What if you could listen to your street?

A busker where no busker should be busking. Image: Getty.

“Streetsequences” translates visual elements and attributes of a street into a musical experience. These streetsequences are a musical image of what we are experiencing when we walk on the sidewalk that tells us the story of our urban environment in a fascinating and surprising way that only music can achieve. Here, one of the artists describes the process.

We don´t really know what makes us like certain streets, blocks, neighbourhoods or cities. Is it architecture, urban structure, street activity, noise or simply the weather? What are the attributes actually perceived by us, and what is their contribution to the overall well-being of pedestrians in dense urban areas?

The few attempts to conduct focused research on those attributes of particular streets have either been quantitative and descriptive (e.g. tracing the paths of pedestrians) or laboratory-based studies (using images or videos). They’re therefore very distant to the actual space of interest.

I strongly agree with Jan Gehl’s idea that the key to these questions lies in the structure of ground floors. This is the space we move in and the space we actually notice when we are walking on a sidewalk. According to Gehl, pedestrians only register spaces up to 3m above floor level.

I don’t believe this is a controversial theory Just imagine walking along an endless walled condominium; now imagine walking along a narrowly structured ground floor with differently coloured and designed facades, windows, portals and so on.

What if you could listen to your street?

The experiment I am undertaking, together with the musician Tommy Philippaerts, translates these visual elements and attributes of a street into a musical experience. By translating the physical structure of ground floors and sidewalks into a music0scape, we are trying to amplify what we already perceive unconsciously to create a new, playful level that appeals to a different sense.

By doing so, we can maybe make these elements and attributes, that are defining our wellbeing on the streets, a bit more approachable and more enjoyable to analyse and compare.

The project is called “street sequencer” and combines my urban nerdiness with Tommy’s musical genius. My job is to choose a street that to me captures the feeling of the city. (There’s a question as to whether there exists “a typical street” in any city; but let’s just say that we have accepted and embraced the randomness of the project.) I then register and transcribe every physical element on one sidewalk of 100m length.

The author transcribes a street in Madrid.

I collected details of every window, colour change in walls, lamp post, shop, piece of public furniture, sidewalk width, and roughly 25 other attributes and elements in the ground floor area of that section of the street; then filled those details into an Excel sheet.

A snippet of an Excel Sheet.

From here, Tommy Philippaerts takes over. He translates the information into music by using the data like a Step Sequencer.

Step Sequencers are electronic musical instruments that play notes according to patterns in a grid – just like an Excel sheet. Using this method, each lamp post, shop or colour becomes a sound, a melody or an effect.

The street sequence in Ableton Live, a step sequencer.

The result is a little musical piece rooted in a certain street. It is a musical image of what we are experiencing when we walk on the sidewalk that tells us the story of our urban environment in a fascinating and surprising way that only music can achieve.

But enough explanation: this project is about listening. Here are some examples.

For more street sequences and more infos, check out our blog.

This article was originally published on Cities+, and appears here with permission.

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All images in this post courtesy of the author.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.