This blog has French and English content and may not be available in both languages.
Ce blogue présente du contenu rédigé en anglais et en français. Certains billets peuvent ne pas être disponibles dans les deux langues.

Conference on the sonic environment

The Sounds in the City team is participating in the “Journées de l’environnement sonore” on June 2 and 3. This is 2 half-days of conferences, panels and workshops to explore sound planning. This training event for planners follows on the “Journées du bruit environnemental” from 2019.

This event is organized by the Order of Quebec Urbanists (OUQ) in collaboration with McGill University (Sounds in the City team), ÉTS, Laval University, the Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux, the Ministère des Transports du Québec, the Ministère des Affaires municipales et de l’Habitation, the Ministère de l’Environnement et de la Lutte aux changement climatiques, the Institut national de santé publique and the City of Montréal.

For more information (French only):

Matters of context

Photo credit: Harold Cassière

By Cynthia Tarlao and Edda Bild

We all know that context matters: where and who we are matter just as much as what we are doing in any given moment of life. I might enjoy having my lunch as I people-watch in a square, surrounded by the sounds of others and maybe by the soft hum of cars, but would you?

In a series of studies, including modeling of on-site factors and various laboratory experiments, Sounds in the City has investigated the many ways in which context matters particularly for soundscape assessment.

In laboratory experiments, we showed that what we call ‘situational factors’ like location, day, and time of use shape our perceptions of the sound environment regardless of expectations we might have had before using a space. All those factors are evidently closely tied to the sound levels in a space, but also influence other evaluations of one’s soundscape. For example, a quieter location is judged more pleasant and less eventful than a noisier location or afternoons are generally evaluated as less calm and more eventful than evenings, while weekends are more eventful than weekdays.

Meanwhile, on-site studies hinted at other factors that are not directly related to sound levels, most notably the level of social interaction, that is, if a person is alone or with others. Our results show that people in groups find their soundscape more pleasant and less eventful than solitary users, potentially because they are focusing their attention on the other(s) they are with.

Further factors come into play, and we have also investigated a selection of ‘personal factors’, like extraversion, gender, age, and noise sensitivity. We found that, for example, the more extraverted people are, the less eventful they find their soundscape. And that women and younger people find their soundscape more pleasant and less eventful, which can be related to the fact that they go out in groups more than men and older people, respectively.

Finally, sensitivity to noise is an important factor that, understandably, lowers the perceived pleasantness of a soundscape. Researchers have long known that women and older people are more sensitive to noise than men and younger people, which means these populations tend to find their soundscape less pleasant as their noise sensitivity increases.

While we are only beginning to scratch the surface of the complexity of factors that influence how we evaluate soundscapes, it is essential to keep in mind that context matters and that designing spaces must take into account this myriad of experiences.

Sound fundamentals for professionals of the built environment: a course for city makers

By Edda Bild

Sounds in the City is yet again going back to school! Or, rather, taking professionals of the built environment back to (fun) school as part of a course on sound fundamentals. Our course is aimed at encouraging sound awareness among those who make our cities. We hope to better equip them to both independently articulate their sound-related needs and work toward explicit sound-related goals.

The course is designed to be hands-on and example-based, avoiding dwelling too much on academic work to instead pair accessible theoretical content with practical policy and design considerations.  The focus will be on developing tangible insight that professionals can directly engage with in their everyday work. No equations will be harmed in the making of this course.

The five two-hour sessions will be filled with opportunities to put newly acquired sound-related knowledge to the test in evaluating existing projects, participating in collaborative roleplaying exercises and engaging with available sound technologies that can enhance practice. Each session focuses on a different aspect of sound that can be applied, from hearing perception to community noise, and more. At the end of the course, professionals will be able to think about sound as more than just a problem that arises at the worst of times, but rather as an integrated part of the urban environment, and to better understand and anticipate the (acoustic) consequences of their decisions.

For “le petit plus”, attendees will be able to receive a certificate of attendance to count toward their continuing education hours.

The course is currently under development and will be available in the fall of 2021. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the first iteration will be digital, and offered in English. So if you’re an architect, planner, designer, landscape architect or other professional of the built environment (or know any!) and you’re still reading this, sign up for our mailing list to not miss any updates about the course using this form.

New South Wales Government releases a Great Public Spaces Toolkit

Picture of Hyde Park

by Daniel Steele

Around the world, cities, researchers, and the broader public have increasingly been turning their attention to public spaces and the important functions they play in civic life. The COVID-19 pandemic turned that attention into an emergency. Essentially every world city joined in on the conversation about our need to revisit the way our public space is allocated and what facilities they offer, as we saw through the exponential rise in park use or the sudden demand for outdoor dining space. The Boston University Initiative on Cities documented the extent to which US cities’ responded to this challenge, ranging from minor and temporary adaptations to transformative and permanent ones.

Elsewhere in the world, Australia’s provincial-level New South Wales Department of Planning, Industry, and Environment used 2020 to test an evaluation tool that could help them better document the quality of the public spaces provided to users. Released as the Great Public Spaces Toolkit, the tool includes a checklist evaluating a wide range of attributes from comfort to safety, character to stewardship, and, as you might have guessed, sound.

Their engagement report summarizes the process of talking with locals and experts from around the world to improve their checklist. Along their way, they spoke with researchers at Sounds in the City. During our conversations, we helped them incorporate the sonic dimension – not only how noise can detract from the public space experience, but how positive sounds can help reinforce the other attributes they are trying to promote in a space.

One of their Key Improvements added to their final version was “Sounds in public space.” In their words, feedback from the public and from Sounds in the City “helped us to address the evaluation of sounds in public space and how sounds can be perceived as pleasant or can compromise people’s activities and experiences.” Practically, in the checklist, this meant the addition of a section on “What can you hear?” next to “What are people doing?” and “What features can you see?”

We enjoy reporting on these simple, yet effective and straightforward policy and governance innovations because we understand the challenges involved in reframing sound and revisiting the noise problem from a positive and public outlook. We are looking forward to hearing about the impacts of including sound on their checklist and we wish them luck for the future of their public spaces!

On our side, stay tuned for updates on our research on the way in which public space use changed during the COVID-19 pandemic in Montréal.

Making lemonade from research lemons: three lessons from studying the effect of a misting water feature in a public space

Imagine that you have spent months working out the details of your research design for a summer-long study on a new public space the city is piloting. This space will test three prototype designs, each featuring a misting water feature somewhere in the space. Where’s the lemon, you ask? The misters were supposed to be on full-time, but in reality, when we showed up to run our study, they were only working right about half the time. This convenient little malfunction set us up for a balanced study on the effects of water features – hence the lemonade.

Plenty of lab-based studies have previously looked at large and small water features with varying degrees of audibility. These lab experiments suggest that water features can be used to influence how users evaluate the soundscapes of public spaces, for example improving ratings on pleasantness and tranquility. But it’s less clear how these experiments hold up when water features are evaluated outside of a laboratory setting. Enter our recent study, A tale of three misters, to shed some light on exactly this question.

We found that, on its own, a misting water feature is not a guarantee for an improved soundscape. Two of the designs were rated as less chaotic and less loud when the misters were on, but the third design was the opposite. This probably had a lot to do with the way the misters were integrated in their designs and has some design implications. While the misters for Designs 1 and 2 were conveniently located, the misters for Design 3 were located right in the gravel pathways. This often left a muddy, unusable space. Lesson #1: Like all other aspects of design, the design of the sound experience has to be considered purposefully. Consider the effect the mister will have on the use of the space, given the temperature and time of year. If it clashes, rethink!

The study also provided insight on the way that a water feature might affect soundscape evaluations. Respondents who said they heard water sounds consistently rated them as pleasant. But the mister didn’t displace the sound of traffic – quite the opposite. When respondents mentioned water sounds, they were more likely to mention hearing traffic sounds. Instead, the sound from the misters recalled memories and experiences in the minds of the users of the space. For example, reminding us of the cooling feeling of water on a hot summer day. Those recollections influenced the soundscape evaluations in a positive way. Lesson #2: consider the meanings the sound might evoke.

The truly surprising finding was this: the decreased chaotic and loudness ratings were consistent even when it’s unlikely that questionnaire respondents could hear the misters. Lesson #3: misters don’t need to be audible to affect how the users of a public space evaluate the way it sounds. It’s unclear why this is the case. One possibility is that the mister attracts people to the space, in turn changing our expectations of the space. We look forward to more research in the years to come about what might be going on here. In the meantime, we were happy with this batch of lemonade.

How did Montreal sound in 2020? Here are three ways in which you can support our research:

  1. Do you live anywhere on the island of Montreal? Consider taking our questionnaire on the sounds of the COVID-19 confinement (available in English and French): go to the survey.
    • This questionnaire was inspired by the work of our colleagues at Acoucité, where 3000+ people across France participated! Go to the report.
  2. Do you live in downtown Montreal or the Plateau-Mont-Royal? Consider talking to us in a paid interview in English, French or Spanish: sign up here.
  3. Or, if you don’t have that much time, simply fill in our downtown Montreal and Plateau-specific questionnaire on the sounds of the summer (also available in English and French): go to the survey.

P.S. If you meet the conditions, you can participate in all three!

Sounds in the City thanks you for your continuous support!

Help us understand the COVID-19 summer sound environment

  • Do you live in the Plateau-Mont-Royal Borough or in the Quartier des spectacles?

The Sounds in the City research team at McGill University invites you to participate in an online survey as part a research project conducted in collaboration with Plateau-Mont-Royal Borough and the Quartier des spectacles Partnership. With this survey we aim to better understand your experience this summer in Montreal during the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular your experience of the sound environment, both indoors and outdoors. The results of this study will be used to inform better noise management policies for future festivals, particularly in the context of COVID-19 constraints.

Please click on the link below is to access the survey and share your opinion on the summer of 2020.

Go to the Survey

Note: we also have a survey about your experience with the sounds of lockdown

Help us understand the COVID-19 spring lockdown

  • Were you in Montreal for the spring COVID lockdown?
  • Did you find it noisy, quiet, different?

The Sounds in the City team wants to better understand the experience of Montreal residents during the COVID-19 lockdown period (March to May 2020). This study is particularly interested in your experience of the sound environment, both indoors and outdoors. The results of this study will be used to better understand the consequences of the lockdown on the sound environment in the city as well as potentially inform better city noise management policies.

Please click on the link below to access the survey and share your opinion on the COVID-19 lockdown.

Go to the Survey


Note: we also have a survey about your experience with the sounds of summer

What does the pandemic sound like? Quieted city sounds during lockdown

by Catherine Guastavino

Sounds in the city has been tracking the transformation of Montreal soundscapes during the COVID-19 outbreak, through audio recordings and sound level measurements throughout the city. Our research on quieted city sounds during lockdown has been featured several times this past month in the news and on the radio.  Read or listen more about this new research here!


Radio interviews:

Celebrate Montreal’s radio history with a self-guided soundwalk, thanks to the Centennial of Broadcasting in Canada

by Mariana Mejía Ahrens

Radio in the city: 100 years of history in Montreal

The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of radio broadcasting in Canada. To celebrate the history and development of radio technology, the Musée des ondes Emile Berliner and the Société Québécoise des Collectionneurs de Radios Anciens (SQCRA), along with other generous partners in the Montreal region, came together to organize the Centennial of Broadcasting in Canada.

The Centennial is a year-long engaging program that, originally, included a schedule of varied activities that included conferences, presentations, temporary exhibits and outreach events. As the activity schedule continues to change as the Covid19 crisis unfolds in the following months, the Centennial website has become the main virtual hub for all content about the celebration. The Centennial team has published, and continues to update regularly, different kinds of articles and virtual activities from all of our institutional partners.

Interested in creating exciting online content, we recently released a virtual Heritage Trail that features the pioneers of radio technology and the locations around Montreal that witnessed radio history being written. The trail is divided into two circuits that invite you to explore locations through the Old Port, downtown and the South-West borough. An interactive map and detailed circuit guides are available on the trail’s web page.

When you find yourself walking the city as you follow the trail, take a moment to pay attention to the immersive experience around you. Listen to the sounds when you stop at each location, as well as when you walk from one to the next. Think about the sounds you can identify and the quality of the present soundscape. Does the size and layout of the buildings change this quality? What about the materials of their surfaces? And as you read the descriptions of the historic events that occurred at the beginning of the 1900s in these same locations, try to imagine the sounds that past urban dwellers of Montreal would have experienced then. How would they compare to the sounds you experienced? Are any of those sounds still present today?

We hope this heritage trail sparks your sonic curiosity as an active city explorer and encourages you to continue learning about the important radio heritage of Montreal.

*If you choose to walk the trail outside, we encourage you to follow safe distancing guidelines to ensure your safety and the safety of your fellow urban explorers