Cities of Sound

Written for City Observer, journal by Urban Design Collective

The presence of loud sound is ubiquitous in all cities. It is a significance of dynamic nature where many different scale and variety of activities happen at once contributing to life in cities. It is an elaborate orchestra performed by the collective sounds in the urban environment referred to as the soundscape.  The sound is an important component of cities that determines how we perceive an urban place and the quality of life it associates with. In planning cities or designing buildings sound has scarcely been identified, and often seen as a byproduct of urbanization. In discussions about the sensory experience of the city, the visible sights take precedence over what is heard, felt or smelt. Sound as the science of acoustics and noise pollution’s impact on human health are subjects that have a firm research basis, what we require today is a shift towards an understanding about the need to study sounds in the urban environment to positively reflect in planning and design.

In the urbanizing world, the percentage of green cover and open spaces are declining at the fastest rate, the last inch of the land is acquired and built upon. However, there is little awareness of the fact that the dwindling natural environment in the urban setup has a deep impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. To understand this all one is required to do is to take a walk – a walk in the city, and a walk in the woods. Not all experiences in the city life are unpleasant or have a negative impact, but the average experience of the one living in cities today that overtly disregards its pedestrians is fraught with difficulties. The allure of the countryside has always been a prospect for many to leave the city, once identified with dreams and possibilities as now ever growing in noise and chaos, sometime in our life and escape into the rural amidst life more in tandem closely with the natural environment. It attracts even the staunch lovers of the big noisy city, who take timely vacations in the remote areas sometimes specifically designed to evoke visceral experiences. There are umpteen differences between the life of the two, exemplified in the Garden Cities movement as Ebenezer Howard writes – The Country declares herself to be the source of all beauty and wealth; There are in the country beautiful vistas, lordly parks, violet-scented woods, fresh air, sounds of rippling water, comfort; and the pure air to gladden the hearts of the people. Ideally, in as much we are close to nature we are closer to the generators of sounds that have a natural source which is pleasing to the ears, have a positive impact on the brain, known to relieve stress and fatigue that are the hallmark of city living. Natural sounds are an important entrée into the mystery of life around us, a kind of aural portal or window into the complexity and diversity around us.  In an age where so many things seem to be known or knowable, there are many sounds that essentially convey a mystery and wildness that we lack in other dimensions of life.

Wall Graffiti in low income neighborhood

Good Sound Bad Sound

The creation of sound is a collective activity, a sum of isolated or interconnected events under the humdrum of nature, man, and the machine that makes each city peculiar. The sound is a characteristic feature of the function of the city. What would be the city of Varanasi without the chanting of the priest, the activity at the ghats, and the sound of bells that makes the temple center an auditory landmark? Every listener will describe sound in city in a different way, an individual stream of consciousness defines how we perceive and experience the urban soundscape. Sense of place, as the term indicates, has to do with sensing. Places like live music venues, neighborhoods, and cities as a whole are connoted with various labels, ideas and prejudices. The sound is always an integral part of cities, in fact, the sound is the city. For example, the sound of bells of clock towers played an important role in industrial cities, in facilitating people about the hour of the day, and also by organizing the urban time, space around it. The element of water in religious places is integral for the sound of flowing water has a tranquilizing effect, necessary for meditation to achieve spiritual elevation. The knowledge cities recognized the need for the universities, learning centers and libraries built for the scholarship to have specific sound requirements or the lack thereof. The choice of their location is always idyllic, retiring into the heart of nature.  At the same time, there are commercial centers and markets thriving on cacophony making them attractive businesses. It is almost impossible to imagine trains and bus stations with constant movement and activity to be quiet or silent. We associate places with their characteristic sound, without which these places do not remain the same. This association value helps us to differentiate the function and form of places we inhabit. The sound then becomes a necessary stimulant for activity and signifies vibrancy of places which in turn attracts people to cities.

Children playing in Jama Masjid, Delhi

There is no absolute silence in human or natural habitation. The sense of sound is an involuntary action, unlike the other senses of sight, smell or touch we cannot withdraw from hearing experience. It is because of this we hear all ambient sounds but perceive only the sounds through which we process information. Soundscapes consist of a combination of materials and activities and, of course, these materials and activities vary from culture to culture. Today we can safely add technology to the list which has vastly altered the way we create sound.  The architecture critic Michael Kimmelman in his recent article addresses architects on the important character of sound in buildings. He writes sound may be invisible or only unconsciously perceived, but that doesn’t make it any less an architectural material than wood, glass, concrete, stone or light. It is shaped by design, albeit most architects rarely think much about it, except when their task is to come up with a pleasing concert hall or a raucous restaurant — and then acousticians are called in. We talk admiringly about green or energy-efficient buildings, with roof gardens, cross ventilation, and stairways that encourage residents to walk, because good design can aspire to improve public health. But we don’t talk nearly enough about how sound in these buildings, and in all the other spaces we design, make us feel. In the book Atmospheres, the architect, who evokes the immediacy of emotional response through building design, Peter Zumthor (2006, pg-29,30) writes on The Sound of a Space:

“Listen! Interiors are like large instruments, collecting sound, amplifying it, transmitting it elsewhere. That has to do with the shape peculiar to each room and with the surfaces of the shape peculiar to each room and with the surfaces of the materials they contain, and the way those materials have been applied…But there are sounds, too, in a great hall: the noises in the grand interior of a railway terminal, or you hear sounds in a town and so on. But if we take it a step further – even if it gets a bit mystical now – and imagine extracting all foreign sound from a building, and if we try to imagine what that would be like with nothing left, nothing there to touch anything else. The question arises: does the building still have a sound? …I find it’s a beautiful thing when you’re making a building in that stillness. I mean trying to make the building a quiet place. That’s pretty difficult these days because our world has become so noisy. Well, not so much here, perhaps. But I know other places that are much noisier and you have to go to some lengths to make quiet rooms and imagine the sound they make with all their proportions and materials in a stillness of their own…”

 Sound levels generated by various noise sources

Sound Level dbA
Quiet library, soft whispers 30
Quiet room 40
Normal conversation 60
Air conditioner at 20 feet, sewing machine 60
Vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, noisy restaurant 70
Moderate traffic 75
Heavy Traffic 85
Subway, motorcycle, truck traffic, lawn mower 90-100
Garbage truck, pneumatic drill 100
Chain saw 110
Rock band concert in front of speakers, thunderclap 120
Jackhammer 130


What is important to understand is when does a sound become noise? The answer could be subjective; people have differing levels of resilience to noise. To extrapolate the reception of noise based on age group we can safely agree that older people and small children prefer places that are silent, youth and adults prefer places that are full of different sounds and vibrant in nature. Sound is a positive element in an urban setting, while too much or too little of sound is undesirable for habitation. The presence of sound is also an indicator of security, and also a required condition for privacy in city life. Noise is sound in disagreement with our hearing experience. The acoustic ecologist Murray Schafer proposed three different types of noises i.  Unwanted sound ii. Unmusical sound (defined as non-periodic vibration), iii. Any loud sound and disturbance in signaling systems.  The unwanted sound, loud sound and the disturbance of signal are independent factors, having the potential of leading to emotional responses often manifested in frustration. We are attuned to ignore the ambient sounds that are not particularly continuous or disturbing. For example, the sound of a passing automobile or seldom honking, the sound from air conditioners, telephone ringers etc. The noise levels that surpass hearing threshold result in severe health issues – fatigue, hearing loss, cognitive impairment in children and adults etc. As a result, the national and local bodies are authorized to regulate the level of noise pollution in cities. Zoning ordinance set a limit for noise threshold for different zones, and timings that are required to keep in check.

Indian Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) standard for zone wise noise limit

Code                      Zone                    Day time      Night time
   A                 Industrial area                75                    70
   B                 Commercial area            65                   55
   C                 Residential area              55                   45
   D                 Silence Zone                    50                   40


Noisier, Noisiest

Pata hai bahut saal pehle yahan ek jungle hota tha, ghana bhara jungle, phir yahan ek sheher bangaya saaf suthre makaan seedhe raste sab kuch saleeqe se hone laga, par jis din jungle kata uss din parindou ka ek jhund yahan se hamesha ke liye udd gaya … [ You know, some years ago there used to be a forest here, a thick green forest, then one day a city got built here, neat and clean homes, straight roads, everything was organized; but the day the forest was cut, a flock of birds flew forever from here…]. These lyrics from the Bollywood film Rockstar (2011) epitomize the process of urbanization. The discussions about cities, a little more than two decades ago, are replete with the effervescent bird songs. The loss of natural habitat is to such a great extent that the sight of common birds has become rare. The first casualty of desensitized urbanization is the natural environment. The trees are cut, the contours are altered, channels are blocked and local flora-fauna that rely on it disappear.  It is required that we build cities that sustain a symbiotic natural and human environment, the benefits of which are undisputed. In recent debates and counter debates about the level of air pollution in developing and the developed world and their efforts to mitigate, what is common is the amount of sound that is being generated. A positive thing about air or water pollution is that both of them are visible at some level making it difficult to dismiss them. On the other hand, the perception of noise as an individual experience can be easily ignored, but the sum of its experiences and effect on natural and human habitat needs to be actively pursued in designing cities.Traffic Signal, ITO

Noise has become inseparable to urban living and at the cost of human well-being. The biggest contributor to noise pollution is the movement of traffic – the permissible noise level for car is 82dB multiplied by the number of cars at any given point in addition to different other modes of transport plus noise from various other sources at any given place can drive up stress levels real high. In addition, the construction of elevated roads, metro rail also significantly adds to the noise at levels above ground. In such instances, the high rise buildings for residential purposes are gaining momentum, so also inward housing developments restricting free access to avoid the excess noise from traffic. The unstopping construction activity of roads, metro rails, buildings, using heavy machinery equipment adds more noise. The invention of advanced machines has helped reduce extra human effort in doing simple manual work but made noise intrusions from them inevitable. In recent past the scale of festival celebrations has multiplied, by each year, they have become bigger, brighter, louder. This is true for our religion of cricket too, even truer during the political campaign before elections. It has almost become impossible to have a moment of silence. In attempts to avoid hearing sounds that are unwanted we expose ourselves to sounds we like – often music. Our cities are undergoing significant transformations with least planning and design inputs. We need to recognize the long-term consequence of rampant development that has no particular end or direction in sight. Any kind of pollution does not simply affect the natural environment but the human habitation itself.

Bigger, brighter, louder festivities

Urban living has become synonymous with diseases, and noise pollution particularly affects mental well-being, stretched longer results in anti-social behavior which is becoming the point in case. The present noise mitigation efforts are neither fully sufficient nor has any effective implementation. Monitoring the levels of noise in large cities is a difficult task in itself and making people actually follow regulations is all the more a bigger task in which case how exactly can we pin down the source of noise to cut it down. Just as the sense of hearing cannot be controlled, so does effective noise mitigation appears to be. And as such it must be on our list of priority. The noise levels prescribed for different zones in cities, that developed organically has mixed use character, there cannot be one accepted level of noise – there are too many players to effectively come in the purview of a single blanket rule. Car ownership has been increasing year by year; their movement is not restricted to major roads, to avoid traffic delay people take detours through neighborhoods totally destructing the character of community living. Such are the requirements for parking that there is little to no scope for open accessible public spaces for people. We need a healing environment for the sick but our hospitals are at the receiving end of noise from traffic movements. Parks or gardens provide a great buffer from the noise in the city, but they too have limitations. We cannot recreate an entire forest in the city to counter pollution, and after reaching its full limit natural environment starts degrading under the effects of pollution itself. It is often that noise pollution is accompanied by air, water and light pollution that are pervasive in all big cities. What we essentially need is better study and understanding of sound of our cities that are beneficial. Sensitization to the issues of noise is required at individual and collective level after all it affects all alike. We must integrate sound as an essential aspect of city planning and design and not as an unpleasant byproduct. We don’t have to subject ourselves to obnoxious sounds all the time for which the city must engage and interact with its citizens to participate in creating better cities for all. In reiteration not all sound is bad all we need to work towards amplifying sounds we enjoy while reducing the ones we don’t.  Until then we will rely on the sound of rain to momentarily to put an end to the excess noise in the city.