Berlin, the collaboration with the StadtteilBüro Reuterkiez has been designed to ensure the project continues to have a positive impact on the neighborhood even after the project ends. To that effect, two activities have been envisioned. One activity is the development of a one-day long workshop to train people in soundscape action research so that they will be able to exploit the project results and diffuse the soundscape culture in the neighborhood. The other, the “Soundwalking in the kiez!” program run in collaboration with the Rütlischule based in the kiez, was kicked off on International Noise Awareness Day 2017 (April 25th). In future years, annual sound walks will be organized and guided to celebrate International Noise Awareness Day. You can read more about this year’s soundwalk here.
We are currently in the midst of the analyses phases: first results were presented and discussed at Acousitcs17 in Boston on June 26. The presentation’s slides are available at this link. The planning and ex-post evaluation phases are expected to begin by the end of the Fall 2017. The final evaluation of the collected data will be discussed in October 2017 at the Stadtteilekonferenz, a public conference which will take place in the Reuterkiez. The planning and ex-post evaluation phases are expected to begin by the end of the Fall 2017.
Future work may lead to the the implementation of new features in the Hush City app (e.g., additional languages, automatic calibration processes), a further investigation of the quiet spots identified by the participants by means of psychoacoustic analyses, and comparative studies with other cities worldwide, such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, where approximately 50 surveys have already made by using the Hush City app.
As I wrote in the introduction, it is imperative that we take action against noise pollution. I strongly believe that the concept of “quietness as a commons” is an appropriate way to tackle this challenge and to achieve environmentally just, sustainable, and participatory urban planning development in the city of Berlin and beyond.
The “Beyond the Noise: Open Source Soundscapes” research project was created and is conducted by Dr. Antonella Radicchi (Technical University of Berlin).
Project Supervisors: Professor Dr. Dietrich Henckel (Technical University of Berlin), M.A. Jörg Kaptain (Berlin Senate, Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection).
Acoustic Consultants: M.A. Michael Jäcker-Cüppers (DEGA; German Society of Acoustics), Professor Michael Jäcker-Cüppers (Technical University of Berlin), Dipl. Ing. Manuel Frost (Berlin Senate, Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection), Dipl. Ing. Mattia Cobianchi (Bowers & Wilkins, UK).
Software Development: QUERTEX GmbH (GER) in cooperation with EdgeWorks Software Ltd.
The pilot study is proudly conducted in collaboration with Rabea and Dominik from the Stadtteilbüro Reuterkiez!
The project has received the no-profit istitutional support of the Berlin Senate and has been developed in accordance with the Berlin Senate, Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection.
The research project has received funding from the IPODI-Marie Curie Fellowship – People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under REA grant agreement no. 600209 (TU Berlin/IPODI).
By Antonella Radicchi, PhD
Antonella Radicchi is a life enthusiast–people, cities, soundscapes, and new digital media are her passions. She calls Berlin home while she works on her “Beyond the Noise: Open Source Soundscapes” project at the Technical University Berlin. She is a registered architect and has a Ph.D. in Urban Design, with doctoral studies conducted at MIT (Cambridge, USA) and at the University of Firenze (IT). She collaborates with the European Commission Executive Research Agency as an external expert evaluator in the frame of HORIZON 2020.
Dr. Radicchi’s research and professional work has been widely awarded, most notably: the IPODI-Marie Curie Fellowship, the nomination as Falling Walls Young Innovator of the Year 2016 (finalist), the Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship, the 2010 National Institute of Urbanism Award for the best Italian dissertation in urbanism. Her project, Toscana Sound Map, was commissioned for and exhibited at EXPO 2015 in Milan. Since 2009, she has been the curator of Firenze Sound Map, which was included in the Open Data System of the Municipality of Firenze in 2013. While combining her professional and research practice, Dr. Radicchi has lectured extensively at the university level for ten years and has participated in international conferences and symposiums.
In 2017 she has launched Hush City app, a citizen science project, to push the boundaries of knowledge and to promote the environmentally just city.
She can be contacted at: