New survey to record the sound of our cities

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How does your city sound? Are we even aware of the noises that surround us on a daily basis? A new project is asking residents of Edinburgh, Sheffield and Brighton and Hove to take part in a survey of sound with the hope it'll help preserve areas of quiet and reduce noise pollution. BRENDAN MONTAGUE reports

We want to empower more people to identify and safeguard the quiet areas in their cities and increase awareness of the implications of the layout and surrounding building surfaces on soundscapes.

An online mapping survey has been launched to help mitigate the negative impact environmental noise has on city dwellers’ health and wellbeing.

Devised by researchers at Heriot-Watt University, it's hoped the survey will help identify and preserve places with positive soundscapes.

Starting with Edinburgh, Brighton and Hove, and Sheffield, the so-called DeStress project team is asking residents to take a few minutes to go online and identify the quietest and calmest parts of these three cities.

Experience soundscapes

This will establish whether the councils and public agree over which areas are quiet or calm, and determine what is the best criteria to identify those areas

The three-city survey is the first step towards the ultimate goal of the 16-month DeStress project: the creation of a visual soundscape simulator (VSS) that will let planners, architects and policy makers ‘hear’ the sounds that result from a particular built environment, and see the typical health outcomes those sounds have on people in those areas.

Dr Sarah Payne, lead researcher and assistant professor of health in the built environment in Heriot-Watt University’s Urban Institute, said: “We want the public to help us identify the quiet and calm spots of Brighton and Hove, Edinburgh, and Sheffield.

“At the moment, the public often has little to no involvement in identifying quiet areas in their cities, with many councils largely relying on physical measures of sound levels, decibels.

“How we experience soundscapes, which are the sounds heard within an environment, depends on many more factors than just sound levels, such as the type of sound, what we think about the object or person making the sound, and what we are doing in the place."

Keep quiet

She added: “We want to empower more people to identify and safeguard the quiet areas in their cities and increase awareness of the implications of the layout and surrounding building surfaces on soundscapes.

"This is increasingly important as the public can get involved with Local Community Planning Partnerships and help shape how their neighbourhoods and city centre ‘sound’, so that it supports their health and wellbeing.

“There is a real disconnect between research into urban soundscapes, mental health and built environment design, which is what we are addressing with Project DeStress.

“DeStress could have huge societal and economic benefits for the UK: in 2011, the UK Department of Health reported mental health costs of £105 billion, and the World Health Organisation has warned about the health outcomes of increased environmental noise, mental and physical.”

Once the three-city survey is complete, Dr Payne and her team will focus on developing the visual soundscape simulator (VSS). The VSS will include audio and visual stimuli, positive and negative sounds, the ability to adapt the scene and sound source and the mapping of health outcomes associated to particular soundscapes.

Impact of noise

Dr Payne said: “DeStress will establish clearer links between the impact of the design of the built environment, people’s experiences of soundscapes and the subsequent outcomes, particularly in terms of stress and cognitive restoration.

“The VSS will be a truly novel tool that will help policy makers, but will also be available to the public so that they can be informed about the impact that noise (unwanted sound) is having on their lives, and potentially campaign for better urban soundscapes.”

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. This story is based on a news release from Project DeStress (Designing and Engineering Soundscapes to enable Restorative Environments for Sustainable Societies). 

Visit for more information and to complete the online survey, or follow the project on twitter @DeStressRestore or

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