Why Are Urban Planners Collecting City Soundscapes?

This is a journey into sound

Jason Langley/Corbis

Maps are the traditional weapons of urban planners — after all, they need detailed plans to figure out how how to route traffic and manage commercial and residential development. Now, CityLab’s Linda Poon reports, urban planners might be adding another tool to their arsenal: A pair of headphones.

Poon writes about a community soundscape project spearheaded by MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab). “Since May,” she writes, “CoLab has been asking people all over the world to send in two minute soundbites, or ‘audio portraits,’ of their neighborhoods.” The short clips can “reveal the social and economic dynamics of a place,” notes Poon — and even reveal a mix of natural and manmade sounds that could give urban planners clues about neighborhoods’ social dynamics. 

You can listen to a selection of miniature sound snapshots of cities all over the world on CoLab’s website. From a “soundwalk” through Richmond, Kentucky to the sounds of a Greek street market, each selection includes photos and a profile of the city along with its unique sounds. This walk takes you through a public park in Istanbul, Turkey: 

And you can help, too. CoLab is requesting that people who want to help the project “reveal hidden social, political and economic dynamics that go beyond what is easily understood about a place” submit soundwalks of their own.

MIT isn’t the only institution trying to figure out how to use sound to help urban planners. As The Huffington Post’s Carrie Sturrock reports, computer scientists at Portland State University are using data collected from people’s smartphones to help planners make decisions about things like public transit lines. Maybe a pair of earbuds will be standard-issue for urban planners soon.

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