Interactive sound maps provide new tools for mapping cities

The Montreal Sound Map at work.

Since the late 1990s, using interactive technologies and the power of social media, sound artists, archivists and historians have proposed new ways of mapping cities in sound. Their maps provide new ways for citizens and publics to engage with the urban environment, and provide new insights into the composition of city spaces.

One of the first online, interactive sound maps was created by sound artist and musician Peter Cusack, who teaches at the University of The Arts, London. The premise for Cusack's project – 'Your Favourite London Sound', initiated in 1998 – was simple but effective. He invited people to upload field recordings of their favourite sound of London to draw attention to the positive aspects of the soundscape or acoustic environment.

This was in contrast to the much more widespread noise maps used by city councils, governments and planners, which show ambient or environmental noise levels. Whereas noise maps show “unwanted sounds” in the form of noisy neighbourhoods or districts, the Favourite Sounds project – which has since spread to around a dozen cities including Beijing, Berlin, Jerusalem, New York and Vancouver – shows people's affinities to different sounds and how this affects their experience of a city. According to Cusack, the project intended “to get people talking about the way they hear everyday sounds and how they react to them, or what they think and feel about them, and how important (or not important) they are... You learn a lot about the city by asking about its sound.”

A more recent online effort, the Montréal Sound Map, was conceived by twin brothers Max and Julian Stein when they were still undergraduate students at Concordia University in Montréal in 2008. They wanted to create an interactive platform for documenting and archiving the Montréal soundscape, while also inviting contributors to develop a new relationship to the city through listening.

The Stein brothers say they hope people will “explore and listen to the city with a purposeful and special attention that is rarely given to the sounds of the environment. We aim for people to continue this attentive listening and experience the complexity and lure of the soundscape first hand.”

The Montréal Sound Map has received hundreds of contributions, and it not only acts as a “sonic time capsule”, but also gives people a new way of interacting with and understanding the city. Visitors to the website can hear the Montréal soundscape as a kind of musical composition by choosing the “Autoplay” or “Shuffle” functions for playing back recordings; or they can choose to focus on a particular site see how its soundscape has changed over time. The most recent addition to the project is the development of an iPhone app by Julian Vogels that allows users to automatically upload sounds as they navigate the city.

Sound mapping’s social dimension – field recording, listening walks, participative artworks – has profoundly benefitted from social media websites and licencing agreements like Creative Commons “ShareAlike,” which permits people to freely share media including audio recordings. Between 2010 and 2011, over 350 people submitted approximately 2000 recordings to the British Library's UK Soundmap, the first national sound map of the UK.

Contributors could share and comment on one another's recordings through websites like Twitter and AudioBoo. The participative nature of social media allows for different contributors to connect with one another through the act of field recording and through dialogue about soundscapes. This has been especially important for visually impaired users, who are particularly active members of the sound mapping community. 

There are innumerable uses for sound maps – yet they are little known and seldom used within architecture and urban planning. Recomposing the City seeks to bring sonic arts methods and perspectives to bear within architecture and planning education and practice, particularly in urban contexts. For example, sound maps can be effective tools in site analysis. In the Street Society workshop, we invited architecture students to create sound maps of an area of social deprivation of Belfast. They engaged in different listening exercises and explored the area in terms of its acoustic makeup. Their map showed that the area was acoustically cut off from its surroundings. It also illustrated that this acoustic isolation had enormous impact upon the quality of life of residents. 

Sound maps are only one tool emerging from the sonic arts that can benefit architecture and planning. By proposing new collaborations between sonic artists and those who design the built environment, we hope to bring attention to the enormous potential that sound has to change how we understand, design and transform cities.  

Dr Gascia Ouzounian is co-founder with Dr Sarah Lappin of the cross-disciplinary research project Recomposing the City: Sonic Art and Urban Architectures, based at Queen's University Belfast. Next week she will speak at the Challenges of Government Conference – “Flourishing Cities” organised by the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, which exists to inspire and support better public policy and government around the world. 

 
 
 
 

Which nations control the materials required for renewables? Meet the new energy superpowers

Solar and wind power facilities in Bitterfeld, Germany. Image: Getty.

Imagine a world where every country has not only complied with the Paris climate agreement but has moved away from fossil fuels entirely. How would such a change affect global politics?

The 20th century was dominated by coal, oil and natural gas, but a shift to zero-emission energy generation and transport means a new set of elements will become key. Solar energy, for instance, still primarily uses silicon technology, for which the major raw material is the rock quartzite. Lithium represents the key limiting resource for most batteries – while rare earth metals, in particular “lanthanides” such as neodymium, are required for the magnets in wind turbine generators. Copper is the conductor of choice for wind power, being used in the generator windings, power cables, transformers and inverters.

In considering this future it is necessary to understand who wins and loses by a switch from carbon to silicon, copper, lithium, and rare earth metals.

The countries which dominate the production of fossil fuels will mostly be familiar:

The list of countries that would become the new “renewables superpowers” contains some familiar names, but also a few wild cards. The largest reserves of quartzite (for silicon production) are found in China, the US, and Russia – but also Brazil and Norway. The US and China are also major sources of copper, although their reserves are decreasing, which has pushed Chile, Peru, Congo and Indonesia to the fore.

Chile also has, by far, the largest reserves of lithium, ahead of China, Argentina and Australia. Factoring in lower-grade “resources” – which can’t yet be extracted – bumps Bolivia and the US onto the list. Finally, rare earth resources are greatest in China, Russia, Brazil – and Vietnam.

Of all the fossil fuel producing countries, it is the US, China, Russia and Canada that could most easily transition to green energy resources. In fact it is ironic that the US, perhaps the country most politically resistant to change, might be the least affected as far as raw materials are concerned. But it is important to note that a completely new set of countries will also find their natural resources are in high demand.

An OPEC for renewables?

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a group of 14 nations that together contain almost half the world’s oil production and most of its reserves. It is possible that a related group could be created for the major producers of renewable energy raw materials, shifting power away from the Middle East and towards central Africa and, especially, South America.

This is unlikely to happen peacefully. Control of oilfields was a driver behind many 20th-century conflicts and, going back further, European colonisation was driven by a desire for new sources of food, raw materials, minerals and – later – oil. The switch to renewable energy may cause something similar. As a new group of elements become valuable for turbines, solar panels or batteries, rich countries may ensure they have secure supplies through a new era of colonisation.

China has already started what may be termed “economic colonisation”, setting up major trade agreements to ensure raw material supply. In the past decade it has made a massive investment in African mining, while more recent agreements with countries such as Peru and Chile have spread Beijing’s economic influence in South America.

Or a new era of colonisation?

Given this background, two versions of the future can be envisaged. The first possibility is the evolution of a new OPEC-style organisation with the power to control vital resources including silicon, copper, lithium, and lanthanides. The second possibility involves 21st-century colonisation of developing countries, creating super-economies. In both futures there is the possibility that rival nations could cut off access to vital renewable energy resources, just as major oil and gas producers have done in the past.


On the positive side there is a significant difference between fossil fuels and the chemical elements needed for green energy. Oil and gas are consumable commodities. Once a natural gas power station is built, it must have a continuous supply of gas or it stops generating. Similarly, petrol-powered cars require a continued supply of crude oil to keep running.

In contrast, once a wind farm is built, electricity generation is only dependent on the wind (which won’t stop blowing any time soon) and there is no continuous need for neodymium for the magnets or copper for the generator windings. In other words solar, wind, and wave power require a one-off purchase in order to ensure long-term secure energy generation.

The shorter lifetime of cars and electronic devices means that there is an ongoing demand for lithium. Improved recycling processes would potentially overcome this continued need. Thus, once the infrastructure is in place access to coal, oil or gas can be denied, but you can’t shut off the sun or wind. It is on this basis that the US Department of Defense sees green energy as key to national security.

The ConversationA country that creates green energy infrastructure, before political and economic control shifts to a new group of “world powers”, will ensure it is less susceptible to future influence or to being held hostage by a lithium or copper giant. But late adopters will find their strategy comes at a high price. Finally, it will be important for countries with resources not to sell themselves cheaply to the first bidder in the hope of making quick money – because, as the major oil producers will find out over the next decades, nothing lasts forever.

Andrew Barron, Sêr Cymru Chair of Low Carbon Energy and Environment, Swansea University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.