A Researcher Wants Help Recording Quiet Spots in the City

The bell of St Patrick’s Cathedral dongs three times. Sibéal Devilly stands patiently in the centre of the green park in the shadow of the cathedral, holding her phone out in front of her.

Devilly likes this park, she says, and used to come when she was a kid. “We used to stop in and sit.” She goes silent, and presses a button to record.

A child’s yelp from the playground at one end of the park, and a dog’s yap at the other end. The wind blisters around.

People stroll and sit chatting in bunches. In a bird bath at the top of the water fountain, a seagull splashes around to clean itself. Beyond the perimeter gates, the traffic drones on.

After 30 seconds, Devilly checks the decibel levels of the recording on the Hush City app. It’s high, so the sounds were loud, she says.

Devilly, for her final year research project as part of her undergraduate degree at University College Dublin, wants to make a soundscape of Dublin, a map of sounds in the city so she can come up with a policy recommendation.

But her recording in St Patrick’s Park is just the fifth recording to be added to the Dublin map on the Hush City app, she says.

Elsewhere, like in Berlin, “there’s kind of started to be a movement towards creating respite from noise pollution in urban centres”, she says, but there’s little research done in Dublin.

She’s hoping to encourage people in Dublin to join her in downloading the app and creating recordings of calm, peaceful, relaxing public spaces in the city.

Creating a City Soundscape

Hush City is an open-source app, created by Antonella Radicchi at the Technical University of Berlin in 2017.

It gathers crowdsourced data on a map of the world, showing pinpoints where people have created recordings of the peaceful places where they have stood.

Devilly says she chose this line because in Ireland, there’s a lot of work being done on noise pollution, but not a lot on quiet spaces.

People can report noise pollution to Dublin City Council, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors noise under the European Noise Directive.

The directive ​​requires EU member states to prepare and publish strategic noise maps and noise management action plans for transport noises, every five years. The EPA is currently working on strategic noise mapping of major roads, to be published this year.

Some cities are supporting more green spaces, says Devilly, and she wants there to be more awareness of how important it is for there to be pleasant, calming or lively sounds in these spaces too.

“Noise pollution has a big effect on health,” she says. The World Health Organisation has said that long-term exposure to noise can cause cardiovascular diseases, cognitive impairment and sleep disturbance, among other health issues.

Devilly says she wouldn’t have realised how affecting noise pollution could be until she started her research. Then she noticed how much noise she could hear from her flat.

“You could hear when somebody would leave their car stalled, you could hear it in your bedroom, and you’d be like, that’s so noisy,” she says.

Trees, shrubbery and foliage can absorb sound. Water features and birdsong can be louder to the ear when close by, which is why parks feel more peaceful, she says.

Blessington Street Basin. Photo by Claudia Dalby.

Devilly is hoping that once data has been gathered, she’ll be able to write a policy recommendation centred around reviewing, and improving and increasing, quiet spaces in the city, as has been done in Berlin.

Limerick City Council tried out a project around the Hush City app in 2019. The council hasn’t yet responded to queries asking what the outcome of the project was.

Maybe, with the help of the crowd, places in Dublin could work on making parks more like Nauener Platz, a city park in Berlin, which won a European award for its soundscaping design.

The design included devices in sculptures and benches playing recorded sounds of birds and water, a 1.5m-thick sound barrier made of stone and plants, and more playgrounds, sports areas and green spaces to create more lively sounds from people playing.

Devilly hopes the council will pick up on her work, she says. “I’m going to try and get it into someone in Dublin City Council that might be interested in it. My end goal is that somebody will look at it, and hopefully care.”

Subjective Sounds

In St Patrick’s Park on Tuesday, Aoife Walsh and Hazel Higgins are drinking coffees at a park table that encircles a tree trunk, as Daisy the chihuahua chills on the grass nearby.

Walsh lifts her chin slightly to consider what she hears. “Birds. The wind. Traffic. Dogs barking. And people chatting.”

She comes to this park especially for the birdsong, she says, because the sound relaxes her. “You can’t hear them as much in the parks beside my house.”

Higgins likes the chatting, the dogs and children running around.

“It just feels lively. Like community coming back together, after, you know, the p-word,” she says. “Everyone’s very friendly. And you kind of hear that when you close your eyes.”

Devilly says many ears are needed for soundscaping projects. “Sounds are subjective. Some people think things are lovely, and some people think they’re the worst ever.”

Higgins says unpleasant noises, like people shouting and loud sounds from the road, have started to bother her since the silence of lockdown.

It’s overwhelming, she says, holding her arms out wide. “A cacophony of loud voices, loud noises. It makes you feel a little bit anxious. It’s really just getting used to that again.”

Going to parks is the best way to recover from these noises, she says. Like St Stephen’s Green, Blessington Street Park, the War Memorial Gardens, and the greenway along the Liffey out to Chapelizod.

Nature relaxes people without them noticing, she says. “If you introduce nature, like green grass, trees and flowers and water. They’re in nature, it has an affect on them. Whether they’re aware of it or not.”

Walsh likes the idea of the Hush City app, she says. It could be paired with the council’s Civic Dollars app, which gives people points to spend in local shops when they spend time in parks for points, she says.

Sounds of the City

Devilly says St Patrick’s Park has gotten nicer since her youth. “They’ve removed a lot of the hiding places, so it’s a little bit more open, to make it safer, and the café opened.”

The water fountain in the centre of the park distracts from the noise of traffic outside, she says. She pulls out her phone to record how she feels about it on the app.

The reporting of high decibels isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as high air pollution levels would signal, for example, she says.

It’s not about a lack of noise, she says. “I think, in an urban setting it’s a little bit unsettling, when you’re somewhere and there’s just no noise at all.”

The fountain is loud, she says. “But I don’t find it to be irritating, or an earsore at all.”

Devilly then lifts her phone to capture a photo of the fountain and bird bath, the green grass and benches behind, and the steeple of St Patrick’s Cathedral in the background.

The Hush City app had asked her for a picture of where she took the audio recording from.

“A visually nice place isn’t nice just because it looks pretty. If you have a lot of noise around you, you may still not be calm,” she says.

Then, the app offers words or phrases that might describe the sound, atmosphere and identity of the place where the recording was made.

Devilly chooses “lively”, “familiar” and “relaxing” to describe the sound bite. “But other people could have completely opposite opinions.”

There are more questions, asking for details of activities happening around, what the weather is like, how clean and accessible the space is, and whether there are negative noises too.

It’s a good way to know which areas of the city people feel most comfortable, says Devilly, so you can compare them, and make changes.

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Claudia Dalby: Claudia Dalby is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. She's especially interested in stories about the southside, transport, and kids in the city. Get in touch at [email protected]

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