Traditionally acoustic engineering has focused on noise mitigation but increasingly we’re designing sound in to the built environment to enhance it.
Soundscaping, as this is known, can be used in a number of ways depending on the desired outcome. It can create a sense of calm, or urgency, it can be used to give a sense of place, as a wayfinding tool, or to create a cultural connection.
A soundscape describes the sonic landscape and is the auditory equivalent of a visual landscape. In essence it’s the life of a certain space as perceived through hearing.
Just as we use visual aids as markers we can utilise sound. If you’re in London the sound of Big Ben striking is an acoustic landmark.
In that same vein, if you walked into the offices of a well-known international company and their jingle was playing in the background – even a slight riff playing in the music – you’d have a strong sense of where you were.
Equally, sound can provide a feeling of security in an urban area. Moving from a well-lit, acoustically rich city street at night time into dark silent street can trigger a feeling of unease.
At the same time, we’re learning how to design for people with auditory issues. The more noise we have in environments and the lower intelligibility, the harder it is for people with auditory issues to move around.
One of the things with train stations and the hard of hearing is making sure you put in good wayfinding. That needs to be visual, but acoustics can be used to bring noises from the outside world in, so people can find their way through auditory signals.
That all leads to some interesting ideas about how we use sound to generate a sense of place.
Cultural soundscaping can be particularly powerful. In Maoritanga humans are tightly connected to the land and natural world (Taiao) and sound has a great impact on how surroundings are perceived.
Natural sounds such as vegetation, water streams and birds are considered signs of life – many of which are simulated in Māori musical instruments.
A familiar example of Māoritanga soundscaping is the Karanga used at Auckland International Airport. Arriving passengers are welcomed with the call of the Karanga, and the sensory experience continues along a wall of beautiful, contemporary New Zealand images complemented by recorded sounds such as cicadas, bird song, children playing in the sea, sheep, dogs and waves crashing on the shore.
We can do this organically by bringing a waterfall into a space to incorporate water sounds. We can design that waterfall so it sounds more like a beach. We can introduce a tree that attracts a breed of bird that sings a certain tune – who doesn’t love the sound of a tui?
Increasingly we’re seeing musical elements introduced into the public realm – such as playgrounds. This allows children to experiment with creating and is something that encourages adults to play, it brings people together through the shared sounds of music and laughter.
Instead of thinking of soundscaping as purely piped music or electronic sounds that we impose on a space, we can design a space to naturally generate the sounds we want to hear.
Kezia Lloyd is Head of Specialist Services at WSP, incorporating Acoustics, Fire, Facades, and Sustainability disciplines. As a Chartered Acoustic Engineer, she draws on her experience to develop innovative acoustics solutions for clients across multiple sectors.
The views expressed are the opinions of subject matter experts and do not necessarily reflect those of WSP.