Cary: In this episode of Soundproofist, I’m talking to Dr. Antonella Radicchi, an architect, a scientist, an activist and a soundscape urbanist. She’s based in Berlin, and she’s the leader of the Hush City Mobile Lab and of many soundwalks in European cities. This is part one of a two- part conversation. In this first part, we’re going to talk about the Hush City app, how it evolved, how you can use it and how it can help city governments with urban planning.
Cary: Hi Antonella, thanks for speaking with us today on the Soundproofist podcast. I’m really looking forward to introducing people to your work and how listeners can also contribute to your different projects. So tell us about the Hush City app. What inspired you to develop it?
Antonella: Yeah, thank you so much for having me here, it’s a great honor. I’m happy to talk about the Hush City app project and it would be great if you could involve more people in the project. So the Hush City app empowers people to identify, evaluate and contribute to plan quiet areas in our cities. And as you might know, protecting quiet cities is very important, It’s an effective measure to reduce noise pollution, which actually is the second environmental stressor after air pollution affecting our health in cities. And the importance of protecting quiet areas as been recently recognized by the guidelines launched by the World Health Organization, just on October 10. And also, it’s recognized by the European directive on environmental noise.
Antonella: How can we protect quiet areas? First of all, we need to identify the quiet areas that need to be protected. How can we do that? How can we involve people? Usually the methods applied, so for our big cities or municipalities in Europe for example, are based on quantitative recurring area, meaning that they measure noise levels and they set up a threshold and say "okay, this area is under 50 decibels, so we can identify it as being a quiet area."
Antonella: But as you know, as we all know, we experience every day now in our lives, that sound is something objective of course, but we can measure it, but mostly subjective. So the same sound that we like and we don’t like, depending on who perceived the same sound. So it’s tremendously important to get people involved in the process of identification and protection of quiet areas.
Antonella: To empower people to achieve this goal, I developed and launched the Hush City app at the beginning of 2017.
Cary: Wow. That’s so great that you created this app and I know it’s in its second version now, right?
Antonella: Yep. We just launched last spring, the second version. And basically the app allows you to perform two main actions. Of course, to go to a quiet area, use the app to evaluate it by collecting a set of mixed data and share your evaluation, your feedback, with a community. So once you collect the data by using the Hush City app on a quiet area and once you share the data set with a community, your data will be automatically linked to a public map, where everyone can access the quiet area you shared with the community.
Antonella: So this is the first action you can do with it by using the Hush City app. So you can map, evaluate and share with the community your quiet areas. On the other hand, you can also use the app in a passive mode, accessing the quiet areas shared by the Hush City community. And you can access and you can browse, you can have a look and have an ear to the quiet areas collected by people, both by using the app itself and by accessing the public map, we have made accessible.
Antonella: The Hush City app is really a crucial and powerful tool because it enables to perform a complex data collection of mixed data. It guides you through a sequential process and so that you can first record an audio recording of the sonic environment, the quiet areas where you are, then the app calculates the noise levels. Then you’re invited to take a picture of the quiet area where you are and then finally, you’re invited to reply to a pre-defined questionnaire to evaluate overall, the quiet area.
Antonella: By replying to the questionnaire, you can evaluate not only the sonic qualities of the quiet area, but other characteristics too. For example, you can evaluate the overall maintenance and cleanliness of the quiet area, but also it’s visual quality and also its accessibility. You can evaluate the sense of security you feel while you are in the quiet area.
Antonella: You can also indicate what kind of activities people are doing in the quiet area, how many people are around and other characteristics of the quiet area. And why it’s important to collect mixed data about a quiet area, if we are mainly addressing the sonic quality of the area, this is, for us, for the scholars that apply the soundscape approach is really crucial. Being able to collect mixed data, which not only addressed the sonic qualities of the quiet area, but also other qualities, which have been proved to influence our sense of quietness.
Antonella: Recent, some studies proved that if the quiet area is very beautiful, is featured with greenery and beautiful trees or water features, these could enhance our sense of quietness.
Cary: Oh, that’s a very good point. Yeah. Now, what I have experienced using the app, I find a place that’s quiet and then suddenly someone starts doing a drilling noise at a house nearby or I notice that there are cars driving by or a motorcycle. And so, I notice that in your app, you’re able to also make a notation about these things, like it might be quiet, but then there’s something that’s a little bit irritating. And is this data that also useful to you? To know that it’s sometimes quiet, but sometimes very not quiet?
Antonella: Yeah, that’s very important to me and to us for the overall evaluation of data collected by people. You know, the sonic environment is not fixed, of course. It changes according to the activities performed in the environment and to other features, which are not under our control every time and every day. So the app gives you the possibility also to collect multiple data sets on the same spot at different time of the day or of the week, so that we could and also people can, compare the data and understand when that specific quiet spot is most quiet for them.
Antonella: And I want to introduce another topic, which is crucial and central to my research. So the concept of quietness, what is quietness for you?
Cary: For me? Or just in general? Yeah, what is quietness.
Antonella: Yeah. I’m curious to ask you because you were talking about your experience with the app, so I’m curious to ask what is quietness for you because one of the goal of this project is also to understand what is quietness for people. So we want to implement through the Hush City app, a bottom-up participatory approach, also that could contribute to the definition of quietness.
Cary: Yes. Well I think that is true, everyone does probably have a different idea of quietness. And for me personally, quiet is when you can hear birds singing. So that’s different than silence. Quiet is not silence, total anechoic chamber silence for me. It means that you can hear natural sounds. I don’t mind the sound of people walking by and low voices and birds and the sound of someone playing with their dog or something. To me, that’s still quiet.
Cary: It’s when you have a big cement mixer or a drill going or someone is revving the engine of their car, then suddenly those sounds, because especially they have the lower frequencies, they’re more disturbing, right? And those are the ones that are more harmful to our health as well. So I think, for me, it’s not silence, it’s light background noise.
Antonella: Very interesting. And this is also important when we look for quiet areas in cities, where we cannot expect to find silent places. But still, we need to be able to find relief from the hustle and bustle of the city, from the noisy city life. And so, the access and the provision of quiet areas is also crucial for our health and well being. And as architects and urbanists, we have the responsibility to contribute to the creation of a healthy environment in our cities. To be successful in doing this, from my perspective, we need to involve people in the process, an urban planning process at a greater extent.
Antonella: By taking the advantages provided by the mobile apps, we could really move a step further in this direction.
Cary: I was also curious to know if this app should be used to identify noisy areas, areas that are problematic, maybe they could be improved on or is that a different app, because that would maybe be mixing up quiet areas and extremely noisy areas on the same map?
Antonella: Yeah, that’s an interesting question and gives me the possibility to expand on the possibilities given by the Hush City app. We recently introduced a new feature to give the users the possibility to filter the quiet areas, crowdsource it by the users, according to several filters, such as noise levels, perceived quietness, accessibility, time and also, visual quality and main descriptors used by the users to identify and qualify the quiet areas.
Antonella: These new feature gives the possibility to the users also, to map and evaluate potential quiet areas, meaning that they can crowd source quiet areas, which are potentially quiet, but for some reason they don’t fulfill their understanding or their concept of quietness. So it could be in some days or at certain times, a quiet spot is not so quiet. Or it could be because it’s not completely accessible. It could because it could be improved from a visual perspective.
Antonella: So depending on the ratings of the people, we could filter the quiet areas and understand which are the quiet areas that could be improved. And I want to add also, that the app could be used also by public officials and municipalities, not only when they want to identify quiet areas to protect, but also when they want to identify quiet areas that need to be improved.
Antonella: And also, for example, now we have the public map of the quiet areas crowd sourced by Hush City community. So imagine that a municipality, the department of urban planning of San Francisco receives a new development for a certain area of the city. So the public officials could access the public map of the quiet areas crowdsource it by using the Hush City app and that will check whether this new development project could enter in conflict, for instance, with a quiet areas identified by the community living in the area where the new development project could be implemented.
Cary: That’s a great idea.
Antonella: They could use it and take advantage of the knowledge of the people living in the places.
Antonella: Because of course, they cannot know all the neighbors and areas of a city… big… San Francisco is for example, and for this reason it’s very important to import people for the sound scape approach, people are the real experts of the places where they live and work. So we need to replace them at the core of urban planning processes, no matter whether the identification of quiet areas is involved or not.
Cary: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Antonella: It’s at the core of my research and professional approach to city design and planning.
Cary: I think it’s wonderful that this data’s existing and that ...I think, probably Berlin is far ahead of us because you’re there. So there’s probably many more areas mapped at different times of the day than maybe San Francisco, for example. And I hope to encourage more people to start just using this app when they go out and you’re at a park and suddenly you realize, "hey this is a very, very nice park, I think I’m going to add this to the map. I’ve got it right here in my pocket."
Antonella: Yeah, for example in Berlin, so far people have crowdsourced 170-plus quiet areas. And the municipality of Berlin, of course, now is interested in getting the data, analyzing the data and potentially including them in the next plan of quiet areas they’re working on. So really people can have an impact on urban planning processes if they take advantage of these kind of new technologies available in the market like the Hush City app.
Antonella: And of course I want also to mention the importance of protecting data, as it’s very important the privacy of our users. So when you want to use the app, you’re asked to register by providing your email address. So we don’t ask for any personal data, we don’t say we’re … yeah, collect any personal data and you can contribute and participate in the project by collecting and mapping the quiet areas, but at the same time, you’re totally in control of your data. So any time you are not any longer happy with your data collection, you can delete the data sets you collected just by, through your smartphone and no one will ask you reasons for doing that.
Antonella: You don’t have to inform us that you want to delete your data, you just do it.
Cary: Oh, okay. That’s good to know. Although it would be unfortunate if everyone did that. I think if you put something up and then you realize, oh I don’t really want to have this up on the map, you can take it down.
Antonella: Yeah. It might happen, for whatever reason, might happen. So we wanted to give the users the possibility to have control their data.
Cary: Okay. That’s great. And you can get the app through the Apple app store and also through Google Play, is that correct?
Antonella: Correct. Yeah, it’s available both on iTunes and Google Play store and of course, for free. And it’s now available in four languages. So German, English, Spanish and Italian. And probably for the Spanish community living in San Francisco, this could be a plus.
Cary: I think so, absolutely. And the rest of California as well. It’s fairly easy to use without having to read a lot of instructions, because I think the first thing that happens is when you launch the app, I think you immediately have access to a microphone, is that correct?
Antonella: Yes, when you launch it, you access the home page and you will find your main buttons. One reports map the quietness around you. You have to click on it and just follow the app. It will guide you through the data-collection process. So firstly you would be asked take an audio recording. Then the app calculates the noise levels. Then you will be asked to take a picture of the quiet area where you are and to reply to a questionnaire.
Antonella: Then if you’re happy with your data collection, you can submit it. Or if you want to use the app to find quiet areas nearby you or worldwide when you are on page, you can click on the button, quiet areas and background map, we turn into black and you will see colored markers in San Francisco if quiet areas are mapped there or you can browse the quiet areas through the list view mode or through the search feature. You can type the name of the city, for example, Berlin, but also New York, Granada, Spain, London U.K., whatever you want.
Antonella: And you can access the quiet areas crowdsourced worldwide. And you will see the colored markers, and if you click on each of the markers, all the data collected on that area by that user will be accessible to you. So you will be able to listen to the sound recorded, read the noise levels, read their user feedback provided for that quiet areas, have a look at the picture.
Cary: And so, that leads us to the second thing I would like to talk to you about, which is the soundwalks that you do.
Cary: And I, for example, I saw all this information on your site, I think it’s part of the Hush City suite of overall information. And actually, can you tell us what is the web address of where we would find all this information on soundwalking in the Hush City?
Antonella: The web address is opensourcesoundscapes.org and you will find a web page dedicated to the Hush City app and another web page dedicated to the Hush City map, where all the quiet areas crowd source it by using the Hush City app are displayed and accessible to everyone, no matter if you use the app or not. And you can also have information on the projects I’m working on at the moment. And if you want to access my publications and get more information on how I lead sound walks, you can go and visit my page, personal page antonellaradicchi.it and there is a web page called portfolio and under that page, you will find a section called "soundwalk" and you will find information about how I lead the soundwalks and also you can download the "Pocket Guide to Soundwalking."
Cary: I encourage all of you to become citizen scientists and to help identify and preserve quiet spaces. As of right now, Hush City has mapped more than 1000 quiet areas world wide. To find out more about the Hush City app and the map, here’s the URL again, opensourcesoundscapes.org. I’m going to continue my conversation with Dr. Antonella Radicchi in part of this podcast and we’ll cover soundwalks. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for part two.