UK residents can help ‘destress’ cities by mapping quiet spots



An online mapping survey has been launched by university researchers working to mitigate the negative impact environmental noise has on city dwellers' health and wellbeing by identifying and preserving places with positive soundscapes.

Edinburgh, Brighton and Hove, and Sheffield have been selected by the Designing and Engineering Soundscapes To enable Restorative Environments for Sustainable Societies (DeStress) project team at Heriot-Watt University for the first stage of their research.

The team, led by Dr Sarah Payne, wants residents to go online and identify the quietest and calmest parts of their cities. 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, 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 has little to no involvement in identifying quiet areas in their cities, and the methods used by councils are somewhat limited as they largely rely 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.

“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.

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.”

Project DeStress is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Project partners include Aalto University, Apex Acoustics, Sharps Redmore, and the Noise Abatement Society.