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Sounds of the city

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Bartlett Professor of Acoustics Jian Kang is developing a ground-breaking system to go beyond the decibel scale and measure noise in terms of human wellbeing.

Sounds of the city

The Sheaf Square in Sheffield is considered to be an example of positive soundscape applications in urban design practice.

Credit: Tin Oberman

Soundscapes exist through humans’ perception of the acoustic environment.

Jian Kang

Around 80 million EU citizens suffer from noisy environments, and billions of euros are spent on noise control, “but sound quality is not necessarily getting better,” says Professor of Acoustics Jian Kang at The Bartlett’s Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering. That’s because the conventional approach, of reducing the sound level, “simply does not always improve people’s quality of life”.

Kang is hoping to change the rules around noise. Through a £2.5m European Research Council Advanced Grant, he and a worldwide team are developing soundscape indices: a ground-breaking approach to measuring noise that should benefit urban dwellers.

Traditionally, noise levels have only been considered as something physical – a measurement of the acoustic environment using the decibel scale, which was created by Bell Systems a century ago. But in the past 10 years, the field of ‘soundscape studies’ has developed.

“Soundscapes exist through humans’ perception of the acoustic environment,” explains Kang, who has worked in environmental and architectural acoustics for more than 30 years. However, soundscapes are hugely complex, and measuring them as a basis for environmental design requires a step change to the discipline.

Hopefully in five years’ time, we will be able to say that a certain urban environment is good or not good, on a level of one to ten on the soundscape index.

Jian Kang

Listening in

Kang is spearheading a worldwide survey to collect data that reflects levels of human comfort. It’s about putting noise in context, so factors to be considered include the profile of the participant, who they’re listening with, what they’re listening for and where they are.

The data collected will then be evaluated. “Hopefully in five years’ time, we will be able to say that a certain urban environment is good or not good, on a level of one to ten on the soundscape index, rather than just giving it a decibel measurement,” Kang says.

The programme has four aims: first, to characterise soundscapes by capturing them and establishing a comprehensive database. This will be a cornerstone for the proposed analysis. Second, to determine key factors and their influence on soundscape quality, by conducting evaluation, factors analysis and research. Third, to develop, test and validate the soundscape indices, through analysing the influences of various factors. And lastly, to demonstrate the applicability of the soundscape indices in practice, by establishing frameworks for soundscape prediction, design and standardisation.

Kang’s wider goal is to move from noise control to soundscape creation. “If planning policies better reflect people’s quality of life, it will impact on their physical and mental health and wellbeing. And that will better guide the planning and design of areas,” he predicts.

This interview was first published under the title ‘The soundman’ in The Bartlett Review 2018.

The Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering is pursuing a deeper understanding of the interactions between the built environment and health, human wellbeing, productivity, energy use and climate change. It is part of The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources (BSEER) in UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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