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Sounds of the City

From car horns to bird songs, the city performs.

Some people walk the city streets and hear a literal symphony: Think of John Cage recording the traffic noise on Sixth Avenue. Most of us absorb the city’s melodies unconsciously. Researchers in England have identified the urban sounds we like most: car tires on wet pavement; the rumble of an underground train; the thump of bass spilling out of a jazz club. Other sounds are less favored. But every sound in a city has a purpose, and that is a kind of beauty. Too much manipulation is just Muzak.

Take back the site

by Maury Martin

On Columbus Day weekend in Davis Square, Somerville, most of the honking to be heard is not that of motor vehicles but the sound of 30 brass bands performing in the annual HONK! Festival. In 1996, five members of our Somerville-based Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band joined up with other like-minded bands from New York and Chicago, hoping to offer an alternative to our car-centered culture in a busy city square.

Although the bands vary widely in style and mission, we share the goal of using outdoor public space not simply as a passageway from one location to another, but as an organic stage, removing the barrier between performer and listener.

The theme of the festival parade is “Reclaim the Streets for Bikes, Horns, and Feet.” We believe public outdoor space should be used for music, art, and protest. Some bands have a primarily political focus, playing in support of activist causes and demonstrations for social change. Others see the act of unpredictable musical performance as a political statement in itself at a time when residents are so often cut off from the sounds of the city with iPods or acoustically sealed in their automobiles.

We are fortunate to have Davis Square as a home for our event. It has several parks, plazas, and protected spaces where bands can play simultaneously without their music overlapping or shutting down the business of the square. During the festival, a different band plays each hour at seven sites in the square. The celebration has expanded to include a parade down Massachusetts Avenue to Harvard Square, and a nighttime boat cruise on Boston Harbor.

We hoped the idea would appeal to musicians and spectators, but we certainly did not expect the revolutionary street spectacle of never-before-seen proportions that evolved. It turned out this is a movement that is far more widespread than we imagined; bands have come from as far away as Rome to be a part of the festival, and sister festivals have sprung up in Austin, Texas; Montreal; and Seattle.

Few sights are more satisfying to a street musician than seeing the shock, amazement, and then — with luck — the smile from a traveler emerging from the subway station to find a 20-piece brass band playing a New Orleans parade tune. The city provides the soundstage that makes this possible.

The Streets have ears

by Michael Jonas

In any noisy urban setting, “there are a lot of things that go bump,” says Boston police officer Matthew Hogardt. His concern is whether that bump is a gunshot — an unfortunate reality in the soundtrack of the city.

Hogardt’s job is made considerably easier by ShotSpotter, a sound-detection system the police department deployed five years ago. It can distinguish gunfire from firecrackers, vehicle backfires, and other noises of the night, and pinpoint its location to within several feet. With about 120 sensors spread across a 6.2-square-mile swath of Boston where gunfire is most common — sections of Mattapan, Roxbury, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and the South End — the ShotSpotter system can alert police dispatchers within two seconds to the location and likely cause of a “detectable incident.”

Hogardt, who helps oversee the system at police headquarters, says it means police cars are dispatched more quickly to the scene of gunfire, which can lead to faster emergency medical help for victims. The system’s unquestioned benefit comes in the 20 percent of all shootings for which the department never receives a 911 call. ShotSpotter is also indispensable for steering police to the location of shell casings and other ballistic evidence.

The system, developed by the California-based company SST Inc., works much the same as satellite GPS technology: At least three sensors must detect possible gunfire for the system to “triangulate” the location. But though it relies on very precise algorithms, ShotSpotter must also deal with the very imprecise vagaries of place.

Boston, in fact, is one of the most challenging of the 64 cities where the system is in use, says James Beldock, senior vice president for products and business development at ShotSpotter. Boston’s concentration of brick buildings, especially in Roxbury and the South End, as well as the much greater density of buildings overall, give it “very low acoustic propagation,” says Beldock. In other words, sounds are more muted here. “The sound propagation characteristics of Boston are dramatically different” than most US cities, he says. “The gunshot is the same; what’s changed is the sound that gun makes when it travels through the architectural environment.”

Some Boston neighborhoods pose particular complications. “There are a lot of valleys in the South End, speaking acoustically,” says Hogardt. With its grid of contiguous Victorian row houses — the largest such neighborhood in the country — a sound that travels loudly down one of the South End’s main thoroughfares might not register around the corner on its narrower cross streets. To make up for the city’s diminished “sound propagation,” the ShotSpotter company has added 15 to 20 percent more sensors than in its standard deployment, and 50 percent more than cities with the best sound propagation. Perhaps not coincidentally, San Francisco, often paired with Boston as one of the country’s most livable, walkable cities, is the only other city using ShotSpotter that has such low sound propa-gation, says Beldock.

Long known for the taciturn disposition of its citizenry, Boston turns out to be similarly reserved when it comes to relaying all the sounds of the city.

Why ringtones are social turnoffs

by Richard Garver

Ringing cell phones and cell phone conversations in public places provoke almost universal annoyance, sometimes even rage. We think of them as rude, intrusive, the privatizing of public space. But why? At a rational level, a conversation on a cell phone conducted by a person sitting next to us in a restaurant is no different from the same conversation carried on face to face. But we don’t experience them in the same way at all.

The reason may lie in the revelations of contemporary psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman, author of the best-selling Thinking, Fast and Slow. He has demonstrated that our minds function in two distinct modes: one unconscious and intuitive; the other conscious and rational. Our intuitive system unconsciously guides us through routine social encounters by taking in the expressions, tones of voice, appearances and activities of those in our vicinity; associating these perceptions with stored images and experiences; and making guesses about the interactions to come. Simultaneously, we unconsciously emit our own facial expressions, body language, and voices that communicate our social identities and intentions.

When we detect uncomfortable or risky situations or sense attractive opportunities, however, we replace this effortless process with a more taxing one of deliberate, rational calculation.

A cell phone conversation puts us in tension. Although our rational system can’t produce a convincing objection, our intuitive system is offended that the person on the phone, tuned to a virtual space we can’t enter, has opted out of the one we share. On the sidewalk, these people don’t read the messages our eyes and bodies unconsciously send about whether we intend to pass to the left or right, because they have directed their social signal receptors elsewhere.

Our pique increases when the voices are louder and perhaps have a different timbre than others around us, because the volume shows us they are not tuned to our shared surroundings but to a virtual connection instead. In short, the annoyance cell phone conversations create does not result from a lack of courtesy — a concept situated in our rational mind — but from the perception that the person on the phone has put himself beyond the mental processes through which we expect to navigate social space.

Perhaps when Kahneman’s concept of our two distinct operating systems is more widely shared, custodians of shared spaces, such as restaurants or railroad cars, will be better prepared to decide whether to treat cell phone conversations as within our rights — a construct from our rational system — or as behavior that offends our unconscious mind.

Murmur and hum

by William Rawn FAIA and Clifford Gayley AIA

When Susan Flannery, the director of the Cambridge Public Library, hired our team for the new library, she said clearly and forcefully: “This building should first and foremost be about the book.” Susan knows full well that the book is evolving in our digital age, but she wanted to be certain the building was committed to the opportunities that are enhanced by increased access to all forms of information.

At the same time, Susan expressed the hope that a library could also serve as a town common, that place where the whole city comes together to celebrate its civic spirit. That can most effectively happen in the atmosphere of the book, particularly in a diverse and highly motivated city such as Cambridge.

For our team, this is an inspiring view of a library, at a social level, a civic level. But as a place of study and concentration, that goal naturally raises questions of noise: of the power of sound and whether it leads to distraction. Susan was adamant that the new library not be a place characterized by the stern admonition “Hush!” so often associated with libraries, but a place that welcomes the sounds of an engaged community. For a civic space, the sound of murmur can be welcoming, suggesting a sense of joy coming from the connections of community.

This question of sound influenced our design of the Cambridge Public Library at many levels: the organization of the building as a whole; the organization of each of its three main floors; even specific spatial adjacencies. Although the question of noise in a library is a broad one, its complexity can be captured in a comparison of this library’s two very different reading rooms.

The new reading room is placed near all the comings and goings of the entry, along the south-facing “double-skin curtain wall” with its celebration of sustain-ability and its close connection to the park outside. Between 1,600 and 2,000 patrons visit the library each day; it is naturally a place of activity. Chairs move closer to or farther from the window; people multitask with book, computer, and yes, food; people greet one another. It has become a destination in the city where all generations intermingle, even the twenty-somethings, a notoriously elusive patron group for libraries. It is not particularly quiet; it is a place with a murmur

At the same time, the new library connects to the original 1889 Van Brunt building with its more formal reading room, fully restored to its original grandeur by Ann Beha Architects. A tall room with very tall shelves and small clerestory windows, the restored reading room is marked by dark wood, big tables, and even an apse at one end. It has become, by its own volition, the Very Quiet Reading Room. There are no signs about noise, no reminders from the librarian. The citizenry simply have chosen to make it a quiet place, a place of self-regulated hush, only steps from the very active, noise-filled teen room.

This is as it should be. A building of the book. A building that is town common. That place of rubbing shoulders, of visual and verbal interaction — all done at a controlled decibel level but certainly not in absolute quiet. In Cambridge, that has been achieved with a minimum of fuss, by the natural evolution of the space.

Heaven and nature sing

by Jay Wickersham FAIA

A May morning in Mount Auburn Cemetery. I’m sidling between the tombstones, eyes aloft, binoculars ready, scanning a tree’s branches, trying to locate the quick, restless motions of a 4-inch-long bird whose song I’ve just heard.

Of all the birds that can be seen in Mount Auburn during the spring migration — thrushes and orioles, owls and woodpeckers, herons and hummingbirds — the most beautiful, and the most maddening, are the tiny warblers. There are more than 30 different kinds of warblers in New England, and their names indicate the vividness and variety of their plumage: Cerulean, Chestnut-sided, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, Redstart.

But much of bird watching is actually bird listening; and not many warblers possess melodious, easily remembered songs. As the British ornithologist James Fisher wrote: “Few of them really warble; their sounds buzz and tinkle, slur and twitter, stutter and trill.” To make it worse, the peak of the warbler migration hits just as the trees are leafing out, so you rarely get a long, unobstructed view of the bird you’re trying to identify, to match up its appearance with its song.

What’s a bird watcher to do? I used to have a recording that accompanied Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide. Early in our marriage, my wife woke up one morning with the hazy impression that birds had somehow gotten into our house overnight. She came downstairs to find our cat stalking the stereo speakers, while I listened solemnly to the difference between the songs of the Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers.

Now, instead of recordings, I’ve gone back to the mnemonic phrases taught to me by my bird watching grandmother when I was eight years old. Laugh if you want, but I still find it useful to believe that the Yellow Warbler sings “Sweet, sweet, sweet, yessirree!” that the Black-throated Green drawls “Trees, trees, murmuring trees,” and that the Chestnut-sided confidently announces “I wish to see Miss Beecher."

Why do warblers and other birds sing during migration, anyway? After 40 years of bird watching, it wasn’t until I started writing this essay that I asked the question.

Scientists have found that once male warblers arrive on their breeding grounds, they sing two different versions of their songs. Courtship brings out the full-blown, “operatic” rendition to attract a female with whom they will form a monogamous bond (though one that lasts only a single breeding season). And then there’s a property-rights version of the song, used to mark territory and warn off other males, who might try to steal food intended for their young or have the hots for their mates.

But on migration in Mount Auburn, where few of them stop to breed, the male warblers are still bachelors — irresponsible and property-less. They sing, it appears, as a kind of rehearsal. They’re singing in the shower, singing for the hell of it.

I’m glad. The life of a warbler is very short, two or three years — as short as the lives of so many 19th-century infants, whose pathetic little headstones sprinkle the lawns of Mount Auburn. Let them sing.