Urban Sound Ecology explores Vancouver soundscapes

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It’s a cloudy day, and the wind rushes in my ears as I walk along a deserted waterfront park in East Vancouver. As I flip the switch on my cellphone-sized digital audio recorder, Max Ritts and I fall silently into step. For a moment, I hear only the sound of our feet crunching rhythmically along the hard gravel path. A train rumbles across a railway bridge behind us, letting out a shrill whistle. I notice the water gurgling serenely beside me as it laps the shoreline and I extend my arm toward it, moving my recorder closer, but a plane flies by overhead obscuring all other sounds around me.

I furrow my brow at the noise and look up. Ritts chuckles. As surprised as I am at the cacophony of sounds, to him it comes as no surprise. For the cofounder of Urban Sound Ecology, exploring the city through its sounds is an everyday event.

Urban Sound Ecology is a web-based archive of urban soundwalks—unnarrated recordings of walks through the city like the one Ritts and I are on. Volunteers conduct these walks and upload the audio files to the site, where they are linked with a map detailing the walk’s route.

As a photo of a city street captures and preserves a fleeting moment of day-to-day life, the recordings offer similar auditory snapshots. With titles like “Morning Commute to Richmond” and “Point Grey Saturday Morning”, the recordings are, for the most part, unspectacular.

According to Ritts, who’s a geographer, that is exactly the point. “I think it is unremarked how much sound structures our everyday lives, and how wonderful it can be to experience those moments where the world around you is just incredibly vibrant from an acoustic perspective,” Ritts told me. “We often sound out the world with headphones and things like that. But sometimes it can be revealing just walking down a busy street and hearing things you weren’t paying attention to before.”

Ritts founded Urban Sound Ecology in Toronto in 2009 with web designer Greg J. Smith, who holds a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Toronto. When Ritts moved last summer to start his PhD at the University of British Columbia, they expanded the project to include Vancouver.

Ritts hopes the project—part historical diary, part critical urban exploration—inspires people to think about what a city’s sounds tell us about its political landscape, especially as those sounds change over time.

“In the theoretical world of geography, a lot of attention has been paid to the visual, but we’re becoming more and more aware that there are important questions to ask in the acoustic registry as well,” Ritts said.

This is not the first time these questions have been asked. In fact, the study of acoustic ecology, now practised all over the world, was born in Vancouver when professors at Simon Fraser University initiated the World Soundscape Project in the late 1960s.

Led by composer R. Murray Schafer, the WSP team recorded and catalogued soundscapes in Vancouver and later internationally in hopes of educating the public about soundscapes and noise pollution, as well as preserving dying sonic environments.

The project has continued since its inception in fits and starts, making Vancouver likely the only city in the world with four decades of archived soundscapes.

Composer Barry Truax, one of the team’s original members and the editor of the Handbook for Acoustic Ecology, still teaches at Simon Fraser University and continues the project’s work.

Truax said that though he does not see Urban Sound Ecology as a continuation of the World Soundscape Project due to the unregulated, open quality of the online community, he hopes that the site spurs others to be more actively involved in the acoustic design of their cities.

“It’s asking the hard questions about the quality-of-life issues and the acoustic design of urban spaces, so if it points people in that direction, then it will be very, very valuable,” he said by phone.

Teresa Goff is one of those people. A radio broadcaster who’s currently a full-time mother to her young son, she stumbled across Urban Sound Ecology online just as Ritts was bringing the project to Vancouver.

She began going on sound walks weekly with her two-year-old.

Goff said the project has made her hear the sounds of the city differently and notice ones she hadn’t noticed before, like the enchanting patter of rain on umbrellas, or the loud rush of water flowing through the streets during a storm.

“One thing that’s very overwhelming when you’re recording something is if you’re walking down a street and a car drives by you, the volume of noise is unbelievable, and it’s the dominant sound in the city,” she said by phone.

Urban Sound Ecology has helped her recognize just how much acoustic information we deal with in the city on a day-to-day basis.

“Vancouver is really noisy,” she said. “I think that’s just about all it comes down to.”

Currently, Urban Sound Ecology has about 40 contributors in Vancouver, including a handful of geography students who participated as part of a research-methodology class at UBC. Ritts said his dream is to have a greater diversity of people contributing and thinking critically about the stories the city’s sounds tell that have previously fallen on deaf ears.

“The difference between sound and vision is that we really can’t control what we hear,” he said.

“You can look away much more easily than you can listen away.”

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