Cary: This episode of Soundproofist is part two of a conversation with Dr. Antonella Radicchi. She’s an architect, a scientist, an activist, and a soundscape urbanist. She developed an app to map quiet urban spaces which is called Hush City. We discussed this app in episode four. Antonella also wrote “A Pocket Guide to Soundwalks,” which you can download from her website at opensourcesoundscapes.org.
Cary: A soundwalk can have different purposes which we’ll discuss in this interview. To me, soundwalks seem like a good way to observe, experience and quantify the acoustics in an urban area. I wanted to get the lowdown. Just what exactly are soundwalks and what do you actually do on a soundwalk, and how do you organize one? Let’s hear what she had to say.
Cary: I have some questions about different types of soundwalks, and you had three main categories. One was civic and political, another is educational, and the third category was for research and I know you do a lot of soundwalks. I was wondering what type of soundwalk of those three types I just listed is the type that you do the most, and why?
Antonella: Thank you for the question. If I may, I want just to quickly mention why I wrote the "Pocket Guide to Soundwalking," and why I envisioned, I defined these four variations framework. The method of soundwalking was born in the ’60s of the past century, and mainly a soundwalk could be any excursion, the main purpose is to listen to the environment.
Antonella: And of course since then many methods have been developed so far to perform soundwalks. You can really find out many creative ways to conduct soundwalks, but as you know, I’m firstly, I’m an architect and urban designer, so when I decided to narrow my research to the field of soundscape studies and when I decided to use the method soundwalking and apply it to urban design and planning, I thought, “Okay, we need to create a framework to help myself and my colleagues to use this method.”
Antonella: So what I did, I thought, “Okay, I can identify three main purposes and then I can identify respective ways to implement soundwalks.” But of course this framework could be… I mean, as every framework is a bit rigid and what I want to say is that you can always mix things up. It’s a framework useful to me to also communicate and explain the kind of soundwalks I do the most, so for disseminating the method. For instance, so to increase sonic awareness of listening and to increase awareness on the importance of living in healthy sonic environment, I mostly do silent soundwalks.
Antonella: When I’m asked to train for soundscape action research, for instance, I do mostly commented soundwalks with simple evaluation points, and when I do or I’m asked to apply the method for research purposes. So for developing a deep evaluation of the soundscapes of certain areas under investigation, I do either solo soundwalks or soundwalks with complex evaluation points. So, no matter what kind of soundwalks I do, I always predefine a route before the soundwalk. So, upon the activity I always explore the area. Basically I do a solo soundwalk to identify, to explore the area, identify the main listening points.
Antonella: Then, if we go for a silent soundwalk we walk in a line, possibly in silence, on the predefined route. Then we stop to each of the listening points, we focus our listening to the environment, and then we move onto the next one until the end of the soundwalk where we have a group discussion.
Antonella: On the other hand, when I do soundwalks for educational and research purposes, I still pre-identify a route with several listening points, but at each of the listening points, after having listened to the sonic environment, we perform data collection. End of the soundwalk we do a group discussion.
Antonella: So, just to sum up, how I lead a soundwalk is always by giving an introduction at the beginning of the activity, then we start and we walk through the predefined route. We stop at each of the listening points, pre-identified, we listen to the sonic environment and then, eventually, we collect mixed data. Then at the end of the soundwalk, of every soundwalk, we have a group discussion to talk further on the real experience and on the data collection we performed.
Cary: When you said that you have sometimes people walking in a line, does that sort of prevent people from talking and just keeping people in a very quiet and solitary state? It seems like if you all walk together, you might be tempted to talk to each other and that might defeat the purpose of a soundwalk.
Antonella: Correct. On one hand, walking in a line, it helps to focus on the activity, to stay focused and to listen to the environment, and it also helps you to not be disturbed too much by the sounds made by the others during the soundwalk, because if you walk next to each other you might listen first to the sounds made by your friend or by the other participants in the soundwalk, and you might lose some other relevant sounds of the environment.
Cary: I also have noticed sometimes there’s an announcement on social media, that a soundwalk is happening, so what is the typical group size of participants when you have a soundwalk?
Antonella: The ideal size, it could vary of course. I’m just reporting my personal experience. I usually fix a threshold up to 20, 25 participants. But based on my experience I could say that the size of the group does not correlate to the quality, for instance, of the group discussion that takes place at the end. For instance, I might have some soundwalks with few participants. We were very much engaged in the activity and who were very responsive to the impulses they received during the soundwalk.
Antonella: Or, on the other hand, I might have soundwalks with bigger group of participants that were in the end not so much engaged. For example, in the group discussion, but also it can be the opposite, I had soundwalks with big groups where all the participants were pretty much engaged, so we had very interesting and super big group discussions which lasted for hours. The size of the group does not relate, in my experience, with the quality of the feedback we receive of their overall experience.
Cary: And you said, in some cases these are not necessarily for research but for experience, and I was wondering if, do you at all encourage people on the soundwalks to use the Hush City app, to post and collect data?
Antonella: Yeah, we also do soundwalks where we use the Hush City app to collect the data. We did it for instance in Rotterdam at the beginning of September. We did it still in September when we did a soundwalk for the Berlin municipality within the framework of the next Berlin Noise Action Plan.
Antonella: Yes, of course, it’s possible to use it. What I would like to recommend is when you use the app within the context of a soundwalk, it’s always important to stay in silence while you use the app, because of course the first data collection you would be asked to implement is, at your recording. If you forget about it, you might… and you’re recording yourself talking, or other participants talking, so just be careful when you record the sounds by using the app.
Cary: And what other tools might you use? Do you actually ever bring professional recording equipment, microphones, any other kind of digital meter of any kind?
Antonella: Yes, of course. And at the moment I’m pretty excited about the great advantage given by using the Hush City app because the data sets collecting with the app are in realtime linked to the public map. If you do the soundwalks and you use the Hush City app, at the end of the soundwalk, during the group discussion, you can review the data collected by you and by the others, and so you can… the group discussion can be expanded by using the data just collected. This is pretty exciting.
Antonella: But of course I have always used other tools. For example, noise meters to collect noise measurements. I also had the privilege to collect binaural recordings by using a very sophisticated tool which was borrowed to me by the HEAD-Genuit Foundation, which is currently supporting my research project. And through binaural recordings you can get information and data related to the way people really listen to the sonic environment in that place at a certain time. Because basically, when you do binaural recordings, the recorders are placed on your ears. You are recording exactly what you are hearing. This is a very interesting tool to implement.
Antonella: Then, when we don’t use the Hush City app I hand out the participants questionnaires. They can fill out the listening points during the soundwalk. Sometimes when I do more creative soundwalks, at the end of the soundwalk, before the group discussion, I ask the participants to design mental sound maps of the soundwalk we had. And they can also, of course, write down notes or kind of sonic diaries of the experience we had.
Cary: And so a mental sound map might be, is that sort of spacial in terms of like, it was quieter here but over here, by this tree, it was a little more noisy. That sort of thing?
Antonella: It’s really free, so people… If I have a look at all the mental sound maps designed by the participants of the soundwalks I did, I can really see a huge variation in sonic data… their representation of the experience of the soundwalk. So, you might find someone that just tries to represent the rules of the soundwalk. And you might find words describing the sounds, or you might find drawings to represent the sounds heard during the soundwalk, but also someone could express it, represent their sonic experience through a more abstract diagrams, kind of, musical notation. So, again, huge variety, and this is basically because of the richness that people can share.
Cary: Wow. It sounds like you’re getting a lot of very interesting data from a lot of different cities, too. As you mentioned Rotterdam and Berlin, and I assume you’re from Italy. Have you been also doing soundwalks in Italy as well?
Antonella: Yes. We will have another soundwalk in Madrid at the end of November, and I want to take the opportunity of this conversation we have now to thank all the participants walking the soundwalks and in the Hush City project, because without the participation of people, all these projects could have not be happened, so it’s only because of the curiosity of the civic activism people, their generosity, that we could do all this research and also help political actions.
Cary: Yes, I agree. I think it’s wonderful and I hope I can help to get more people involved.
Antonella: Yeah. First of all a big thank to the participants, in the past, present and future.
Cary: Is there anything else you want to share with us about your work or about being active in soundscape activity before we close? Because I know you need to go soon.
Antonella: Yes, I want to share the political proposed of all the research and work I do which is very important to me. We talked about what is quietness for people, and we talked that this is the core question of my research. So rather than defining what quietness is, I came up with a political definition of quietness as about calmness, as a public, cultural, natural resource that should be accessible to everyone in our society, and that should be co-managed by the community where the quiet areas are.
Antonella: And, so, it’s not a matter of, you know, research is not a matter of studies but it’s really a matter of considering quietness and a good sonic environment and about calmness. This is not a trivial challenge because some studies unfortunately show that minority communities usually live in neighborhoods affected by high levels of noise pollution. So in my research on quiet areas and my search for finding a way to protect quiet areas, in parallel, I try to raise awareness on the importance of having the quiet areas accessible to everyone and not only to wealthy people.
Cary: Absolutely. I agree. There is definitely an economic component, as you say, to living in a noisy area versus not noisy.
Cary: I really want to thank you for your time today, and-
Antonella: It was great. Thank you for having me here.
Cary: Sure. And thank you so much for developing all these tools and processes for us to collect this data and participate in civic research. Even if we don’t have a background in science, we can still be a part of this, so, thank you.
Antonella: Absolutely. People are the real experts, so the places they live and work and this is very, very important and we need to remind this to our schools and people who manage our cities.
Cary: I’d like to thank Dr. Antonella Radicchi for sharing her knowledge with us. And I’d like to encourage all of you to participate in citizen science by using the Hush City app to record quiet spaces in your city — and also, to download “A Pocket Guide to Soundwalks.” Think about leading a soundwalk of your own, or joining someone else’s.
Cary: To get more information, go to opensourcesoundscapes.org or you can also follow Antonella and her projects on Twitter. If you have questions on acoustics or noise or soundproofing or policy, just drop me a line at "noise at soundproofist.com", and thanks for listening.