Soundscape is rarely considered during urban planning and design processes and consultations. When the sonic and acoustic qualities of urban space are considered, it tends to be in terms of noise, pollution or nuisance. The public and shared dimension of sound, particularly as a quality that promotes ambience or amenity or even imbues a sense of place, seems to be generally overlooked.
A recent essay, ‘Soundscape as a design strategy for landscape architectural praxis’, by Michael Fowler (Design Studies 34, 2013, 111-128) examines the intersection of design practice and soundscape studies. Fowler argues that spatial acoustics tend to be confined to consideration of interiors or closed spaces rather than exteriors or open spaces. This has resulted in a situation where “acoustic space is often relegated auditory space to a domain generally accessed only through the channels of acoustic consulting”. Consequently, the potential for engagement across design and acoustics is not realised, with the latter being addressed after “the fantastic forms, marvellous facades and stunning glossy pin-ups” have been decided. Fowler found that a more interdisciplinary approach can lead to innovation in not only design process but also in urban design and urban forms.
Drawing on R. Murray Schafer’s seminal work on soundscape, Fowler examines the relationships of sound, design and landscape with particular emphasis on landscape architecture. Schafer’s work addresses the relationship between site and listening; it stresses “the notion that active listening involves an auditor embedded within the soundscape”. Fowler proposes that soundscape should be understood and learned as a design field, recognising that much of the sound in the environment is sound that is created and introduced by humans either through manipulation of the environment or by other means.
Sound defines a place; it communicates place. It provides a means of knowing and experiencing a place. Places can generate aural memory. Yet sound continues to receive only cursory attention in the planning and design of our cities. This highlights the need for acoustics to inform and be integrated into the design process. Even though difficult, Fowler argues that the theory of soundscape can be used as the basis for generating landscape architecture (and potentially urban planning and urban design). Fowler’s study found that this equips designers with strategies for shaping an acoustic environment that is attentive to the wellbeing, presence and listening of its users.